Chevrolet's Corvette sports car has seen only seven redesigns in its 60 years of existence. By 2013, the sixth-generation Corvette (2006 to 2013 model years) suffered due to outdated features and quality for the money for anyone who wasn't a track hound. With the 2014 Corvette Stingray, those complaints are addressed head-on in addition to doing what the Corvette does best: Go fast.
I drove various versions of the 2014 Corvette in Monterey, Calif., sampling the Z51 performance package and the non-Z51 Corvette along with manual and automatic transmissions. One of the biggest takeaways from the drive was how vastly different the Z51 with performance suspension rides is from the base suspension 'Vette. Base and Z51 Corvettes may as well be two completely different cars.
For $2,800, the Z51 package adds invaluable performance features to move the 'Vette as fast as possible around a racetrack, including larger wheels with higher-performance tires, unique chassis tuning and suspension, available Magnetic Ride Control suspension with adjustable firmness and much, much more in terms of performance tweaks.
On the road, this means pain. The Z51 package's ride quality has the subtlety of a battleship in a no-wake zone.
The moment of clarity came with the Z51's huge levels of grip and controllability on the autocross course Chevrolet provided, helped by the Z51's unique Performance Traction Management system that makes the Corvette extremely rewarding to drive fast in closed conditions.
With PTM, five levels of electronic aids — in addition to standard driving modes — rein in the Corvette's immense capabilities for novice drivers. "Experts" can turn them completely off. Looser levels of PTM show how well-balanced the all-new chassis handles throttle and steering input as the car becomes steerable through throttle controls. A new electronically controlled limited-slip differential contributes to the controllability and predictability once the rear end breaks loose, giving huge levels of grip; it's active all the time in Z51 'Vettes with more aggressiveness in track modes.
Dropping the Z51 package transforms the Corvette into a car completely capable of driving cross-country in comfort with a soft ride that's still taut enough to be considered sporty. I would have gladly driven one particularly handsome Lime Rock Green Metallic 'Vette with the base suspension from Monterey back to Chicago — definitely not a move I'd make in the Z51. Both cars use supportive, nicely appointed seats that are a big improvement over the previous car's seats for comfort and body holding ability in the corners; Chevrolet has optional performance seats on the way later this year.
While non-Z51 cars don't have PTM, they do have Weather, Eco, Tour, Sport and Track driving modes. Steering, throttle and stability control effort ramp up in these modes for a sportier drive. Most notable of the changes is the pumped up power steering effort from Tour to Sport, though it's not a particularly good feeling. The car tracks poorly on the highway with the looser steering effort as it doesn't feel matched to the wide front tires that grip every imperfection in the road. Tighter steering in Sport and Track modes prevents the car from darting around, so it tracks straighter at highway speeds.
From my experience with Corvette drivers, they enjoy driving and do a lot of it — whether it's from car show to car show or cross-country on vacation. A base suspension 2014 Corvette is the car those buyers want. Getting to the racetrack may be as far as you want to take the Z51 package.
This duality is one area where Porsche has Corvette whipped. A week prior to the Corvette drive I was behind the wheel of a 2013 Porsche 911 Carrera 4S with adjustable suspension and various driving modes. Comfort settings were as comfortable as the base model 'Vette, while sport settings were aggressive enough to rival the Z51 — all in one car. That "one" car does cost as much as two 2014 Corvettes, however.
With 455 horsepower in standard form and 460 hp with the must-have $1,195 dual-mode exhaust, the "LT1" engine is a powerhouse in base and Z51 cars. It's a torque monster with direct injection making huge output throughout the rev range so the car doesn't care what speed you hit the accelerator — it's going to move out blazingly fast wherever you punch it. The new engine is smooth, quiet when the optional dual-mode exhaust is closed and as satisfying as an engine with aftermarket exhaust when the flaps are open and the exhaust sings its bass-filled, angry song. The exhaust is left open in a Sport and Track modes, and whisper quiet in Eco and Tour modes. A new seven-speed manual transmission keeps revs down on the highway at less than 1,500 at 70 mph. Ripping through the first few gears requires attention as the short ratios of the Z51 package's unique transmission come up quickly.
The Corvette's all-new interior is light-years ahead of the old one with impressive standard technology, including a configurable gauge cluster with enough data and performance information to make automotive engineers wet their pants in excitement. The availability of data can also completely confuse someone who just wants to drive and not think about g-forces, tire temperatures or track timers. Luckily, all this information is customizable in the gauge cluster so traditionalists can see a tachometer and minimal other information, while a gearhead can view every vital of what's happening with the car. The digital tachometer suffered from annoying lag where the needle skipped and wasn't very smooth as the revs climbed.
The configurable display is surrounded by all-new materials and interior design. Chevrolet claims the materials are authentic, which many do look the part, but I couldn't help be disappointed by the $995 carbon fiber trim package many of the test cars had. The material has a dull sheen that appeared fake. Many of the cars I drove with stickers north of $70,000 — base price is $51,995 with destination — didn't look like they should be $70,000 cars on the inside. The outside is a completely different story.
My driving partner and I stopped at a fire station to see if the guys would let us take a few pictures in front of their helicopter. They did, and they gushed over the car, "It looks like a Ferrari or Lamborghini," "I don't like Corvettes, but I this looks awesome." The exterior design is undoubtedly striking and untraditional for Corvette. My biggest complaints come from the black accent pieces on the hood, brake vents, side cladding and how half of the entire rear styling is painted black and not body colored.
Questionable areas of its design aside, the 2014's departure from traditional Corvette styling should keep the car fresh in people's minds for years to come.