Finally... After months of nerve-shredding anticipation, stoked by the occasional leaked rendering or carefully parsed official tidbit, it’s all come down to this: a full day with the new 2014 Corvette Stingray, traversing the pristine interstates and flexuous shunpikes of the central California coast, capped off by an autocross session and, finally, unsupervised solo drives in and around scenic Monterey. I’ll do my best not to belabor the technical minutiae this time around—after all, we’ve covered virtually every aspect of the new C7 Corvette in the issues leading up to this one—but instead will endeavor to give you a sense of what the new ‘ray is like from the spot that matters most: behind the wheel. Let’s go.
The day kicks off with a brief presentation on the the new C7, held in a lavishly decorated hangar at Marina Airport outside Monterey. Once that’s concluded, we’re directed to the parking lot, where a battalion of C7s in various colors and equipment configurations awaits.
My driving partner and I draw an Arctic White Z51 automatic for the first leg, which will run north on Castroville Boulevard, then jink east on 156 and Union to ascend into the picturesque Hollister Hills. While kicking off the day in a “slushbox” C7 might strike some as a bit of a letdown, I’m anxious to see how the long-serving 6L80E six-speed auto has been tuned for optimum performance in its latest Corvette application. And besides, there’ll plenty of time sample a seven-speed Stingray later on.
Settling into the passenger seat, it’s immediately clear that the tremendous effort the Corvette development expended on the Stingray’s cabin has paid off in a big way. Compared with the seemingly Tupperware-inspired plastic expanses of the C6 interior, touches such as the soft-touch headliner feel sumptuous almost to the point of extravagance. The base, or “GT,” seats are firm and supportive without being restrictive, and the leather-and-carbon treatment applied to our car’s inside surfaces looks as if it might have been transplanted from a German luxury sedan. The press materials claim that no expense was spared here, and from my vantage point, that assertion is difficult to dispute.
From the copilot’s perch, my sole carp has to do with the “flying buttress” grab handle sweeping down the right side of the center console, which impinges slightly on left-leg room. It’s a minor point, however, and in no way detracts from the epochal nature of the changes wrought in the cabin.
A touch of the ignition button fires 460-horse LT1 small-block of the new Corvette Stingray, and we’re underway.
Having reached the halfway point of the first driving route, we finally swap seats and I take the helm. Gone is the old parts-bin steering wheel, replaced by a Corvette-exclusive unit with a fat rim, a smallish (14.1-inch) diameter, and a pair of grip “blisters” just where you’d expect them. It’s a splendid mood setter.
Accelerating from the roadside in Sport mode, the LT1’s broad torque curve asserts itself in the form of immediate throttle response and impressive low-end thrust. Whereas the high-winding LS3 gathered steam gradually as the revs increased, the Stingray’s engine builds speed in more linear fashion, with no discernible soft spots from idle to redline. The optional dual-mode exhaust system only heightens the experience, issuing a ferocious small-block snarl as the muffler secondaries swing into the open position.
Chevy’s PR flacks are quick to point out that the 6.2L LT1 matches the old 7.0L LS7 for twist from 1,000 to 4,000 rpm, and based on my experience, they’re not exaggerating. Such are the benefits of direct injection, a meticulously engineered piston design, and a stratospheric (11.5:1) compression ratio.
In most driving modes, the recalibrated automatic works much like it did in the C6, which is to say smoothly and unobtrusively. Twist the Driver Mode Selector knob over to the Track setting, however, and this cruise-friendly Dr. Jekyll morphs into a track-honed Mr. Hyde, holding lower gears in anticipation of upcoming corners and downshifting aggressively under braking.
Still, the limitations of this conventional torque-converter based trans are evident in the slight delay between the time the throttle is depressed and the moment the desired downshift is fully executed. Using the column-mounted paddles to dial up gears manually helps somewhat, but this is still no dual-clutch box or SMG.
Rumor has it that the current auto will give way to a more advanced eight-speed unit in a year or two, but for now the made-over six-speed should furnish most C7 automatic buyers with a sufficiently involving driving experience.
