Corvette: A V-8 powered Phoenix rises

Henry Payne
The Detroit News

Dawsonville, Georgia

The much-anticipated 2017 Corvette Grand Sport debuted to the media at Atlanta Motorsports Park here this week with a bang, challenging the production car track record in the hands of pro racer Andy Pilgrim.

Forecast to be the marque’s best-selling trim (Stingray and Z06 are the others), the Grand Sport started production this month at a time when Corvette’s Bowling Green factory is already straining to meet near-record demand at over 35,000 units for the 2016 model year. So rich are Corvette’s coffers that its profits are being plowed back into major production and heritage museum upgrades. And if that wasn’t enough, the C7-R race car is leading its IMSA Championship sports-car class from a formidable field of Ford GTs, Ferraris, and Porsches.

Not bad for a car that was on the chopping block just eight years ago.

“As we were headed toward bankruptcy, an all-new Corvette program would have been difficult to justify,” says Corvette Chief Engineer Tadge Juechter, sitting trackside in Atlanta as he recalled the dark days of 2008. “We were just going to keep building the old car.”

At the time, the sixth-generation C6 Corvette was already long in the tooth — a five-year program being stretched into a ninth model year. So Juechter and his team prepared to put off the C7 for years more as the U.S. government reorganized General Motors. After billions in U.S. bailout dollars and a complete revamping of the General’s brands, the seventh-gen C7 was given a green light.

From the ashes of old GM rose a new Corvette in 2013 — a V-8-powered Phoenix unlike any ’Vette that had come before.

Gone were the iconic round taillights. Gone were the sexy, smooth lines. In its place was still a front-engine, push-rod powered sports car — but one that looked more European: cut, Lamborghini-like edges, sharp headlights like shards of broken glass, and ... horrors! Rectangular taillights.

“I got hate mail,” Juechter says. “But our demographics were getting older each year. We had to figure out (how) to get more young people into the car. That made us consciously walk away from the traditional bill of design.”

The risk paid off.

The C7 was hailed for its sci-fi looks and staggering performance, due in part to its co-development with GM’s New Hudson-based race partner Pratt & Miller. The ultra-high performance Z06 — powered by a gravity-bending, 650-horsepower, supercharged V-8 — outperforms McLaren and Lamborghinis costing twice as much. Stingray and Z06 have sold as fast as they can be built.

“It is working,” says Juechter, a soft-spoken, youthful 58-year-old. “In the first year, 30 percent of our customers — 30 percent — had never bought a Corvette before. And that’s in spite of our traditional customers who were lining up at the dealership to be the first (buyers). Ten years younger, much more educated, more ethnic, more urban, more coastal — all the things we want Corvette to appeal to.”

Now comes the $66,445 Grand Sport. You’ll know it by the twin stripes over each front fender. Featuring the Z06’s ground-sucking performance package and powered by the Stingray’s normally aspirated, 460-horse 8-holer, Juechter says it occupies “the sweet spot” between the Stingray ($56,445) and Z06 ($80,445).

“It’s incredible,” says Pilgrim who, as a Porsche pilot in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship, knows a thing or two about iconic sports cars. “And (the Grand Sport) is as comfortable on the road as it is fast on the track.”

Corvette anticipates the Grand Sport will make up 40 percent of Corvette sales. That’s quite a change from a specialty badge that only graced five race cars when it debuted in 1963.

More importantly, Grand Sport and Corvette are now solid, profitable contributors to a GM product juggernaut that grew by a full point of market share in the first quarter of this year. GM product development chief Mark Reuss has said Corvette “makes as much money as any of the top-profit models in our company.” Motley Fool financial services estimates GM pockets more than $10,000 for each Corvette sold.

“Corvette is now a bread-and-butter part of the lineup,” says Juechter. “We don’t do it for intangibles — like driving showroom traffic, halo effect, or technology development. It is all about the business case.”

That bread and butter is now being fed back into the National Corvette Museum and production facility. The museum’s $20 million, 80-acre upgrade was completed in 2014 and has a test track to enhance the new buyer’s experience.

And the future that was once so uncertain? GM has committed $729 million to upgrading Corvette’s production plant — $439 million of that a paint shop nearly the size of the entire assembly facility.

“It’s a big commitment,” says Juechter. “It demonstrates that we will be in the Corvette business for the foreseeable future.”

More Grand Sport track records won’t be far behind.

Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at hpayne@detroitnews.com or Twitter @HenryEPayne.