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HENRY PAYNE

Payne: Mid-engine Corvette wows as a daily driver

Henry Payne
The Detroit News

The Corvette C8.R race car has been an instant success, winning three of its first four races against its formidable Porsche and BMW competition. In no small part that’s due to its mid-engine layout.

“Going to mid-engine C8.R (from front-engine C7.R) is night and day difference. It feels like a proper race car the way you drive it, you can really attack corners and be aggressive with it,” Corvette team driver Jordan Taylor told me ahead of his team’s 1-2 finish at Sebring on July 18.

I can attest to that in the production car as well, which I have driven in anger around GM’s Nevada race track. But the real genius of the first Corvette to put the engine behind its driver can’t be fully appreciated until you’ve lived with it as a daily driver.

The 2020 version is the first Chevy Corvette with the engine behind the driver.

At $72,000, my base tester Corvette C8 was drop-dead gorgeous, quick as lightning, yet a practical mule for a weekend road trip up north.

And the next generation is in love with it.

“This is a chick magnet,” said my 20-something friend Kevin (about the same age as Jordan Taylor) as we cruised down M-32 near Traverse City. “I got to take a picture for my brother, he talks about this car all the time.”

Millennials like Kevin and his brother were a big reason GM made the mid-engine Corvette. As the 21st century dawned, chief engineer Tadge Juechter and his elves had stretched the front-engine concept as far is it could go. A new generation had been raised on sexy mid-engine Ferraris, McLarens and Ford GTs. Put a mid-engine Corvette on their dorm wall and they would covet that, too.

Especially since you can buy four C8s for the price of one Ferrari 488. Same rapid-fire dual-clutch transmission, same eight cylinders, same 0-60 time.

The 2020 Chevy Corvette has its own digital instrument panel — but the infotainment screen will be familiar to other GM products from Chevy and Buick.

“Gaaaah! I love the sound of that engine!” exclaimed Kevin as we used launch control to rocket from 0-60 mph in about 3 seconds.

That’s been Corvette’s genius for years — using GM’s parts bin to create a supercar many times cheaper than its competition. The pushrod V-8 is fundamentally the same small block that powers thousands of Chevy and GMC trucks. The infotainment system is shared with the Chevy Equinox.

But that sharing was a double-edged sword for Corvette, giving it a reputation as a poor man’s sports car. The C8 sheds that baggage. This rocket is one of the world’s best supercars, regardless of cost.

Start from the inside out.

I blanched at the chemical smell that greeted me every time I opened the last-generation C7’s door. It reeked of lack of attention to detail. The smell is gone in the C8 — solved, say engineers, by “pre-baking” materials before installation.

What I notice instead is the jaw-dropping interior. It's better than the Ferrari 488, the McLaren 570 and the Audi R8 — all cars that cost at least twice as much as C8. The C8 beats these giants in digital switchgear — and personality.

The ’Vette wraps its driver in a unique environment with a square steering wheel (to better see the big digital dash), “trigger” shifter, clever climate controls and an instrument display that changes as you toggle through six drive modes, from Tour to Z mode (more on that later).

It adds luxe touches like the OMG-that’s-cool rear camera mirror and a center “ridge” of climate controls. You can even remove the roof if you want (storing it in back like a Ford Bronco stores its doors).

I could have spent all day inside. And did.

The interior of the 2020 Chevy Corvette includes a center spine with climate controls, a "trigger shifter" and ample room for big folks.

The interior loses nothing in size from the front-engine car, meaning it fits 6-foot-5, 230-pound basketball players like me. On I-75 north of Saginaw I had to pull over to file a breaking news story. In other sports cars, I might have searched for a coffee shop. Not the C8.

So space efficient is the ’Vette that I was carrying a luggage bag in the “frunk,” tennis racquet bag/cooler/briefcase in the trunk, and an iRacing steering wheel/pedals in the passenger foot well.

I turned on the ’Vette’s 4G Wi-Fi and wrote the story on my laptop from the passenger seat in a service station parking lot.

A day later, two 20-somethings towing Jet Skis ogled the Corvette as I emerged from an ice cream shop.

“It looks awesome in the flesh,” exclaimed one.

“You should see the interior,” I said.

“I already looked,” came the reply. “It’s really cool.”

They will be able to afford one in a few years as C8 volumes rise and their used prices drop into the $40,000 range with high mileage. Can’t expect that from a European supercar.

Though the sheet metal is busy, the design should wear well. Proportions are impeccable, the look distinctly Corvette.

Its livability will endear it to 30,000-plus buyers a year. It looks good. Rides great. But for those who want to push it, the C8 also transcends its predecessors in balance and tech.

The lovely profile of the 2020 Chevy Corvette at sunset in northern Michigan. The 'Vette has huge bandwidth as a track — and trip — car.

Engineers managed to squeeze another 35 horsepower from the ol’ V8 nail to a healthy 495. Place it over the rear wheels for better traction, marry it to a lightning-quick eight-speed gearbox, and it’s magic.

Over Charlevoix County’s rural roads I did multiple launch-control 0-60 burnouts. It’s as thrilling as a Cedar Point roller coaster. Where the old C7 felt like you were hanging on to a rodeo bull, the C8 is on rails. Warning: Like a Cedar Point roller-coaster, it wants to go to the moon. Beware instant triple-digit speeds that local cops will frown upon.

Thrills come standard without moving up to the $5,000 Z51 performance track package. Drive modes allow you to explore multiple personalities. Luffing through the quiet town of East Jordan, I kept the Corvette in “My Mode” where I had set the engine to Stealth so as not to attract attention.

Outside of town, the roads turned twisty. Z Mode time.

Pre-programmed in the touchscreen like My Mode, Z Mode allows you to instantly switch to preferred performance settings. I like Track settings — steering, suspension, engine note — but without turning off traction control should I encounter gravel or a slick patch of road.

Over hills and turns, the Corvette was a treat. This is a big car at 182 inches long and 3,647 pounds, so it can’t be flung about like a Porsche Cayman or Alfa Romeo 4C. But its bandwidth as a people-mover outdoes those smaller, comparably priced mid-engine rivals.

That’s Corvette’s secret sauce. Now more than ever.

The Made in America supercar. The 2020 Chevy Corvette, assembled in Bowling Green, Kentucky.

2020 Chevrolet Corvette

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

Price: $59,995 including $1,095 destination fee ($72,075 as tested)

Powerplant: 6.2-liter V-8

Power: 495 horsepower, 470 pound-feet of torque

Transmission: 8-speed automatic

Performance: 0-60 mph, 2.9 seconds (mfr.); top speed, 184 mph

Weight: 3,647 pounds 

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

Report card

Highs: Looks like a Ferrari for the price; superior interior

Lows: Poor rear visibility; no adaptive cruise control

Overall: 4 stars

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