Payne: Mid-engine Corvette is cool, but where's the 'Vette SUV?

Henry Payne
The Detroit News
Car and Driver's design sketch of a Corvette SUV.

The launch of the first-ever, mid-engine Corvette is the car event of the year. With similar specs as supercars costing three times more, the $60,000 C8 promises less expensive performance for a new generation of buyers.

But the eighth-generation Corvette's debut has also turned up the volume on whether Chevrolet should also be expanding its performance icon to other segments.

In short, when will there be a Corvette SUV like nearly every other sports car make?

Beneath the V-8 roar of the C8’s introduction in California last month was a buzz among industry titans, car-magazine writers and analysts about the prospects of a ute ‘Vette.

The speculation had been rekindled in June when Bob Lutz, ex-General Motors vice chairman for product development, told Automotive News: “If I were there, what I would do is develop a dedicated architecture, super-lightweight, super-powerful, Porsche Cayenne-like, only much better and a little bigger, medium-volume Corvette SUV.”

Lutz’s interview expanded on his comments to The Detroit News two years ago in a story looking at whether Corvette should follow sports car makers like Porsche that have made millions by expanding their brands into popular SUVs.

The story went viral.

Detroit News designer Jamie Hollar created his idea of a Corvette SUV for a 2017 article.

Porsche started the sport-ute revolution with the 2003 Cayenne. It's been followed over the last decade by Maserati, Jaguar, Alfa Romeo — even Lamborghini. Porsche added a second ute, the Macan, in 2014. In every case, the SUV quickly became a hot seller, outselling the brands’ core sports cars and expanding their buyer demographic.

“Like the Cayenne, the appeal of the ’Vette SUV would be (rear-wheel drive) proportions. It should, in fact, have a silhouette not too different from a Cayenne,” Lutz told the News in 2017 as we consulted experts on what a Corvette SUV should look like.

Our rendering imagined a longitudinally mounted V-8 powered Corvette SUV on a rear-wheel drive/all-wheel drive platform. (The engine would be up front, because mid-engine placement would put it in an SUV's back seat.)  It would have similar capabilities to $100,000-plus mega-utes from Lamborghini and Porsche, but, in typical Corvette fashion, for much less coin.

“More than the $40,000 Cadillac XT5, but about 10 grand below” a $60,000 base V-6 Cayenne, suggested Lutz.

His Automotive News interview inspired more renderings from other publications, most significantly from Car and Driver.

Car and Driver backed up its muscular sketch — complete with signature Corvette touches like a hood scoop and coupe-like roof — with specs like a standard twin-turbo-6, optional V-8, luxurious interior, generous cargo room and a starting price point of around $70,000.

“We also think it's a no-brainer for Chevy to expand the Corvette brand beyond just the titular model,” concluded the influential publication.

When asked whether GM is considering the idea of a Corvette model expansion, a Chevy spokesperson told The News the automaker could “not comment on potential future product.”

Yet, retired GM engineer Tom Wallace — who ran Chevrolet’s Corvette program from 2006-08 — confirms the company has tracked the huge success of other sport SUV models.  

“When I was Corvette chief, we often studied the Porsche business model and product line-up, and were generally impressed,” he told The Detroit News. “The fact that they have done the Cayenne and stuck with it is a vote of confidence that such a vehicle can be a success.”

The mid-engine 2020 Corvette Stingray debuted in July.

The roadblocks, however, are formidable.

Two stand out, say experts: 1) Corvette is a Chevrolet badge, not a separate brand like Porsche or Jaguar. And 2) GM would have to develop a longitudinal-based rear-wheel drive/all-wheel drive platform for a performance ute.

“Producing a Corvette SUV assumes that GM would also have to split off Corvette as its own brand,” says veteran Kelley Blue Book auto analyst Karl Brauer. “You have to first decide if Corvette is powerful enough to sustain its own brand.”

Lutz told the News in 2017 that the Corvette brand business case would be tough because it could damage GM’s other premium brands like GMC and Cadillac. But in light of Cadillac's struggles to compete as a luxury brand, his opinion evolved in the Automotive News interview.

“Let's not try and take Cadillac upmarket. It has a price band of about $450 a month. That's what it's worth. Corvette brand has unlimited daylight on the upside,” he said. “Target worldwide 20,000 to 30,000 units, and price it starting at $100,000. It has to be the stellar premium sport-utility made in the United States, and the Corvette brand could pull that off.”

Even at 30,000 vehicles per year, though, a Corvette SUV would be a low-volume vehicle. Lutz and Wallace acknowledge that committing the millions needed for such an investment would be a high hurdle unless another GM vehicle could share the platform. The Porsche Cayenne, for example, shares its architecture with its VW Group sibling, the Audi Q7.

“The Corvette ute probably would be a stand-alone architecture (or a major modification of an existing architecture), so volume would be critical to call it a business success,” Wallace says.

The upside is that sport utes print money. The Lamborghini Urus outsells all other Lambos combined. The Jaguar F-Pace is easily the brand’s best-seller. MotleyFool.com estimates that while generating just over 2% of VW Group sales, the SUV-rich Porsche brand makes up an eye-popping one-third of profits.

With the mid-engine 'Vette poised for glory, the attraction of an SUV line is undeniable. The key is in execution.

“It would be a fine line to walk,” says KBB analyst Brauer. “Performance capability is critical. If done correctly, you could sell a lot of them, no doubt.”

Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at hpayne@detroitnews.com or Twitter @HenryEPayne. Catch “Car Radio with Henry Payne” from noon-2 p.m. Saturdays on 910 AM Superstation.