Both from up close and far away, the seventh-generation Corvette looks like a supercar. There may still be a few people out there who doubt its genuine sports car credentials, but after driving one across the USA, I'm convinced that their days are numbered.
Since its introduction late in the 1953 model year, the Corvette's reputation has – like those of most American cars over the past several decades – luctuated. It began as a sleek-bodied roadster powered by an unimpressive 6-cylinder family car engine. By the 1970s, it had morphed into a bulging muscle car, only to lose performance steam as American automakers struggled to adapt to new federal emissions and safety requirements.
But things have improved since those dark years of the very early 1980s, when a 190-horsepower engine was the best one could hope for in a brand new Corvette. If there's any remnant bad car hangover left over from that time, GM is determined to breed it out of the Corvette line, working up to something that, today, could be mistaken for a Ferrari by someone unfamiliar with cars.
Ferrari aficionados will undoubtedly take offense that such a thing could be written, but it is fair to point out that since it was introduced for the 2014 model year, the C7 has given high-end sports cars - the Ferrari F12 Berlinetta, the Porsche 911 Carrera 4S and the Lamborghini Aventador, to name a few – a run for their money. And money is the operative term here, because the Corvette, even a fully-loaded 650-horsepower supercharged Z06 model, costs tens and even hundreds of thousands of dollars less that its competition.
The Z06 can be had, with performance goodies like active magnetic ride control and a dry sump oiling system, for less than $90,000. If that sounds like a lot of money, that's because it is for most people (even though it's $40,000 or $50,000 less than a comparably equipped Porsche 911 Carrera S). That's where the Z51 performance package comes in. It takes a standard Corvette Stingray, the one with the plain-Jane 455-horsepower 6.2-liter V8, and gives it better suspension and brakes, and dry-sump oiling for better engine lubrication in hard cornering.
The Z51 Stingray – the version we tested, in a delightful shade called Daytona Sunrise Orange – will go from 0-60 mph in 3.8 seconds (according to Chevy) and manhandles curvy roads and racetracks alike. Yet its sticker price was just over $66,000, even with race-ready suede-upholstered performance seats and adaptive magnetic ride control. Compare that with all the other high-end sports cars out there, and the Corvette really is the people's GT car. Chevrolet says it has a top speed of 180 miles per hour. You can rest assured that triple digit speeds in a Stingray feel like driving 70 miles per hour does in an economy car.
If I sound like I'm in love with the Z06's weaker sibling, it's because I am. Less horsepower than the ridiculously powerful Z06 isn't necessarily a bad thing. The stock 455-horsepower mill is no slouch, and is powerful enough to flatten the driver and passenger back in their seats during hard launches. And that banshee wail! At the upper end of the rpm band the engine screams a note that, to me, says only one thing: "@&$% you, Ferrari, this is America!"
Although Chevrolet says the Z51 Stingray can post a 3.8-second 0-60 time, I couldn't manage to best 5.2 seconds. That's probably because I'm not a professional driver and had trouble keeping the back tires from spinning when I took off. A swath of Southern California roadway is now covered with the remnants of the Z51's tires due to my efforts to hit the acceleration sweet spot. Consider me convinced that the supercharged 650-horsepower Z06 mill would be wasted on me and most other "normal" drivers.
In the handling department, the Z51 is top shelf. It takes curves at high speed without even a suggestion that it will lose composure. The brakes are huge, so high-speed approaches to sharp turns are no problem either. Just dump speed with those massive calipers, let off, then point the car where you want it to go. It stays flat around the most intimidating bends, its stability control kicking in when the driver gets a bit overconfident. I drove it on the challenging track at the National Corvette Museum, in Bowling Green, Ky., and felt like the car made up for my lack of skill.
All the enthusiast-oriented performance mumbo-jumbo aside, the Corvette is a great everyday car when you only need to worry about carrying one other passenger. Its seats are comfortable and the cargo compartment is reasonably large (and easily accessed through the rear hatch). When you want to take a mellow spin on a sunny day, the Z51 Stingray will accommodate. A big knob on the console allows the driver to select "Touring" mode, which softens the suspension and steering feel. It's as smooth as a Mazda 6 family sedan.
There's even an "Eco" mode to help boost fuel economy, and both Touring and Eco modes allow the engine to run on four cylinders when it's not under load. Like any car, fuel economy is dependent upon how you drive. My wife managed to get 33 miles per gallon on long highway stretches. My record stood in the low teens. You get the picture. The V4 (cylinders deactivated) mode does save gas, but it's not as smooth as it could be, and, at times, feels more like an engine that's running poorly than a by-design economy system.
The 7-speed manual transmission was both a blessing and a curse. During hard acceleration in the first four gears, it worked like a charm. But it was easy to miss fifth gear on a frenzied upshift and nail seventh instead. I assume that muscle memory would correct most shifting difficulties, but there was a persistent issue with second gear. While driving in a relaxed manner, the first-to-second shift had to be as deliberate as a performance shift, otherwise the shifter would miss the gate for second and slide right into fourth gear. Not a sexy move while crossing a suburban intersection in heavy afternoon traffic. It does, however, have a cool automatic rev-matching feature that makes quick downshifts a breeze while also making the driver look cool when everyone hears those brassy throttle blips.
The Corvette's infotainment and climate control systems are easy to use, with actual knobs for important functions. Menus are straightforward, both on the center stack screen and on the instrument cluster screen. Chevrolet included a number of useful gadgets, including a fuel economy gauge and various performance indicator screens – G force, 0-60 time, transmission temperature, etc. The optional performance data recorder (PDR) is a great, albeit expensive, option for drivers who want to capture fast driving sessions on the track and elsewhere. It overlays performance data on top of the video.
An argument could be made that the Stingray would make an excellent daily driver for someone who doesn't have many passengers to ferry around. It gets decent fuel economy, is comfortable and the removable roof panel makes fair-weather driving a dream. On long road trips – my wife and I drove the car from New York to California – seat comfort doesn't fade and luggage space is adequate to store two people's belongings. We had to choose carefully when deciding what to pack, but clothing for three weeks away from home, a cooler full of food, computer bags and other miscellaneous items fit into the 'Vette's large trunk without issue, even with the roof panel stowed inside.
The Z51 Stingray may have a few minor problems, but for a car that can keep up with a Ferrari F12 while selling for less than a quarter of the price... well, the math has already been done for you. This car is a blast to drive and a screaming bargain to boot. From the moment you push the start button and hear the car's four-outlet exhaust snarl in response, you know it has the potential to be one hell of a ride. It'll make you even prouder to be American.
2015 CHEVROLET CORVETTE STINGRAY COUPE Z51... By the numbers:
MSRP: $66,170 (includes $995 destination charge)
Power and drive wheels: 6.2-liter, 455-hp V8 engine, rear-wheel drive
Transmission: 7-speed manual or 8-speed automatic transmission
EPA fuel economy (mpg): 17/29 city/highway
Safety: Not yet rated by IIHS/NHTSA
In showrooms: Now