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Detroit Auto Show: GM hopes 2014 Corvette will boost Chevrolet sales

The current Corvette debuted in 2005. Above, the 2006 Corvette Z06 on Woolsey Canyon Road in Chatsworth. It had a top speed of 198 mph.
(Brian van der Brug, Los Angeles Times)

As he prepared to unveil the seventh-generation Corvette this weekend — an event akin to the naming of a new pope in the sports-car world — General Motors executive Mark Reuss told a story familiar to legions of Corvette faithful over six decades of production.

Reuss coveted the car as a teenager, back when the ‘Vette versus Porsche debate ignited the same fury as disco versus rock. He bought one in his 20s, a used silver 1969 model with a big-block 427 engine, and took his future wife on their first date. Then he married and sold the two-seater to make room for a family.

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Such nostalgia is pervasive among Corvette buyers. The car’s heritage means even more to GM as it attempts to rebound from the bailout-and-bankruptcy era.

PHOTOS: Six generations of the Corvette

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In a once-a-decade event, Chevrolet will unveil the redesigned 2014 Corvette on Sunday night at a preview to next week’s North American International Auto Show in Detroit. As with every ‘Vette since 1953, the new model will serve as the standard bearer of the brand’s engineering, a laboratory for technology that trickles down to mainstream models. The dynamic extends to marketing, as the Corvette embodies the soul of the brand, the aspirational “halo” car that GM hopes will rub off on perceptions of its entire lineup.

“When you see a Corvette in a showroom, most know that Chevrolet embodies performance, value and is unapologetically American,” said Reuss, president of GM’s North American operations.

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Corvette redesigns have historically boosted sales of the sports cars, often by 50% or more. But some question how much a new Corvette can do to shore up Chevrolet’s sagging U.S. market share.

“The negative is that, in the minds of Corvette owners, it is a Corvette before it is a Chevy,” said Jeremy Anwyl, vice chairman of Edmunds.com. “It is not like you go look at the Corvette and walk out with a Cruze. If they took the money they spent on Corvette development and spent it on a couple of marketing campaigns, they would get more bang for their buck.”

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Others aren’t so quick to write off the premium sports car’s benefit to the larger brand. Larry Dominique, former vice president of product planning at Nissan, saw marketing benefits in play from the Japanese automaker’s series of Z sports cars. Consumers believed that Nissan’s other vehicles shared the same DNA, which the company underscored in pitching its Maxima as the “four-door sports car.”

“There is an awareness and consumer draw,” Dominique said. “That’s why Chevy dealers put the Corvette on the turntable out front.”

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Profitable niche

The Corvette has often served as a barometer of the company’s fortunes. Many view the mid-1960s Sting Ray version as a golden era of the ‘Vette’s might and sex appeal, a tangible representation of GM’s corporate power.

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A decade later — after GM got caught flat-footed by the oil crisis — the Corvette morphed into a sports car for posers, poorly built and agonizingly slow.

As a premium car, the Corvette naturally sells in low volumes, particularly through the battered economy of recent years, when sales plummeted from more than 40,000 in 2007 to less than 12,000 last year.

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Even in good years, Corvette sells as many copies in a year as Toyota’s Camry sometimes sells in a month.

But the economy is on the mend, and whatever the Corvette does for the larger Chevrolet and GM brands, the car will turn a substantial profit on its own, Reuss assured.

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“This makes as much money as any of the top-profit models in our company,” Reuss said. “That is why we do it.”

Even as GM works to make Chevrolet more of a global brand, the Corvette remains an American affair.

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“From a business case, the car is done for North America first,” Reuss said. “Anything else that happens because we made a fundamentally sound car is extra benefit.”

Reuss also hopes to speed up the timeline for Corvette redesigns, which have averaged nine years and once stretched to 15 years. The current Corvette debuted in 2005. Corvette fans, he said, won’t have to wait so long for the next version.

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“We went through an obviously distressed time as a company, and it is hard to do everything all at once. This was one of the cars that a little more time didn’t hurt it,” Reuss said. “But expect the cycle time to decrease now.”

A rival to Porsche

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General Motors developed the car in the early 1950s as America’s answer to the graceful European roadsters of the age. It made only 300 in the first year.

But the car gained notice for its lightweight fiberglass body, round tail lamps, symmetric cockpit and distinctive tail. As its engines and performance improved in later years, it went head-to-head against the European marques.

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“When you ask people to name their favorite sports car, it’s usually a tossup between Porsche and Corvette,” said Leslie Kendall, curator at the Petersen Automotive Museum.

There’s little crossover among loyalists of the German and American coupes.

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“If you are a Porsche person, you probably won’t be a Corvette person,” Anwyl said. “There is a religious fervor around these sports cars.... It is not rational. It is emotional.”

The first Corvette looked the part of one of the world’s fastest cars — but failed to deliver. The 1953 ‘Vette came equipped with an anemic and inaptly named “blue flame” six-cylinder engine. The car stickered at $3,498 — adjusted for inflation, that would be $30,161 in today’s dollars — and offered two options: a heater for $91 and an AM radio for an additional $145.

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But the Corvette would evolve into one of the world’s premier sports cars. The peak of performance came in 2009, with a supercharged ZR-1 pushing a neck-bending 638 horsepower to a top speed of 205 mph.

For 2014, GM is packing three technologies into the Corvette for the first time: direct injection, variable valve timing and an active fuel management system that enables the engine to throttle down to a four-cylinder configuration in certain situations, such as highway cruising, where it doesn’t need the extra juice. GM also has upgraded the interior to better match European rivals.

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The money GM invests in Corvette does pay dividends in the form of ‘Vette technology finding its way into Camaros, Cadillacs and other vehicles, said Dominique, president of ALG, a provider of vehicle lease and resale information.

For example, the car’s high-strength, lightweight carbon fiber will find its way into bigger volume sellers, Reuss said. Features developed racing the Corvette at Le Mans in France led to shutters on the grill of the Cruze that close to improve aerodynamics and the design of the hood of the Z1 Camaro.

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GM has not revealed pricing details for the 2014 Corvette but said anyone who can afford today’s car can buy the new model. The sticker price for the standard version of the 2013 Corvette starts at $50,000 and variations climb north of six figures.

Chevrolet promises the 2014 Corvette, which goes on sale this summer, will be “the quickest, most powerful and most fuel-efficient standard Corvette ever produced.”

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Midlife crisis cure

Perhaps more than any other car, the ‘Vette has a deep resonance in popular culture. The “Little Red Corvette” in the Prince song is a euphemism for a fast woman. In George Gentry’s “The One I Loved Back Then,” either the girl or the car, depending on the listener’s perspective, was “long and lean every young man’s dream.” Then there’s the 1978 film “Corvette Summer.”

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The Smithsonian houses two ‘Vettes: a white 1990 high-performance ZR-1 and a white 1963 Sting Ray convertible.

“The Corvette is as American a sports car as a sports car can get, perfectly suited to American driving conditions,” Kendall said. “It is large, by sports car standards. It is supple. It can gobble up long stretches of open highway very easily. It is muscular in the way Americans like their cars to look.”

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The vast majority of new Corvette buyers are white men in their 50s, according to R.L. Polk & Co. Many, like Reuss, owned Corvettes in their younger days — or always wish they had.

“It is the midlife crisis antidote,” said Arthur Kreitenberg, a Los Alamitos orthopedist who drives a natural gas-powered Civic on his daily commute to Los Angeles, then lets out his Corvette to play on weekends. “I love the throaty feel of the engine. When you step on the accelerator, it goes.”

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jerry.hirsch@latimes.com

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