As we continue to reap the harvest of the second golden era of automotive performance, some interesting conundrums have begun to pop up – not only for consumers, but for the industry as well. Not long ago, it was easy to see the benefits provided by the most exclusive, purpose-built hardware an automaker had on offer, but as massive amounts of horsepower become more readily available by the day, those lines of distinction are beginning to blur.
Less than a decade ago, a car that could knock out a low 12-second quarter mile would have been considered a truly formidable performer (and been priced accordingly), but now a garden-variety Camaro SS costing well under $40K will get you there right off the dealer lot. Although this is great news for enthusiasts, it poses something of a problem for companies that are in the business of marketing and selling high-end sports cars.
Boasting a back seat, a lower price tag, and the ability to smoke a 610 horsepower Audi R8 V10 Plus around Virginia International Raceway (seriously, look it up), the 2017 Camaro SS 1LE hits well above its weight class and offers a compelling alternative to the C7 Corvette Grand Sport, which is powered by the same 460 horsepower direct injected LT1 V8.
While straight-line speed is only one piece of a much larger equation, it remains one of the easiest performance metrics to understand and contextualize, so when the less expensive models begin to venture up market in terms of their capability, the inherent value provided by the more costly – and often less practical – models becomes difficult to quantify.
The problem only gets worse when those cheaper models learn to turn and stop as well, and the sixth generation Camaro has proven itself to be capable enough to run alongside the Corvette in virtually any performance context.
The ZL1 1LE’s recent 7:16.04 lap time around the Green Hell is likely the fastest Nurburgring lap time ever recorded by any GM production car, and considering the ZL1 1LE’s price tag of $69,995 is within five grand of a bare-bones C7 Grand Sport, perhaps the biggest threat to the Corvette comes from within Chevrolet itself.
Camaro Chief Engineer Al Oppenheiser is seen here introducing the Camaro ZL1 1LE at Daytona International Speedway earlier this year. Featuring Formula One-derived Multimatic DSSV dampers, ride height and camber adjustability, Goodyear Eagle F1 Supercar 3R tires and a hardcore aero package among other track-focused tweaks, the ZL1 1LE proved to be more than 13 seconds quicker than the standard ZL1 around Nurburgring, posting a time of 7:16.04, which stands as the fastest official time of any GM production car ever.
As a result, some well-established strategies may need to be altered in order to adapt to the times, but which ones are due for an overhaul still remains a mystery. Here are five questions about the future of GM performance that we’re anxiously awaiting the answers to.
Is General Motors creating a performance focused sub-brand?
With crossovers recently becoming the most popular automotive segment in American and SUVs vastly outselling coupes, the business case for performance-oriented, high-riding five door models is becoming more attractive to automakers by the day. Putting all its performance offerings under one banner would solve a lot of problems for GM from a marketing standpoint, and justify the existence of models that would go up against vehicles like the Porsche Macan and Cayenne. Image: Detroit News
Recently there’s been speculation about GM spinning off its performance-tuned cars like the Corvette, Camaro and V-Series Cadillacs into a separate entity, a la Mercedes-Benz’s AMG division or Fiat-Chrysler’s SRT branded vehicles. Though this might seem like a simple marketing exercise that doesn’t amount to much more than a common badge tying disparate models together, it does present some interesting options for GM in terms of development flexibility, including a performance-tuned SUV with some Corvette lineage.
That might be sacrilege to some, but when you consider the fact that Porsche’s Cayenne SUV and Macan crossover vastly outsell all iterations of the 911 and Cayman while returning huge profits margins in the process, the business case starts to make more sense. It’s also why companies like Lamborghini and Aston Martin are currently in the midst of developing their own high-riding performance models.
Additionally, it would give the excellent Cadillac ATS-V and CTS-V models a greater presence within GM’s product portfolio. Cadillac is currently trying to court performance enthusiasts, hip hop moguls, and retirement home residents all in the same showroom.
General Motors' luxury brand has made it a cornerstone of their mission as a company to beat the Europeans at their own game, and nowhere is that effort more obvious than in their V-Series offerings. The ATS-V and CTS-V, seen here respectively, borrow much of their performance tech from the Corvette and Camaro programs and take direct aim at the likes of AMG, BMW's M Division, and Audi's RS lineup. But for Cadillac traditionalists, these top-tier offerings aren't the modern interpretations of the highway-cruising luxury yachts the company produced decades ago, and the result is a bit of an identity crisis for the brand. Images: GM
This approach is bound to lead to confusion, particularly for the kind of buyer that says, “Give me the best model you’ve got,” and expects a modern-day Coupe De Ville but finds themselves behind the wheel of a Mercedes-AMG E63 S fighter instead. Putting these performance models under one badge that makes their sport tuning clear from the outset would help alleviate the issue by more clearly differentiating these models from the standard offerings.
Can Chevrolet maintain the sales numbers of the C7 with a mid-engined design?
