2020 Chevy Corvette Stingray first drive review: Mid-engined attitude adjustment

I first dreamed of a mid-engine Corvette back in the mid-Eighties, when I was about 10 years old. I wasn't just precocious, I had help. Chevy had just put its jaw-dropping new Corvette Indy concept on national auto show circuit, and when I clapped eyes on it at my hometown Cleveland Auto Show, I fell in love. I subsequently spent months trying to draw cars inspired by its swoopy fighter-jet-style canopy roof in the margins of my notebooks. General Motors, of course, has been dreaming of a Corvette with an engine located behind the headrests for a lot longer: Zora Arkus-Duntov, the father of the 'Vette himself, has wanted a sports car with its V8 noisemaker vibrating behind the seats since at least 1960.

It should come as no surprise that a heady cocktail of nostalgia and a sense of occasion floods my temporal lobe upon sliding into the form-hugging GT2 sport bucket seat of the 2020 Chevrolet Corvette Stingray. The C8. The first production 'Vette with its V8 engine lording both its will and weight over the rear wheels. Adding both urgency and gravitas to the proceedings: I've only got about 45 minutes of drive time, and there's a line of flesh-eating motor journalists just waiting to chide me if I'm late handing over the car's key fob (just kidding, friends; you're all wonderful people).

The world has endured well over 50 years of teasing, but The General has finally done it: replumbed its iconic small-block V8 in a well behind the driver. In the process, GM has claimed some remarkable figures: 0 to 60 mph in under 3 seconds and a top whack of nearly 200 mph. Even the standard all-season tires offer nearly 1.0 Gs of cornering performance, and my test car has even grippier summer rubber.

A different sort of cockpit

As I grip the C8's thick, unusual squircle-shaped steering wheel for the first time, and contemplate having such limited time to figure out what it all means, I'm momentarily overwhelmed. After I take a few seconds to whir my power seat into place and adjust the mirrors, I take stock of my surroundings. The view inside and out is very different than that of the C7 Corvette that variously wounded and not-infrequently slayed European and Japanese performance giants from 2014 to 2019.

As it turns out, you needn't even wake the 6.2-liter small-block V8's 490-plus horsepower or feel any of its 470 pound-feet of torque to know this is a different kind of Corvette. All you have to do is look through the windshield and peer out over the C8's nose. Or what you can see of it, anyway. Wisps of Torch Red fender peaks bookend my view, but that's about all I see of this car's front clip. There's no traditional Corvette long-hood view, no voluptuous curves cloaking the front wheels. With no engine to package up there, the nose is shorter, and you can't help but feel closer to the dashboard -- and to the action sure to rapidly unfold on the road ahead -- than before. 

That new steering wheel? It's squircle-shaped, taking advantage of the quick, 2.5-turn steering rack.

Nick Miotke/Roadshow

That's just the start of a very different cabin aura. The outgoing C7 had a pronounced driver-centric bend to its dashboard, but if you're the passenger, this new C8 must feel almost cocoonlike and isolationist by comparison. After all, the transmission tunnel forms the Mount Whitney of center consoles, with a long ribbon of lookalike buttons running right along its ridge. The message is clear: If you're not in the driver's seat, you're missing out.

Not only is the squared-off steering wheel within easy reach, so, too, are a set of pleasingly cold-to-the-touch metal paddle shifters with a satisfying clack-clack to their action. And it's not just the flappy transmission levers -- the 'Vette's crisp 8-inch infotainment screen is unusually close at hand. It's barely a couple of inches removed from your right digits, seemingly accessible without any additional reach whatsoever. For a serious high-performance machine with so much horsepower and speed potential, the fact that one's hands needn't stray far from the wheel seems like a very good development. A shallow center bin with USB connection and a separate cupholder both have lids to help serve as an armrest for your right elbow when you're not piling on the speed.

The aforementioned high center console features a gearshift selector array that's both unusual in looks and operation, with a deeply tactile quality. It's easier to get used to than it might first seem. The latter sits at the foot of the infotainment display adjacent to a new rotary drive mode controller and three buttons for the traction control, (optional) nose lift and camera systems. Less clear are the benefits of the aforementioned switchgear ski slope that separates driver from passenger. While there's some surface variation to the buttons, if you're someone who constantly fiddles with your seat heater or HVAC airflow, this form-over-function decision may prove annoying. 

