General Motors is gunning for Ferrari with its newest redesign of the Chevrolet Corvette — the 2020 Stingray unveiled Thursday night.
First introduced in 1953, the Chevy Corvette quickly stood out in a market dominated by the heavy metal that was rolling out of most Detroit factories in that era.
It's long been called America's sports car, but with the launch of an all-new version of the "'Vette," General Motors is hoping it will become a global sales phenomenon as well with the C8, or eighth-generation Corvette. For the first time ever, Chevy is mounting its engine in the middle of the car — like Ferrari and other key competitors.
With its distinctive, two-seat design and its powerful V-8 engine, the outgoing version of the car is one of the fastest ever produced in the U.S. But speed alone isn't everything. For one thing, the current Corvette still has its engine mounted up front, while most of its global competitors have opted for a mid-engine layout that makes a vehicle nimbler, both on the street and on the track.
"The traditional front-engine vehicle reached its limits of performance, necessitating the new layout," GM President Mark Reuss said in a statement ahead of the C8 unveiling in Orange County, California. "In terms of comfort and fun, it still looks and feels like a Corvette, but drives better than any vehicle in Corvette history."
Of course, as you'd expect, the 2020 Chevrolet Corvette will offer a bump in power. The base version of the sports car will punch out 495 horsepower, 40 more than the seventh-generation car and enough to launch it from 0 to 60 in "less than three seconds" when equipped with an optional performance package, the automaker claims.
The new model will actually be longer, wider and 366 pounds heavier than the C7, or seventh-generation Corvette. But a driver might not notice, sitting more than a foot closer to the nose and with a hood that almost disappears from view when you're in the left seat.
Visually, there are some familiar design cues carried over from the current Corvette, including details such as the tail lamps and the way the hood has been sculpted. But by moving the engine amidship, it picks up more European proportions, like those of a McLaren or Aston Martin. And to showcase the new engine, Chevy has borrowed a trick from Ferrari, mounting it beneath a 3.2 mm glass panel.
The engine is the latest update of Chevrolet's LT2 small-block V-8. At 6.2-liters, it punches out 495 horsepower, 40 more than the 2019 'Vette, while torque rises 10 pound-feet, to 470.
Privately, Chevy officials confirm that there will be several upgrades of the C8 to follow, much as the bowtie brand has rolled out versions like today's Corvette Z06 and ZR1, the latter currently delivering 755 horsepower.
Two executives involved in the project told CNBC that the latest coupe will be followed by a convertible — and even more dramatic changes are in the works. The new platform underpinning the C8 was specifically designed to be able to use battery-based technology, they said, adding that it will included a battery boost system to improve launch acceleration as well as a battery-based all-wheel drive system.
Chevy has been debating whether to go to a mid-engine design for decades, Zora Arkus-Duntov, the chief engineer often called "the father of the Corvette," pushing for that approach over a half-century ago. But "It didn't make business sense" until now, said Ken Gross, an author and expert who has set up automotive exhibits at a number of museums across the U.S.
Chevrolet had to make the move "or it would have been treading water," unable to take the Corvette much further, added Gross, echoing Reuss, GM's president.
That said, the move to mid-engine could be just one of the decisions that might shock Corvette traditionalists. The 2020 remake will also be the first since in decades to abandon a stick shift in favor of a new, eight-speed double-clutch transmission. "DCTs" can be thought of as automatically shifting manual gearboxes and a driver will be able to select their gears by using steering wheel-mounted paddle shifters. Chevy isn't alone, however, even Ferrari abandoning the stick shift.
After long refusing to even confirm the C8 project, the automaker had been teasing it for several months. The new model set to go into production later this year. It hasn't revealed some key details yet, including top speed, fuel economy or pricing, and isn't expected to do so until shortly before sales get underway. The current Corvette starts at $55,900, with prices pushing north of $120,000 for the ZR1.
The crowd at the unveiling in Tustin, California, Thursday night audibly gasped when Reuss said the 2020 C8 Stingray will start at under $60,000.
That's a bargain compared with key competitors like Porsche, where an entry model 911 Carrera S starts at $113,300. Ferrari's quickly push into $200,000 territory and higher.
"This will get people to give Corvette a new look," said author Gross, though he cautioned that Chevrolet doesn't "have the distribution or the reputation" of key competitors outside the U.S. "It will have to be a truly great car" for the 2020 model to become a truly global icon.
Disclosure: Paul Eisenstein is a freelancer for CNBC. His travel and accommodations to the press event were paid for by Chevrolet.
Disclosure: CNBC has a partnership with McLaren.
Correction: The Chevy Corvette was first introduced in 1953. An earlier version misstated the year.