It’s tough being a superstar player on a middling team. Just ask Michael Jordan, who electrified the NBA during the latter half of the 1980s as a young shooting guard with the deeply mediocre Chicago Bulls. Despite setting numerous individual records and captivating TV audiences with his gravity-defying dunks, Jordan would not lead the Bulls to an NBA title until 1991, fully seven years into his professional career.
Tempting as it is to attribute the Bulls’ championship ascent exclusively to Jordan’s maturation as a player, the truth is that by the late ’80s, the rest of the team had developed into a suitable supporting cast. Even after Jordan retired (for the first time) in 1993, the Bulls, now led by fellow all-star Scottie Pippen, remained legitimate title contenders.
While I typically avoid applying sports metaphors to the automotive realm, I find the Jordan example to be particularly apposite vis-à-vis the Corvette and the lower-priced models that have sold alongside it over the years. Excepting fullsize trucks, whose appeal is largely unrelated to matters of style or convenience (and which have, until recently, lacked credible foreign competition), Chevrolet’s entry- and midlevel offerings have tended to be distinguished primarily by their lack of distinction—hardly a recipe for brand success.
Despite what we’ve been told by the mainstream press, the problem was not one of corporate malaise or production-line inefficiency, but rather one of personnel cost. Labor agreements conceived back when GM dominated international auto production had effectively turned the company into a retirement-services provider for former UAW members. The resulting “legacy costs” added a few thousand dollars to each new GM car, forcing the General to cut corners in material quality and other areas in order to achieve pricing parity with its Japanese and European rivals. It wasn’t a sustainable model, as became clear when the company entered government- managed bankruptcy in 2009.
While the bailout forced GM to make some tough choices—sayonara, Saab, Saturn, and Pontiac—it also enabled the company to negotiate more favorable terms with the UAW. As a result, true production costs have fallen to a point at which GM can now compete head-to-head with its competitors, rather than scraping by on fleet sales and cut-rate financing deals.
Just four years on, the benefits of reorganization are visible throughout Chevrolet’s model line—in the sprightly Sonic, the Civic-slaying Cruze, and the hot-selling Volt gas/electric hybrid. While these vehicles might not ignite the passions of the enthusiast driver, they form the framework upon which the brand’s recovery will be built. And a healthier Chevy can only mean a more secure future for America’s favorite sports car.
It’s no accident that the seventh-generation Corvette is arguably the most ambitious new model in the marque’s 60-year history. And with competent backups finally in place, this perennial overachiever could lead Team Chevy to the top again for the first time in decades. Vette