Payne: First drive, mid-engine Corvette lives up to hype

Henry Payne
The Detroit News

Ann Arbor – The book on the Chevy Corvette has long been that it’s the poor man’s supercar. Accept compromises in handling and interior comfort and you can afford a Ferrari-like performance machine for under $100,000.

Throw out the book.  

I have driven the all-new, 2020, mid-engine Corvette C8 for the first time, and it is a supercar without compromise. These are early days as the C8 comes to market, but the C8 holds the promise of a supercar paradigm shift: affordable, Porsche Cayman-like handling with the raw power of exotics costing four times as much.

The world’s elite auto car makers should be very afraid.

I will be able to give more detailed critique early next year after a more extensive on- road/on-track test, but on first impression at the North American Car of the Year jury test over twisty Ann Arbor roads and Interstate 94, the car is fundamentally sound from the inside out.

“This is a Cayman with cargo room,” I told chief engineer Ed Piatek a couple of days later in Road Atlanta where Chevy introduced the C8.R race car model.

“I’ll take that as a compliment,” smiled Piatek. Please do. The Cayman is the best-handling production sports car I’ve driven.

Since we first learned of a mid-engine Corvette in the works, expectations soared. Could it marry the brute force of a small-block Chevy V-8 with the nimbleness of a Cayman? Could Chevy render a pleasing, mid-engine design? Would there be any money left for a livable interior? Yes, yes, and yes.

Start with the handling. I have raced mid-engine, Porsche and Lola sports cars all my adult life. From Le Mans prototypes to Indy Car, the world’s fastest cars are mid-engine. It’s why Corvette’s Pratt & Miller race team has craved a mid-engine vessel to go up against the likes of Ferrari and Porsche that also locate the engine aft of driver.

Let Corvette race driver Tommy Milner explain. “The driver is more centrally located in the car, so we get immediate feedback from understeer or oversteer,” he said in introducing the race car version in Road Atlanta last weekend. “The car rotates around the driver.”

With the engine behind the driver for better traction, the 2020 Chevy Corvette C8 zips from 0-60 mph in a breathtaking 2.8 seconds.

I felt it on the first tight, 90-degree corner on Washtenaw County's Huron River Road. With the engine behind me, the lighter front end instantly rotated to the corner apex — the rear following like the tail of a dart.

Walking around a naked, cutaway chassis of the C8 at Road Atlanta, chassis engineer Ed Moss explained that the precise handling is much more than just putting the 6.2-liter V-8 behind the driver. Like the C7, the C8 is built around a stiff central spine to allow for easier driver egress (carbon-fiber tub cars like Lambos use tall, wide side sills for stiffness, but are a nightmare to crawl over). But unlike C7, C8 uses 20 — count ‘em, 20 — aluminum castings to complement that spine where C7 had but 4.

For the first time, the mid-engine car uses coil-over springs and shocks for state-of-the-art suspension like European supercars (previous-gen Corvettes used cost-saving, composite “leaf” springs).

Supercar tech, Corvette price. The 3,600-pound Corvette will never be as maneuverable as the lighter, 3,100-pound Cayman. But, then, the C8 has Lambo-like power that the wee Porsche can only dream of.

And it puts it down effortlessly. I experienced auto launch control in a Cayman three years ago. Bury the left brake foot. Bury the right throttle foot. Let revs stabilize at 3500 RPM. Release brake.

FOOM! Cayman shot forward like a rocket. Just like a McLaren 720S. Just like a Lamborghini Huracán. Just like the Corvette C8.

I did multiple launch control starts in the new ‘Vette (starts at $64,995 with Z51 performance package) on unpopulated Michigan country roads. Stable. Blindingly fast. Motor Trend clocked the C8 at a staggering 2.8 seconds — the same as the $288,000, 710-horse McLaren 720S I tested last year .

The interior of the 2020 Chevy Corvette C8 is nicer than European supercars costing four times as much.

Credit the engine weight over the rear wheels providing inherently better traction. And a Porsche-like, dual-clutch auto transmission.

Try that in a front engine C7 and hold on for dear life. With the engine in front, the rear tires hunt for traction, squirming nervously.

“It’s having less weight on the front axle, sitting closer to the front axle and having all the weight on the rear. It helps you with standing starts, helps you coming out of a corner,” said Corvette program chief Tadge Juechter when I first saw the car at the Warren design dome in July.

Motorheads like me can babble on about C8 handling dynamics until sundown, but the interior is the real revelation. The Corvette is nicer inside than a $300k Lambo or a McLaren. The standard car is roomy, techy, and coated in leather.

I’m a big fella’ at 6’5” and was sedan comfortable. Curiously, for a big sports car meant for long-distance driving as well as track days, the C8 lacks adaptive cruise control.

Otherwise, the driver-centric cockpit is state-of the-art — an amalgam of the best supercars in the world. The digital dash reminds of McLaren with its configurable drive modes (I like Track Mode and its racing tachometer). A Formula One-like square steering wheel allows unobstructed instrument visibility. The console — “beach-front real estate” as engineer Piatek likes to call it —  is a masterpiece of space management. Chevy’s excellent touchscreen infotainment is within easy reach.

Then Corvette pairs an efficient, Acura-like “trigger” shifter with the Drive Mode dial for easy operation. Corvette faithful may struggle to learn the trigger at first (I use a three-finger approach), but once mastered it’s intuitive.

Only a central sleeve of buttons interrupts this digital vibe. The concept is taken straight out of the last-gen Porsche 911 and allows for easy climate control. 

Corvette designer Kirk Bennion and his team have wrapped this technical tour de force in a mid-engine shell that is nicely portioned  — and looks wicked on the road.

The 2020 Chevy Corvette C8 uses a compact, space-saving, digital "trigger" selector to operate the twin-clutch, 8-speed transmission.

Even some of my most jaded Car of the Year jury peers allowed how it looked better than the Audi R8 or Acura NSX —  cars costing tens of thousands of dollars more.

Details have been sweated over right down to the, er, smell. Climb into the ol’ C7 and you got a nostril-full of the polymers used to make the dash and interior inserts. It smelled like a poor man’s supercar. For the C8, the engineers “pre-baked” the materials to eliminate odors.

I got an hour in the C8 this time. Stay tuned for much more. Corvette is just getting started.

2020 Chevrolet Corvette C8

Vehicle type: Mid-engine, rear-wheel drive, two-passenger sports car

Price: Base price $59,995 including $1095 destination charge ($88,895 with Z51 package as tested)

Powerplant: 6.2-liter V-8

Power: 495 horsepower, 470 pound-feet of torque (with $5000 Z51 performance package)

Transmission: 8-speed, dual-clutch automatic

Performance: 0-60 mph, 2.8 seconds (Motor Trend); top speed, 194 mph

Weight: 3,600 (est.)

Fuel economy: NA

Report card

Highs: Good interior ergonomics; intuitive handling

Lows: No adaptive cruise control; Trigger transmission takes getting used to

Overall: 4 stars (out of 4)

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.