Infotainment options and controls are quick at hand for the driver. Passengers, however, have a limited view at best. 

Nick Miotke/Roadshow

A more universally welcome development: massively improved interior materials. Soft-touch padding everywhere, richly pigmented leathers, perfect stitching and purposeful, tactile hardware are evident all over. That's doubly remarkable considering my brief drive comes in a preproduction car. It doesn't seem like there's a single carryover part from anywhere else in the General Motors kingdom. Even if some bits are shared, it feels like each and every piece was expressly designed for the C8's interior, from the 12-inch reconfigurable digital gauge cluster to the window switches, to the control stalks. 

When first introduced, the outgoing C7's interior was lauded as a major step forward for Corvette kind. Indeed, it was, but that was admittedly a low bar, as past cabins were long on cheapness and and short on charm. The new cockpit feels many streets ahead of its predecessor. And despite the extreme driver-focused nature of the cockpit, the high side sills, shallow glass and the firewall directly behind my noggin, the 2020 Corvette doesn't strike me as at all claustrophobic. At 5 feet, 9 inches tall, I'm not exactly NBA material, but I have plenty of headroom (even for a helmet) and find it easy to get comfortable quickly in my 3LT-spec tester's heated and cooled midrange GT2 buckets. 

Start me up

I poke the starter button (just out of sight, to the right of the steering column) and the small-block behind my scalp clears its throat rather anticlimactically. There's no real bark as the 'Vette's 6.2-liter hulk of Americana comes to life, no pronounced vibration as it torques on its mounts. Despite my car's optional dual-mode exhaust, there's no sense there's an over-caffeinated, caged animal lurking just behind one's head. 

A 6.2-liter, 495-horse V8 on display for the world to see. 

Nick Miotke/Roadshow

It's only once underway that I realize that rear visibility isn't as good as it was in this car's predecessor. That stands to reason, as not only is there a small pane of glass directly behind the driver's scalp, there's another one over the engine itself, plus the rakish rear pillars combined to give a limited vantage out back. The view is more than acceptable and far better than many mid-engined European cars I've driven, but for those carrying a crossed-flags key fob from any of the previous generation Corvettes, it's going to take a bit of getting used to. Fortunately, there's an optional digital rearview mirror that flips to provide a video feed from the rear camera that's unencumbered by rear pillars. Clever, but the focal length of such things typically give me a headache after a while, so I go with glass.

The claimed performance stats are simply staggering, and they give us a big clue as to why GM felt it finally had to move the Corvette's engine rearward. With the optional Z51 Package of my tester, horsepower gets nudged to 495 -- an increase of 35 ponies, year over year. And of course, there's a new eight-speed, dual-clutch transmission that promises even quicker shifts than the old eight-speed automatic (a gearbox that Bowtie execs once claimed was as quick as a DCT). But that doesn't really explain this car's massive improvement in acceleration times. The 0-to-60-mph gauntlet is dropped in under 3.0 seconds -- last year's equivalent was around 3.7. Top speed is a heady 194 mph. Think about that: This isn't a Grand Sport, a Z06, or a ZR1, this is the entry-level Stingray, a car that starts at under $60,000.

Mid-engined dynamics

What's remarkable is the way the power is delivered from a standing start. Or rather, it's what's unremarkable. Even if you don't use launch control, acceleration from a dead stop is oddly undramatic. With more than half its weight already over its drive wheels, the Corvette simply squats slightly and goes. Acceleration doesn't even feel like the violent explosion of energy that it really is. The tires (staggered 19- and 20-inch Michelin Pilot Sport 4S summers on my Z51) simply hook up. There's no rear-end squirreliness, no massive shift shocks as the DCT dispatches its super-short first and second gears, no traction control light blinking like a bad Christmas tree bulb. You don't even get that electric wave of torque you do in a Tesla, the surge sensation that comes all at once and makes your eyes go big. The car simply accelerates ferociously, yet undramatically. Yes, there's the lovely V8 backing soundtrack at your back when it happens, but it, too, is surprisingly polished and somewhat distant if you don't make your runs with the windows down. 

