July 19, 2019 11:30 am

New Corvette goes mid-engine for first time to raise performance

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When you first lay eyes on the new 2020 Corvette, a modern version of the classic American sports car isn’t the first thing that pops into your head.

Instead, you think Lamborghini, Lotus, McLaren.

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The eighth-generation ‘Vette, dubbed C8, is radically different from its predecessors, which, for 66 years, had the engine in the front. This time, engineers moved the General Motors’ trademark small-block V8 behind the passenger compartment. It’s so close to the driver that the belt running the water pump and other accessories is only a foot away.

Also gone are the traditional long hood and large, sweeping front fenders, replaced by a downward-sloping snub nose and short fenders. In the back, there’s a big, tapered hatch that opens to a small trunk and the low-sitting 6.2-litre, 495 horsepower engine.

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So why change the thing?

“We were reaching the performance limitations of a front-engine car,” explains Tadge Juechter, the Corvette’s chief engineer, ahead of Thursday night’s glitzy unveiling in a Second World War dirigible hangar in Orange County, Calif.

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With a mid-engine, the flagship of GM’s Chevrolet brand will have the weight balance and centre of gravity of a race car, rivalling European competitors and leaving behind sports sedans and ever-more-powerful muscle cars that were getting close to outperforming the current ‘Vette.

“We’re asking people to spend a lot of money for this car, and people want it to be the best performer all around,” Juechter said.

GM didn’t immediately release the price, but Juechter said that if you can afford the current one, which starts at $55,900 but can run well over $100,000, you can afford a new one.

Corvette sales aren’t huge. Through June, the company sold just under 10,000 of them. But industry analysts say the car helps the company’s image, showing that it can build a sports car that performs with top European models.

GM says the new version, with an optional ZR1 performance package, will go from zero to 60 miles per hour (96.6 kilometres per hour) in under three seconds, the fastest Corvette ever and about a full second quicker than the outgoing ‘Vette.

The “cab-forward” design with a short hood looks very different, but GM executives say they aren’t worried that it will alienate Corvette purists who want the classic long hood and the big V8 in the front.

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Harlan Charles, the car’s marketing manager, said mid-engine Corvettes had for years been rumoured to be the next generation so it wasn’t unexpected. GM also is hoping the change will help draw in younger buyers who may not have considered a Corvette in the past.

George Borke, a member of Village Vettes Corvette Club in The Villages, Fla., a huge retirement community, said he hasn’t heard anyone in the 425-member club complain about the new design.

“I think after 60 years, it’s time for a change,” said Borke, who owns a current-generation C7, bought when the car was last redesigned in the 2014 model year.

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The new car has two trunks, including one in the front that can hold an airline-spec carry-on bag and a laptop computer case. Under the rear hatch behind the engine is another space that can hold two sets of golf clubs.

Even though it’s a performance car, Juechter said the Corvette can go from eight cylinders to four to save fuel. Some owners get close to 30 miles per gallon on the freeway with the current model, and Juechter said he expects that to be true with the new one. Full mileage tests aren’t finished, he said.

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Engineers also took great pains to make the new car quiet on the highway, with heat shields and ample insulation to cut engine noise.

Even though the car has an aluminium structure and a carbon-fibre bumper beam, it still weighs a little more than the current model. It’s also slightly less aerodynamic due to large air intake vents on the sides to help cool the engine. The new Corvette comes with a custom-designed, fast-shifting eight-speed automatic transmission with two tall top gears.

Higher-performance versions are coming, although Juechter wouldn’t say if the C8 is designed to hold a battery and electric motor.

Workers at a GM plant in Bowling Green, Ky., are just starting to build the new cars, which will arrive in showrooms late this year.

© 2019 The Canadian Press

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