Midengine Vette aims to halt skidding sales

Midengine C8 Chevrolet Corvette spy shot Photo credit: KGP PHOTOGRAPHY

The Chevrolet Corvette is at a crossroads.

U.S. sales of the sports car have steadily declined since 2014, after more than doubling with the arrival of the C7 Stingray. Specialty variants such as the Grand Sport and ZR1 haven't halted the slide, despite positive reviews and new performance levels.

GM's apparent answer to fading demand for the Vette — a highly anticipated, high-powered midengine version for the 2020 model year — also could be contributing to the problem. After decades of playing with the idea, the automaker is expected to introduce the eighth-generation car within the next year, and some fans may be waiting on the sidelines for the wraps to come off.

"The midengine rumblings, which have been going on for years, are pretty undeniable now," said Karl Brauer, executive publisher of Autotrader and Kelley Blue Book. "Regardless of GM's refusal to acknowledge it, everyone knows it's coming."

Corvette also faces new, high-profile competition such as McLaren's expanding lineup, Dodge's Hellcat and Demon variants, and Teslas with Ludicrous Mode. While not traditional rivals of the Corvette, their power and pricing have brought them closer together.

Although GM has never confirmed that a midengine Corvette even exists, consumers and dealers have been awaiting the car's arrival.

A salesman at Les Stanford Chevrolet in Dearborn, Mich., has been advertising for deposits on a midengine Corvette — the ads recently changed the wording to a generic "future super car" — in Autoweek, an affiliate of Automotive News, since November.

"We've been waiting for this midengine Corvette for decades," said Kelly Ryan, president of the Corvette Club of America. Ryan said club members are "looking forward to the whole new engineering, approach and concept that the midengine Corvette is offering."

The midengine Corvette, shown in this spy shot, has a longer rear deck and lower hood line. Photo credit: KGP PHOTOGRAPHY

U.S. Corvette sales dropped 25 percent in the first six months of 2018. That puts it on pace for its fourth consecutive annual decline and third straight double-digit loss, which would be a first for the sports car since at least 1975.

"Corvette, I think, is having a bit of an identity crisis," said Dave Sullivan, an analyst with AutoPacific. "It's a car that really resonates only with a particular type of person. It doesn't have that broad depth and breadth like the Challenger."

According to data from Edmunds, 30 percent of Corvette buyers were age 65 or older in 2018, up from about 28 percent in 2013. Upward of 60 percent of buyers for the past five years have been 55 or older.

Many doubt the Corvette is the problem, noting that younger generations are less interested in such sports cars.

"It's not transitioning as well," Brauer said. "It's a group that's aging out faster than new buyers coming in."

The C8 Corvette is not expected to be a high-volume vehicle, but it could create the kind of halo needed to re-energize interest and attract nontraditional buyers to the nameplate.

The midengine Corvette is expected to be produced alongside the C7 until 2022, when the current generation will complete its life cycle.

Based on spy photos, the midengine Corvette is expected to have a lower hood line, longer rear deck and much shorter dash-to-axle ratio than the current car.

Switching from a front to midengine layout means engineering a new chassis; building a new transaxle to drive the rear wheels; developing new cooling, air-conditioning and suspension systems; and designing a new body.

GM has said it is investing at least $773 million in its Bowling Green, Ky., assembly plant, including quadrupling the size of the paint shop, where the Corvette has been produced for decades.

The Bowling Green Daily News reported in October that the total cost of retooling the plant was closer to $900 million.

Autoweek reports that the newest Corvette could be offered with a choice of three internal combustion engines and in a battery-electric or plug-in hybrid version. A 6.2-liter V-8 generating around 500 hp is expected to be the base engine, while a 4.2-liter twin-turbo V-8 with about 650 hp may be the midlevel power plant.

A range-topping naturally aspirated 5.5-liter V-8 that makes more than 600 hp may also be available.

"I'm confident it's going to redefine everything why I've thought the Corvette is fabulous," Brauer said.

"Here's the problem: They can't sell ZR1s right now, and look at the [performance] numbers that car pulls," he added. "So will a midengine Corvette finally break the kind of cyclical sales struggles this car has faced for really decades? I don't know."

You can reach Michael Wayland at mwayland@crain.com -- Follow Michael on Twitter: @MikeWayland

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