Magic Carpet Ride
Shortly after we leave Union Road for Cienega, the quality of the paved surface begins to deteriorate dramatically. Press drives tend to bypass stretches such as this one, lest they highlight undesirable qualities in the vehicle being showcased, but the Corvette crew is clearly confident that the Stingray is equal to the task.
I switch the Mode Selector from Track to Tour, which softens the steering response a jot and takes some of the starch out of the ride. This works well for the most part, but there’s no obscuring the fact that this is a hugely capable performance car wearing low-profile tires and tuned to achieve more than 1g on the skidpad. If you’re looking for Cadillac-quality cosseting, you may be disappointed, but know this: The Stingray is unquestionably the best-riding Corvette to date, and during our drive it conquers broken sections of roadway that would send most supercars skittering for the ditches.
One hair-raising moment proves illustrative. Once the road has smoothed a bit, we resume a spirited pace for the remainder of the first driving leg, set to terminate at a rest stop in Pinnacles National Park off of CA-146. Rounding a blind a corner, we happen upon what appears to be a terrifyingly large house cat picking over the corpse of some unfortunate creature that’s come to grief on the right-hand shoulder. I stab the left pedal as the surprised diner—now clearly revealed to be a stub-tailed bobcat—abandons his morning repast and bolts left, back across the road in front of the rapidly decelerating Stingray, and into the safety of the low brush.
The episode lasts all of three seconds, but with the C7 hurtling along at somewhere north of 80 mph, it has the surreal, slow-mo feel of a Matrix-movie fight scene. Later on, I’ll realize that vanishingly few cars could have duplicated such a feat without injury to fur or fender, and fewer still in such minimally dramatic fashion. Somewhere, a traumatized-but-intact Lynx rufus thanks the Corvette braking, steering, and suspension engineers for their diligence.
“Well, that was invigorating,” remarks my co-driver, a laconic British expat who writes for a Canadian automotive site.
Pausing briefly to dry my palms on a pant leg, I press on toward Pinnacles.
Reading the Manual
Having reached the end of the first driving leg, it’s time to switch rides. Compared with our plain-vanilla kick-off car, the Stingray we draw for Leg 2—a Torch Red seven-speed Z51 with black wheels, an exposed-carbon roof, and a matching two-tone interior—is, at least from a visual standpoint, habanero hot.
Exiting the park onto CA-25 South, the new dual-disc clutch evinces light action and an easily discernible take-up point, the latter trait a welcome departure from the C6’s somewhat vague transitional response. Adapting to the revised shift pattern necessitated by the insertion of an additional forward gear takes a few minutes, but the shifter itself features well-defined gates and zero side-to-side slop.
“It’s not Porsche precise,” notes my drive partner at one point, “but it’s quite good nonetheless.” Lacking hands-on familiarity with the German carmaker’s current lineup, I’ll take his word for it.
Pulling the steering-column paddles on the manual C7 initiates the rev-matching function, denoted on the instrument panel by the gear-indicator readout, which changes in color from white to yellow. In this mode, the engine computer—working in concert with a hall-effect sensor mounted on the shifter—determines which gear has been selected during each downshift and dials up precisely the right level of revs to match.
For a driver of modest talents (a category into which your author squarely falls), the effect is revelatory. Just select the desired gear, listen for the perfectly timed blip of the throttle, and roll on the gas to accelerate smoothly on your way. The process is utterly seamless, and enormously rewarding.
In no time we find ourselves at our next stop, Wrath Wines on Foothill Road in Soledad, where we’re given a few moments to stretch our legs and partake of some (non-alcoholic) refreshments before piling back into our retina-searing red ‘ray for Leg 3.
The third and final drive route encompasses primarily straight, open road, the better to evaluate the Stingray’s suitability as a grand tourer. When my turn comes, I crank the Mode Selector dial over to “Eco,” dump the shifter in Seventh, set the cruise control to 70 mph, and watch the Active Fuel Management indicator flash between “V8” and “V4,” depending on throttle input.
