The Chevrolet Corvette is America’s sweetheart; a mainstay of automotive culture and an icon. And so the fact that the Corvette C8 Stingray — the eighth generation of the venerable American sports car — has adopted a widely different design than any previous iteration is proving difficult to digest.
The other day, in a completely unrelated conversation, I was speaking with my friend Sasha Selipanov — of Bugatti, Genesis and now Koenigsegg fame — about the subject of design consistency. At the time we were talking about the need for brands to become beacons for their respective companies in the market, and be identifiable to potential customers in developing countries that may not be familiar with the lineup of product offerings.
What struck me about this conversation was the fact that Sasha maintained, rather steadfastly, that we had reached a level of peak optimization, and the only elements that could be built upon were superficial details, the dressing up of the design. Once you get the fundamentals of overhangs, height and wheelbase done, it is the engineer’s responsibility to tune the car’s weight distribution, balance and steering. There’s not much room for improvement over what has already been defined.
Now I’m not saying that we should go back to the era of ‘same sausage, different length’, an epoch when German sports sedans — especially BMWs — looked remarkably similar between ranges and classification. I actually abhor the inability to distinguish between an A4 and an A6 and can’t fathom why the C, E, and S-class look like carbon copies of one another, albeit stretched out in certain areas.
Brands, in my opinion, need to have a common thread running through the design of their products, which users will (hopefully!) like and can relate to or identify with. But they can’t be all the same. Why else would you buy an S-Class over a C or an E?
Fast forward to the reveal of the new C8 and I was again taken aback. It’s no secret that the Corvette has been anticipated to become mid-engined for some time now. It was actually considered back in the late 50s when chief engineer Zora Arkus-Duntov drew up his plans. They never materialized, nor did any of the subsequent attempts at creating a mid-engined sports car under the Chevrolet moniker.
The C8 is, in fact, what the Corvette was intended to be from the outset. What this does to the proportions, however, is significantly alter its front-engine/rear-drive package and, in doing so, its immediately recognizable design character.
The Mid-Engine Generic
Changing the Corvette’s tried and trusted layout wasn’t a decision that was made overnight. There have been a number of mid-engined concept cars produced over the years, the first as early as 1957. While some companies have been successful with other layouts, true sports car performance is typically the result of proper weight distribution, and there’s no better solution than the mid-ship solution. This, of course, resulted in very different proportions for the design team.
In light of the new mid-engined layout, the Corvette now fits into the supercar category occupied by other mid-engined supercars from Ferrari, Lamborghini and McLaren. That’s no bad thing considering its price point. But because of that, the Corvette loses a bit of its identity as well. To non-car connoisseurs, the Corvette could be mistaken for another vehicle simply because of its proportions.
As an analogy: it’s very difficult for a musician to create something truly unique if other artists are forced to use the name notes. There’s still a set of rules a composition must adhere to. And while each of the above-mentioned companies has their own influences and design language, the Corvette is now something that it has never been before. Though it’s inarguably a much better car to drive than its front engine rear drive predecessors, the shift in proportions is going to be a hard pill to swallow for Corvette enthusiasts.
Historically, the Chevrolet Corvette has been inspired by the aircraft of the era. Many former astronauts are known to have purchased a Corvette in the past. And so it makes sense that the design team looked at jet fighters as inspiration. But perhaps the imagery of F22s, F35s, and other modern fighter jets occupied a bit too much real estate on the mood boards.
The cab-forward design and canted A-pillar will certainly improve forward visibility, and we’re told that the body is a streamlined form, honed to better aerodynamics. The door, hood and hatch releases are all completely hidden within the sculpted design, and the large side air intakes guide air into the glazed engine bay for cooling and out through seven air vents placed within the large rear hatch.
The exterior design of the Corvette is hard and edgy, seemingly because it wanted to wear its fighter-jet inspired performance credentials on its sleeve. Jets are often seen as being the epitome of design and performance.
What is jarring, however, are the numerous creases juxtaposed by cut lines crossing over different planes on the bodyside and ribbed areas on the front end and rear. Ultimately it doesn’t appear to serve any function, other than to make the car brash and loud, traits that are seen as characteristically American (I’m not bashing; I happen to be American myself).
So, in that regard, perhaps the Corvette design team thought they would appeal to the demographic that buys – and always has bought – Corvettes. It’s a solid attempt. Unfortunately, it still appears to be a mashup of current dogmas rather than an embodiment of truly unique Corvette DNA. Besides the kick-up shoulder line that characteristically runs up and over the rear fender (a very pleasing gesture) and the triangular-shaped dual-element projector headlamps, there’s very little to demarcate the Corvette lineage in this new model.
The cabin of the C8 is another major departure from previous generation Corvettes. There’s been a lot of time and attention lavished on details and a host of luxury-level appointments made, certainly in the color and trim department.
The new C8’s cockpit has not only migrated forward 419mm but now envelops the driver. This conveys the high performance and aeronautic theme laid out by the designers. The IP is ultra-low, afforded by the low cowl point, vertical climate controls and ultra-thin vents. The height of the instrument panel enhances the feeling of a low, spacious interior, which includes a new, squared-off, two-spoke, small-diameter steering wheel that enables a clear view of the 12-inch reconfigurable cluster display ahead of the driver.
Ergonomically, the layout of the area immediately in front of the driver appears to have been taken into exhaustive consideration. But peripherally things start to fall apart.
The button ‘island’ running down the IP into the center console is case-in-point. Although the idea of physical buttons in vehicle interiors is now perceived as antiquated, it’s still the best way to reach controls quickly. I do, however, question the execution.
The buttons are flat and sandwiched between two trim panels that will trap dust and dirt over time. But, more importantly, there are far too many of them.
Though the argument is that users will, after some time, get used to the configuration and layout it still looks like an ergonomic nightmare to navigate at speed. Furthermore, it severely encroaches into the passenger area so buttons may sometimes get pressed accidentally.
This is a shame because every touchpoint on the C8 Stingray interior appears to have been designed to highlight craftsmanship and attention to detail. This has been executed to a high level, rising perceived as well as real quality levels in certain areas.
Hand-wrapped, cut-and-sewn leather components with thick press stitching sit beside real metal elements, giving a feeling of authenticity to the cabin. There is also a choice of either real aluminum or real carbon fiber for console and door trim plates and carbon fiber trim on two of the three seat options.
The level of personalization has reached new heights as well. Besides the three aforementioned seats, customers can create their own design statement by choosing from 12 exterior colors and six different interior color themes, six seatbelt colors and two optional stitch packages.
All of the above ultimately leaves us with two questions: Has the buying demographic for the C8 changed now that its layout and proportions have ‘matured’? Is the older customer base now ready for luxury, even tailored appointments?
Perhaps the focus was on a new buyer altogether, someone who has never considered a Corvette before but who identifies with the edgy Lamborghini-esque design identity but can’t quite stretch his/her wallet to match their ambition.
People like, and are drawn to, what they are used to. As Raymond Loewy famously said in a 1951 interview: “A lot of people are open to new things, as long as they look like the old ones.”
The new Corvette C8 Stingray certainly doesn’t look like the old ones. And that is the singlemost reason why the new Corvette design is going to take some time to get used to.