The Corvette’s production numbers have been strong since the C7 debuted in 2014, with 2016 topping out at more than 40,000 units. That more than double what the C6’s figures were for the four years prior to the latest generation’s debut, though it’s essentially in line with traditional sales figures for the Corvette dating back to the debut of the C5 in 1998 when you consider that more than half of the C6’s time on sale was during one of the worst economic recessions in history.
In any case, 30,000-40,000 units a year seems to be the going rate for Corvette production, but some folks wonder if that’s feasible with a mid-engined replacement. Between the development costs and the expense of significantly upgrading the factory to produce such dramatically different vehicle than the C7, it’s safe to assume that General Motors will want to recoup some of those expenses, so a price increase for this dramatic shift in design seems probable.
While a mid-engined Corvette could potentially offer better weight distribution and improved handling as a result, moving the motor behind the driver changes the Corvette formula substantially and would likely be more costly to produce.
Practicality also plays a factor here, as most mid-engined vehicles have virtually no usable cargo space, and the ingress and egress of the mid-engine vehicles is often significantly more cumbersome than that of front-engined cars like the current Corvette, which can be an issue for older buyers.
It’s hard to predict how this will shake out, but when you consider how sacred the front-engine, rear wheel drive configuration is to many Corvette fanatics, as well as the aforementioned accessibility concerns from both a practical and financial standpoint, it seems like this model would likely sell in smaller numbers than the C7.
So if it’s more exclusive, how will GM maintain its foothold in the performance segment?
With the recent demise of the Dodge Viper, the Corvette now sits at the top of the American sports car food chain essentially uncontested. After decades of fighting to maintain its market share, it seems unlikely the Chevrolet would forfeit this territory simply out of a desire to change things up, so it stands to reason that a mid-engined C8 might be produced alongside other models.
Producing the standard C7 alongside a mid-engined sports car also branded as a Corvette seems like a longshot, but selling a mid-engined C8 in similar numbers to that of the current car is as well. How GM would reconcile a potential loss in market share by the switch is still an unknown.
The most likely scenario seems to be concurrent production of the C7 alongside this mid-engined model. Although it’s a seemingly odd tactic to produce what amounts to two different generations of Corvette at the same time, it’s worth noting that if the C8 were to debut for the 2019 model year, the C7 would only be six years old at that point.
That seems a bit premature to put the car out to pasture, especially when sales of the C7 are currently stronger than ever and a new ZR1-like track-tuned model is set to officially debut any day now.
Could the mid-engined car end up being a new Cadillac instead of a Corvette?
This theory isn’t as outlandish as it might initially appear. In a response to a Detroit Bureau piece about Cadillac’s future product plans that was published last year, Cadillac President Johan de Nysschen decided to clarify a few things for the site’s readers in no uncertain terms when he jumped into the comments section to offer some information about the company’s future product plans.
Preceding assertions about new crossovers and luxury sedans for various segments was the following: “We ARE planning a Cadillac flagship which will NOT be a 4 door sedan,” adding that “these programs are secure and development work is well underway, with very substantial costs already committed.”
Is this model actually destined for Cadillac showrooms rather than Chevrolet’s? There’s some evidence that suggests it’s entirely possible. Image: Autocar UK
At the time he said that bringing diesel powertrains to market was a top priority for the company, but with Volkswagen’s diesel scandal rocking the industry just 11 months later, it’s not too far-fetched to think that those plans may have been shelved in favor of development efforts that would generate better publicity considering the fact that diesel has become a bad word in the industry.
Are hybrid powertrains on the way?
There’s a vocal contingent of Corvette fanatics who’re very resistant to change – even the transition from circular taillights to the angular shape used on the C7 caused a small furor. Well, if those folks didn’t have enough rustling their jimmies with the very real prospect of a mid-engined Corvette on the horizon, they’re going to need to sit down for this one: Hybrid Corvettes are a near-certainty in the not-too-distant future.
Each year the fuel economy and emissions standards that automakers must meet rises, and performance cars like the Corvette are especially tricky to keep in line with these goals. In order to keep a V8 under the hood, adding an electric motor to the mix might be the only option. Image: GM
But don’t take our word for it – ask Bob Lutz, the former head of product development for General Motors who told Detroit News last year that an optional hybrid drivetrain for the C8 is a very real possibility. Lutz speculated that the development program’s long lead time foreshadows an electric version “with 10 to 15-mile plug-in electric capability,” adding that it “would be enough to give it a 50 mpg city label, and the electric motors at the front would enable limited AWD capability.”
Considering the ever-increasing CAFÉ and EPA standards that GM and other automakers need to be able to meet in the near future, it’s not really a matter of “if” but “when” the Corvette and other GM performance vehicles will see hybrid powertrains and other electrification strategies.
Any way you slice it, big things are in store for General Motors’ performance vehicles over the next few years, and watching how it all unfolds is really just part of the fun. What say you? Let us know in the comments section below.