Not Your Father's Corvette

It's being toned down and refined to take on European rivals

For decades, Corvettes, with their aggressive, low-slung styling and snarling V-8s, have been the ultimate in red-blooded American sports cars. Buyers, though, had to accept hefty trade-offs: a jolting ride, a cacophony of squeaks and rattles, and quarters so cramped that a GM executive once joked that when driving his 'Vette, he had to choose between riding with his wife or his golf clubs.

Chevrolet is counting on its first new Corvette in 14 years to change that image for good. Sure, the division's flagship car, which went into regular production at General Motor Corp.'s Bowling Green (Ky.) plant on Dec. 9, boasts 345 horses under the hood. But it also promises toned-down styling, more genteel road manners, and a comfier interior. Analysts and auto writers who have driven the car say its greater sophistication will attract new buyers from outside Corvette's macho circle. Says Ken Zino, Road & Track's Detroit editor: "You no longer need a tattoo to buy one."

Even better, in Wall Street's eyes, is that GM accomplished all that on a relative shoestring. Although development of the Corvette dragged on for eight years and was frozen several times when capital ran low, the car stuck to its $250 million budget--$150 million for development and $100 million for tooling and equipment. Chevy is expected to price the new Corvette close to the outgoing model. That would mean sticker prices starting near $38,000, with well-equipped cars going for $42,000 or more. Independent auto consultant Christopher W. Cedergren figures GM will rake in gross margins as high as $8,000 on each new Corvette.

To get those kinds of profits, GM needs to sell 25,000 or 30,000 Corvettes annually, a substantial increase from the old model's 20,000-a-year volume. Getting there will be difficult. Corvette already owns 39% of what it calls the "high sport" market, which includes the Porsche 911, Toyota Supra, Acura NSX, and Dodge Viper. But Corvette faces stiff competition from a wave of new European sports cars now arriving: the Jaguar XK8, BMW's Z3 two-seater, Mercedes' SLK convertible, and Porsche's Boxster roadster.

LOW-TECH? Still, the new Corvette is better prepared for the fray than its predecessor. Engineers improved the ride and eliminated rattles and creaks by making the chassis four times more rigid. And they dropped the car's step-in height by four inches, making entry and exit far easier. Trunk space was doubled, making the Corvette more practical for hauling suitcases and grocery bags.

To keep the new Corvette affordable, Chevy's designers pinched pennies. According to James Schefter, author of All Corvettes Are Red, thrifty engineers borrowed parts and systems from other GM cars and used a traditional push-rod design in the aluminum V-8 instead of a more expensive multivalve, overhead-cam system. On the assembly line, the Corvette also will cost less. Its 34% fewer parts and more efficient design will knock assembly time from 64 hours down to about 45, cutting labor cost by about 28%, to $1,920 per car.

For all its improvements, the Corvette remains a hard sell for many fans of European cars. Bruce Wennerstrom, a Greenwich (Conn.) marketer and auto enthusiast, is dubious about Corvette's old-style push-rod engine. "We're turned on by overhead-cam engines and all the technological bells and whistles," he says. "GM has to get Corvette on the shopping list of people who buy imports."

GM has planned plenty of hoopla in hopes of snagging their attention. The Corvette will debut at the Detroit and Los Angeles auto shows in early January. Then, later this winter, the 400-plus high-volume Chevy dealers who get the first cars out of Bowling Green will hold special invitation-only unveilings for customers.

Of course, German auto makers will be touting the new Boxster and SLK on the auto-show circuit, too. The international contest is shaping up as a matchup worthy of Formula One racing. Says DRI/McGraw-Hill analyst Lincoln Merrihew: "It's classic American iron vs. European sophistication." Gentlemen, start your engines.

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