Chris Woodyard, USA TODAY
MARINA, Calif. - How good can life be?
Just remove the hardtop roof panel of a new Corvette Stingray, punch the accelerator to fully absorb the reassuring rumble of its V-8 and feel the wind in your hair. You may find the answer.
Chevrolet has completely updated its famous sports car in a bid for more respect among world-class sports cars, and with an eye to attracting new and younger fans and buyers. The 2014 Corvette aims valiantly to shed an image of being the embodiment of the Ugly American - powerful yet unrefined and fat.
The Corvette's new cockpit makes full use of real stuff - leather, carbon-fiber accents and aluminum - in contrast to a sea of plastic that marked the outgoing model. At 460 horsepower, the 6.2-liter V-8 with the performance exhaust system has 25 more ponies than the engine it replaces, yet is powerful, smooth and more efficient. On undulating roads near Monterey, Calif., Corvette is fun and confident, planting itself firmly in even the tightest curves.
The whole package is good enough that for the seventh generation of the car since Corvette rolled out in 1953, Chevrolet is declaring war anew on Porsche and other European sports cars. In the process, it also is taking dead aim at younger, affluent driving enthusiasts who may have written off Corvette as their dad's plaything.
The average age of a buyer of the current Corvette has been climbing each year and now is in the high 50s. It wants more of the upwardly mobile buyers in their 40s and even younger looking to reward themselves. Plus, Corvette attracts more blue-collar customers than other sports car brands. Nothing wrong with that, but it does mean that more buyers have to stretch their budgets for one. General Motors wouldn't mind having more fans rich enough to pick up a sports car on a whim, and take the top of the line.
"We want more wealthy people buying the car," says Tadge Juechter, its chief engineer. Pre-orders are encouraging: "Now you've got some people with Ferraris canceling their order" to buy a Corvette.
All that said, Corvette remains the USA's best-selling sports car with, Chevrolet says, a third of the segment. A preponderance of buyers, however, are in the heartland, not among the trendsetters and tech execs on the East or West Coasts.
To lure younger professionals, part of the strategy is the name. In dusting off the Stingray moniker that showed up on a famous 1950s concept car, on the 1963 production car then occasionally until 1976, Chevrolet hopes to snag older buyers with another cultural touchstone while introducing Corvette anew to a younger generation who may only associate the name with a menacing fish.
"Now it's simply a new car, a fresh start," Juechter says.
A fresh start is just what Corvette needs. To signal it, designers shed some of the cues that aficionados held sacrosanct, giving it mildly rectangular taillights instead of the traditional round ones. To keep the driving purists on board, Chevrolet gives them an unprecedented amount of choices. They can choose the driving mode, for instance, whether it's one for the racetrack, sport driving, bad weather, the most economical driving or just normal touring. They can even tune how much resistance the steering wheel offers and the timbre of the exhaust from settings on the touch-screen.
Some things don't change. Corvette is still a big, rear-wheel-drive sports car. Traditionalists will delight in knowing the engine is a traditional push-rod V-8 - not an overhead cam nor turbocharged engine. And the transmission, which is in the rear, is a six-speed automatic with paddle shifters or a new seven-speed manual - which we found to be loads of fun though a little heavy in pushing through the shift gate. One nice, new feature with it, however, is "rev matching," in which the engine predicts your next shifting move and matches the engine speed against it.
The car is billed as capable of zero to 60 miles per hour in 3.8 seconds, yet is rated at 17 miles per gallon in the city, 29 mpg highway - up 11%. Standard is a cylinder shut-off system that lets it run on four cylinders at highway speeds. The base car is helped considerably by an optional Z51 performance package, which adds $2,800 to the coupe's base price of $51,995 with shipping, $56,995 for the convertible.
Sure, the new Corvette has a few annoyances. While the heads-up display makes it easy to track speed and engine revs with your eyes on the road, the windshield is so raked that the dashboard color difference reflects back at you.
But on a sunny day, many are sure to find there are few places they'd rather be.