Payne: Mid-engine 2020 Corvette C8 Stingray shines on and off track

Henry Payne
The Detroit News

The mid-engine Corvette C8 Stingray is a new performance paradigm. Everyone has their own aha! moment. For many of my media peers, it was the $59,995 starting price announced at C8’s unveiling last July that elicited gasps from the audience.

A car with Ferrari-like specs for a quarter the price!

For visitors to Chevrolet's mobile Corvette showroom, it was seeing Stingray in the flesh.

It’s even more beautiful than I thought!

I got tingles at those moments, too. But my true aha! moment came last week in Nevada entering Turn 9 at Spring Mountain Raceway’s Villeneuve Course. Villeneuve is considered the sprawling desert facility’s most technical course — a writhing snake's nest of kinks, double-apex turns and long sweepers.

Turn 9 is a pucker-inducing, decreasing radius sweeper entered at 120 mph with a hard stab of the brakes at the end of the back straight. Car control is critical as you downshift, rotate from left to right under increasing g-loads, then nail the brakes into a chicane leading onto the front straight.

I can’t believe how predictable the Corvette’s handling is through here!

Each lap I pushed harder, the 495-horse C8 a sharp tool in my hands, carving the turn ever finer. Predictability in turns like this hasn’t been Corvette’s calling card. ’Vettes were cars to be manhandled, though the last-generation front-engine C7 represented a gallant effort. Sure-footedness was a rear-engine thing, found in Porsches, McLarens and Ferraris.

Add the $59,995 C8 to that list.

“I’d put it between a Ferrari 430 and a 458,” veteran Spring Mountain instructor Jason Aquino said in reference to recent mid-engine Italian stallions. He flogs exotics for a living. “It’s better than a Lamborghini.”

Where I usually emerge from C7 track outings satisfied but relieved I hadn’t swapped ends, I wanted to drive the C8 all day. This despite gaining 300 pounds (tipping the scales at 3,647) over the C7 thanks to bigger proportions and a boatload of electronics.

The C8’s track prowess fulfills its promise to be, pound-for-dollar, the best supercar on the planet. Like a baseball player that can field, crush homers and hit .300, the Stingray is an all-star.

That was the intent in 2014 when veteran engineer Tadge Juechter and his troops got the green light from The General to transform the Corvette for the 21st-century battlefield.

This is a clean-sheet cyborg. Not just an engine in back, but a fresh V-8, dual-clutch tranny, interior, electrical system, mode selector, cockpit, the works. OK, Michelin remained the tire manufacturer.

The result? For most owners, the Stingray will be an easy daily companion. Before tracking the C8, a media colleague and I took a day trip to Nevada’s Valley of Fire State Park. My red Corvette complemented the tourist haven’s dramatic red rock, and passersby found the C8 as much an attraction as the natural surrounds.

We were flagged down for pictures from bikers, families, even a Corvette customer who had recently acquired a used C7. He couldn’t take his eyes off C8. I’ve been around the car for eight months now, but I still ogle it. Its  sensual curves never get old.

I removed the coupe’s roof panel and stowed it in the boot for open-air driving (the convertible hardtop trim goes into production in April) and the C7 owner lamented the absence of the last-gen car’s hatchback utility. True enough — storage is now split between trunk and frunk (front trunk).

The C8 is comprehensively superior. Begin with the chemical smell that blanketed the C7’s interior, a problem C8 has solved by “pre-baking” materials before installation.

The driver-centric cockpit features state-of-the-art tech like a compact button-shifter, heating and ventilation controls and 12-inch instrument display. The passenger is more isolated due to a center spine of climate buttons — but, this being a two-seater, passengers may appreciate a little “my space.”

We navigated across Nevada on Android Auto, the seats (one of three styles offered) never chafing. As in my first Stingray test in Ann Arbor last fall, I was struck by C8’s dual cruiser/sports car personality. Stingray cruises with a compliant ride and good forward visibility though it curiously lacks adaptive cruise-control — and adding blind-spot assist (to help with b-pillars the size of the Hoover Dam) requires a pricey jump to the $67,295 2LT trim.

Then, as quickly as you can say — “twisties ahead!” — the C8 transforms into a cheetah. Push the steering wheel’s pre-configurable Z-mode button (I chose Track steering and drivetrain settings) and the steering firms, shifts quicken and Stingray coils for aggression.

But to truly know C8’s limits, you must take it on-track.

That, after all, is the core reason for the mid-engine Corvette’s existence, so the C8 could run with elite supercars on the world’s auto playgrounds. The C8 Stingray’s 7.29.9-minute Nürburgring lap has already buried the C7 Stingray’s by a whopping 10 seconds.

Ergonomic details assist the mission. I folded my 6-foot-5 frame into the cockpit and sat upright (unlike the C7) with a helmet on, thanks to better seat travel. I scanned the instrument display, its details unobstructed by an IndyCar-like, square steering wheel. Improved forward vision helps cornering visibility. Other details will cost you, and outfitting the car with aforementioned blind-spot assist plus Z51 performance package (bigger brakes, bolstered seats, Michelin Sport 4S summer tires) can quickly balloon the price to $75,000.

True to its dual personality, the console’s drive mode selector is hidden under a shroud like a missile switch cover. To ensure I know I’m about to engage the car’s hyperspace capabilities, the C8 must be armed by a multi-step process.

Liberated, the C8 is now capable of ferocious, 2.9-second zero-60 launches out of the pits and instant corner traction.

This is the mid-engine car’s secret sauce. Not only could I rotate the C8 through Turn 9, but with weight over the rear wheels it would explode off the Turn 10 chicane, the V-8 roaring its approval. Tire temps told the tale as the balanced C8’s fore-aft tire temps were similar after hot laps, compared to the C7 where the rears were typically 5-7 degrees cooler than the fronts.

What an athlete. And this is only the standard Stingray model. There are performance Z06 and ZR1 variations in the works. More aha! moments to come.

2020 Chevy Corvette C8 Stingray

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

Price: $59,995, including $1,095 destination charge ($85,710 3LT as tested with Z51 performance package)

Powerplant: 6.2-liter small-block V-8 LT2

Power: 490 horsepower (495 with Z51 package), 470 pound-feet torque

Transmission: 8-speed, dual-clutch automatic

Performance: 0-60 mph, 2.9 seconds (mfr., with Z51 package); top speed, 194 mph

Weight: 3,647 lbs. 

Fuel economy: EPA 15 city/27 highway/19 combined

Report card

Highs: Predictable mid-engine handling on the limit; quick, dual-clutch tranny

Lows: No standard adaptive cruise-control; gets pricey with tech packages

Overall: 4 stars

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