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GM defies a shrinking sports car market with its new, sub-$60,000 Corvette

2020 Chevrolet Corvette Stingray
The 2020 Stingray is the first-ever production mid-engine Corvette.
(Chevrolet)

General Motors Co. is bucking convention by boosting production of its new Corvette even as the sports car market shrinks.

Demand for muscle cars has shrunk to 2.3% of the U.S. vehicle market, about half what it was a decade ago, according to Edmunds. And GM’s new car, with a starting price of under $60,000, won’t be much cheaper than the existing Corvette. Despite that, GM is adding 400 employees and a second shift at its plant making the model in Bowling Green, Ky.

GM’s strategy is to appeal to both younger buyers and older sports car buffs with a radical makeover of its 1950s icon to compete with exclusive European high-performance models at a fraction of the price. By transplanting the engine to the middle of the car, GM says the new Corvette will handle better on the track and take on Porsche, Ferrari and Lamborghini. But at a quarter of the price of those supercars, GM sees an opportunity to grow sales of a niche vehicle with attractive profit margins.

“It’s very significant for us financially,” GM Chief Executive Mary Barra said at the car’s unveiling in Tustin late Thursday. “It has been — and this car will be.”

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GM hopes to find a new generation of buyers with its entry-level Stingray and lure wealthier sports car collectors who currently drive European models. The risk is that older, core buyers may be turned off by tweaks such as the replacement of the Corvette’s traditional manual transmission, favored by purists, with a high-tech, dual-clutch transmission.

While few other vehicles sold today offer a manual transmission in the U.S. market, 15% of Corvette buyers opt for one — a decent chunk of the buyer base.

“One thing we’re worried about is no manual transmission,” Jon Thorn, the editor of the Corvette Club of America’s newsletter, said before seeing the new car.

In its place, the Stingray will have an eight-speed automatic transmission with paddle shifters. That’s become the active transmission of choice among high-end European sports cars.

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The new Corvette allows drivers to use the paddles and choose a specific gear, rather than just go up or down one at a time. So it operates like a manual, just without a clutch pedal and a stick shift between the seats. With the mid-engine car, a true manual was more difficult to install, and suppliers are loath to make them because volumes are low. The electronically controlled dual clutch also works better, said Tadge Juechter, the Corvette’s chief engineer.

“The transmission shifts smoother and faster than any human being can,” Juechter said.

The latest incarnation also packs more punch. The Stingray gets a horsepower boost to 495 from 460. And with the Z51 performance package, the car will hit 60 miles per hour in less than three seconds.

That’s the fastest-ever Corvette and about as quick off the line as a Lamborghini Huracan, which sells for around $240,000.

“It’s the Corvette version of a supercar that we always wanted to see,” GM President Mark Reuss said. The exact price hasn’t been disclosed, but Reuss said the Stingray model will start at less than $60,000 in the U.S.

The biggest improvement for sports car nerds is the mid-engine layout. With the motor planted behind the driver, who sits almost on top of the front axle, the car should have much better balance. GM needed to do that to improve the ride, Reuss said.

Corvette also is taking a page out of Tesla Inc.’s playbook with over-the-air updates, though GM hasn’t specified what improvements it will be able to make to the car remotely.

The car also has a dash display that can be customized to show gauges and other information in the driver’s preferred configuration. It’s another nice touch for a generation that grew up using smartphones and playing video games.

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Still, removing the stick shows the tightrope Chevy is walking as it tries to bridge a generation and keep older purists happy while attracting the young.

Rumors had been circulating for months that the gear stick was history.

“If they don’t have a manual, it’s malpractice,” said Eric Noble, president of the CarLab, a consulting firm in Orange. “That’s still a lot of buyers that they could potentially lose.”


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