That surreal fluidity doesn't stop when the first corner arrives -- the Corvette is easy to drive quickly and confidently on snaking tarmac. As my drive took place on (sparsely trafficked) public roads and I had a Bowtie rep riding shotgun, I never really had the chance to push the C8 to its limits more than a corner or so at a time, but I can tell you it's a friendly experience -- there's absolutely zero sense that snap oversteer awaits the ham-fisted. In fact, if anything, safe-as-houses understeer appears to be the car's defining cornering trait. At just 2.5 turns lock-to-lock, steering is both quick and accurate, delivering reasonable feel. (Full disclosure: Given public roads and short familiarization time, I didn't turn the car's electronic safety nets all the way off -- I merely relaxed them, putting the car in various drive modes.)

It may look far more aggressive than the outgoing Corvette, but it turns out the mid-engined C8 is still a dawdle around town. 

Nick Miotke/Roadshow

During my brief time with the car, the Z51's uprated Brembo brakes (13.3-inch discs in front, 13.8 inches in back) were never remotely challenged. The by-wire binders offered solid firmness underfoot during simulated panic stops, and for the moment, well, that's about all I can say about them.

One other almost surreal drive characteristic of the C8? Its ride quality. With my tester's optional Z51 Performance Suspension with Magnetic Ride Control, the Corvette's suppleness is remarkable, especially on watchstrap run-flat tires. I even happily trundled through towns on Michigan's broken roads and and over railroad crossings without bothering to switch out of Sport mode. Magnetorheological dampers have always dazzled me with their bandwidth -- the way they can go from rock-hard for high-speed cornering to pothole-ready softness in mere milliseconds by zapping some iron filings with a magnet is remarkable stuff.

The takeaway? Even with my loaded 3LT test car's $85,710-as-delivered price tag, the Corvette delivers an unprecedented amount of performance for the money. It's also entertaining as hell, it's just a different kind of engagement than what we're used to out of a Corvette.

A new nose for a very new Corvette. 

Nick Miotke/Roadshow

Still practical?

If you've ever been to Bowling Green, Kentucky, where GM builds the Corvette, or if you've ever been to a Corvette club gathering, you know that the car's owners love its performance, but they're also seemingly obsessed and very proud of two very practical performance attributes you don't normally see celebrated in a sports car: fuel economy and cargo room. The former figures haven't been announced for the new car, but the C7 offered a remarkable performance, delivering up to 25 miles per gallon on the highway. I wouldn't be surprised if this new car betters that slightly -- seventh and eighth gear in the transmission are tall, clustered well away from ratios two though five.

And on the cargo front, well, Chevy claims you can still get two sets of golf clubs in the rear trunk, and there's a frunk that's big enough for a rollaboard bag, too. Total cargo volume is 12.6 cubic feet. That's decent, but down a chunk from the outgoing car's 15 cubes. 

Most Corvettes live their entire lives on the street and not at the racetrack, so Chevy hasn't skimped on available tech features. The laundry list includes two new Bose stereo systems, wireless charging, heated steering wheel, one-touch Bluetooth pairing via NFC, and a higher-resolution version of the aforementioned Performance Data recorder. The car's new electrical architecture even allows for over-the-air (OTA) updates.

The 1986 Corvette Indy mid-engine concept. Reality is a bit different, but the lineage is there. 

Chevrolet

Will the faithful line up?

If you're getting the picture that this mid-engined coupe is quicker, faster, and friendlier than its predecessors, you're getting the message. This is Corvette 2.0, a brave new world. In many ways, the C8 acts and feels more like some mid-engined Porsches and McLarens I've driven than a car with a crossed-flags emblem on its nose. As much as I love past Corvettes -- and I do -- I welcome this change. However, I also fear it may rub some of the brand's acolytes the wrong way. Corvettes have never had the willful, deliberate low-tech appeal of something like a Dodge Viper or a Harley-Davidson motorcycle. But nor have they been totems of overt sophistication. This, despite employing high-tech features like magnetic shocks and Performance Data Recorders. 

The 2020 Chevrolet Corvette feels vastly different than what came before it. It's a great steer and an insane value. Yet it's also far from a sure thing that the car's traditional buyers are going to want to come along for the ride. Hopefully, more than a few existing owners fell in love with the Corvette Indy -- or any of the other mid-engined CERV concepts -- the way I did back in the Eighties.

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