Chevrolet's new mid-engine Corvette is a shot across the bow at European sports car makers

Why Chevy is radically changing the Corvette
Why Chevy is radically changing the Corvette

The Chevrolet Corvette's new mid-engine layout is a radical departure from decades of tradition, but parent General Motors may attract a much needed new audience to the venerable working man's sports car, say industry observers. And it could spur a great deal of competition.

The high-performance car is keeping one element of its working class identity: a starting price just shy of $60,000 that has shocked many people in the automotive world.

The car has always delivered performance that could match high-end exotics made by the likes of Italian manufacturers Ferrari and Lamborghini — but at a fraction of their price. But over time, the Corvette developed a rather unique identity, built in part around it being a rare American sports car in a sea of mostly European rivals.

In addition, it stuck with the front-engine design longer than many other makers. For decades the Corvette's engine has sat in front of the driver, like most car engines. The car stuck with the common front-engine layout even as many makers of sports cars changed their own designs to favor a mid-engine layout, where the car's power sits just behind the driver.

Since the engine is one of the heaviest parts of the vehicle, placing it in the center of the car balances the weight evenly, improving performance. Even the Corvette's first chief engineer, Zora Arkus-Duntov, pushed unsuccessfully for years for a mid-engined Corvette.

Now that it has a mid-engine design, it is stepping even further into territory dominated by higher-end manufacturers.

"It is always fascinating to watch the supercar segment," said Cox Automotive Executive Publisher Karl Brauer. "This is a segment that does not stop, it is never standing still."

Just about every few months it seems another super car is coming to market, he added, and it is very difficult to for any one car to stay in the spotlight for too long. That means the hype over the Corvette could fade quickly. But it also means that the Corvette's astonishingly low starting price— it brought gasps from the audience at the car's unveiling — could push other makers to innovate and lower prices.

"I think GM has stepped into this competitive segment with a very capable entry, and it will be fascinating to watch how effectively they compete at their price point with these much higher priced vehicles," Brauer said.