The transition from full- to half-displacement operation is all but unnoticeable, especially on road surfaces that elicit any amount of tire noise. Credit the secondary pair of exhaust flaps that swing shut during four-cylinder operation, along with additional material in the aluminum engine cradle that helps quell any untoward vibration.
More noticeable is the Stingray’s fuel economy, which hovers near 30 mpg for much of our highway stint and ends up at just under 18 for the entire day. Considering how hard we pushed the car during Legs 1 and 2 of the drive, that’s nothing short of remarkable.
Logging 30-odd miles without regular cornering opportunities to distract me does give rise to another minor quibble. Much like the flying buttress on the center console, the plastic door-panel pod housing the window switches intrudes on the space where I would normally situate my left knee. A little more padding would go a long way here, inasmuch as a complete redesign of the panel seems unlikely.
Getting a Handle on Things
After breaking for lunch back at the airport, we catch a shuttle to a nearby parking lot, where the Corvette team has set up an autocross course. I’m partnered with Vehicle Performance Engineer Chris Barber, who rides along to provide both an overview of the track and a primer on the Stingray’s Performance Traction Management (PTM) system.
After a low-speed familiarization lap, Barber selects the PTM’s most permissive setting—Race—and directs me back out onto the course. Exiting one particularly tight corner, he instructs, “Go ahead and punch it,” which I do. The tires spin, the tail of the car swings wide, and despite my best efforts at counter steer, we collect a few cones before I can fully recover.
Barber is unfazed. “Perfect,” he says, “Now let’s try it in the Wet setting.”
We do, and, as you might expect from a mode designed for use in snow, rain, and other atmospheric slop, the computer clamps down hard on the throttle to prevent any trace of wheelspin and keep the car tracking straight. We go on to repeat this exercise in the remaining three PTM modes—Dry, Sport 1, and Sport 2—experiencing a gradually decreasing level of computerized assistance along the way. It’s a fantastic (and fantastically entertaining) way to learn the limits of the car safely, and fully in keeping with the Stingray’s “accessible supercar” persona.
The Eye of the Beholder
I close out the day by taking a Laguna Blue 3LT automatic car for a quick jaunt down the coastal roads outside the airport. This is the first Stingray I’ve sampled with its top doffed, and while I’m not typically a fan of open-air motoring, I can’t help but impressed with the solidity of the Stingray’s chassis in this configuration.
Pulling into a nearby industrial park, I take a few moments to pass a critical eye over the car from various viewing angles. I’ve been asked countless times how the car looks in person, the unspoken suggestion being that it doesn’t look all that great in pictures.
While I’m still not prepared to call the Stingray beautiful, it is undeniably arresting, and I suspect its largely function-over-form exterior treatment will endure the passage of time far more successfully than would a slavish historical homage. I’d also wager that future, higher-performance versions of the car (of which we now know there will be at least one) will prove far more alluring, just as the fat-fendered C6 Z06 did when it was introduced a year after the base model (hint, hint).
Who’s the Boss?
With so many advanced driver aids baked into the new Corvette, one question inevitably looms large: Specifically, do such features serve to vitiate the character of a car built on a tradition of mechanical purity and direct driver involvement?
I would argue that they do not, but instead make the car less intimidating—and thus more appealing—to a group of potential customers who might otherwise never have considered such a high-performance automobile. If I’m right, the Stingray’s newfound civility and user-friendliness can only have a positive effect on sales—which, of course, was the goal all along.
For enthusiasts like us, the true genius of the Stingray is that it empowers the driver to determine what level of computerized oversight best suits his or her skills and current motoring environment, then applies its considerable arsenal of assistive technologies to the task of safely maximizing available performance.
For proof, consider that on a flat, empty stretch of CA-25, my co-driver briefly pushed the seven-speed ‘ray all the way up to 150 mph in Sport mode, a speed at which both the car and its occupants remained completely composed, supremely confident.
I was smiling so hard at the time, I forgot to take a picture.