The Chevrolet Corvette is the 2020 MotorTrend Car of the Year
Sometimes, a car comes along that leaves the automotive landscape different than before. In today's Silicon Valley parlance, we'd be tempted to term such a car a "disrupter." The last car to so radically shift the car world was the Tesla Model S, our 2013 Car of the Year.
This time around, our 2020 MotorTrend Car of the Year, the Chevrolet Corvette, fully scrambles the order of things. Simply put, never before has so much four-wheeled exoticism been attainable for so little money. Or I should say, so much good exoticism.
Chevrolet Performance did not phone in the first-ever production mid-engine Corvette. It dialed it, massaged it, honed it, crafted the new 'Vette to the point of the nearly impossible. The eighth-generation car will bring people into dealerships who previously would never have come in. The mid-engine Corvette is a game changer, an inflection point, and a reminder that when Americans truly set our minds to a task, look out. For soon you'll be standing on the moon—or driving the sports car equivalent thereof.
The father of the Chevrolet Corvette, Zora Arkus-Duntov, began working on a mid-engine Corvette back in 1959. Called the 1960 CERV-I (for Chevrolet Engineering Research Vehicle), the single-seater located its 283-cubic-inch pushrod V-8 small-block just aft of the driver's head. Subsequent CERV concepts only stoked the belief among MotorTrend editors that such a vehicle was not only possible but also likely.
Fast-forward to September 2019, and we finally get our greedy, grubby hands on the 10th-ever production mid-engine Corvette, an early-build, production-intent model with a VIN that ends in 000010. From our weeks of testing the Corvette against a field of formidable competitors, we can say Zora was onto something six decades ago.
"We've been waiting so long for this car that, climbing in, I felt like a kid on Christmas morning," Detroit editor Alisa Priddle said. "I didn't care if it was going to be good or bad, I just wanted to unwrap the present and drive it."
A very true statement, as we've had our eye on the mid-engine Corvette ever since we broke the story (yes, Virginia, it was us) back in August 2014. Half a decade is quite a lengthy waiting period, and if life teaches you anything, it is to be prepared for disappointment. Witness The Phantom Menace. All that anticipation, so much hope, so much good will, all destroyed by a terrible product.
Not here. I'm happy in the extreme to report that the 2020 Corvette delivers the goods, and does so in ways you wouldn't think possible.
"The C8 represents the biggest step change since the original Acura NSX in terms of being a usable everyday mid-engine supercar," international bureau chief Angus MacKenzie said. "It brings the Corvette closer to the Porsche 911 in terms of being an attainable and credible 24/7 supercar than any time since the '60s."
The C8 (referencing the eighth generation of the Corvette) still features a cam-in-block small-block V-8 right behind the passenger cabin, only it's grown to 376 cubic inches, or 6.2 liters. But everything else is changed. The new Corvette is all about disruption.
"The first thing you notice when driving in town is the lack of road noise for a supercar," said Chris Theodore, a perennial COTY guest judge as well as the engineer behind the second-generation Ford GT. "It's not silent, but it's much better than any other supercar I've driven."
That's right, a mid-engine, removable-roof car that hits 60 mph in 2.8 seconds is being praised for the quietness of its cabin. "This means that C8 engineers have done a good job in making the chassis attachment points stiff," Theodore continued.
The new Corvette rides surprisingly well, too. "Behavior on the freeways was remarkable," technical editor Frank Markus said. "In Tour mode it felt as comfortable as anything we've driven—including the dorky, tall-sidewall Nissan Leaf. And best of all, that ride quality didn't disappear when we put it in Sport and Track modes." We were collectively surprised by how smooth and polished the C8's chassis is.
We were also equally surprised at the Corvette's high-quality cabin. To be blunt: Corvette interiors have been nasty, low-quality dens of cheapness and weird smells since 1984. With always-terrible seats, too. That's the truth. With history as my witness, I was expecting more of the same. To keep the price as low as Chevy has promised, you'd think corners would have to be cut, and this would be the place to cut them. Nope. "The interior actually has great build quality. What a miracle!" associate online editor Stefan Ogbac said. "Lots of good materials, and the seats are super comfortable and supportive."
What impressed me most about the quality of the Corvette's cabin were the gear and drive mode selectors. At first glance, the shifter looks similar to what you'd find in the Acura NSX. The Corvette's gear selector is metal, about half the size, and feels like something off a high-end stereo. As does the well-weighted mode-selector puck. Think of a Marantz tuner from the 1970s, back when "American Made" was king.
Everything is laid out well, too. "Not only is the interior clever, and attractive, the ergonomics are very good," road test editor Chris Walton said, "but having a small screen, close to the driver, also enables you to rest your hand on top and thumb the touchscreen without the unsteadiness you'd have without the perch."
I love the squared steering wheel (a few others did not) and the jet-age homage of its design, though there was debate about the cabin's overall design. Some judges felt as if there was a bit too much bling, but others liked it. As for the stream of buttons that make up the HVAC controls and "puts up a wall," to quote Walton, between the driver and the passenger/glove box, most judges felt that these controls are of the set-and-forget variety. Plus, you just don't notice them from behind the wheel. You do notice a couple inexplicable cheap outs, especially if you're our executive editor Mark Rechtin. He despises the plastic cupholders. "How much would improving them have cost Chevy? Five bucks a unit?"
If the new Corvette has a weakness, it's the exterior design. The judges' opinions ranged from harsh (MacKenzie: "Bill Mitchell would be spinning in his grave. ") to damning with faint praise (Walton: "Fine from 100 feet. ").
The main issue: As you get closer to the vehicle, you see tributaries of pointless lines going off in every direction. This sort of sloppy linework—folds and creases that exist for the sake of existence—first appeared on the previous generation. Did the Corvette design team want to link the two products, to maybe help convince current Corvette owners to trade up for the newer model? Perhaps. Whatever the reason, although the car's shape is good, the details are not. However, that just means that Chevy has a real opportunity in a few years with the midcycle refresh. As our guest judge and former Jaguar design boss Ian Callum said, "Great car to drive. Shame about the styling."
Right, driving. What will convince current Corvette owners to trade in their cars is the C8's performance. In truth, the new 'Vette's numbers and capabilities might convince a few Porsche, BMW, and AMG owners to do the same. Might convince more than a few, in fact.
We mentioned the 0-60 time previously, but to contextualize that number, the 755-horsepower C7 Corvette ZR1 hits 60 mph in 3.0 seconds. The 789-horsepower Ferrari 812 Superfast hits 60 mph in 2.8 seconds. Remember, the C8 with the Z51 Performance package makes "only" 495 horsepower. I won't even point out the $377,000 price gap with Ferrari. Whoops, I just did.
Much of the credit is due to the quick-shifting eight-speed dual-clutch transmission. Big takeaway: We've yet to test a quicker naturally aspirated, rear-drive production car to 60 mph, price be damned. The C8 did great in the quarter mile, too, covering 1,320 feet in 11.1 seconds at 123.2 mph. That beats the direct competitor Porsche 911 Carrera S by 0.1 second. A win, however, is a win; the Corvette is quicker than the Porsche.
Braking from 60 mph takes place in 97 feet, which is world class. The C8's figure-eight time of 23.3 seconds is quick but behind the aforementioned Porsche (22.7 seconds) and stuff like the Chevy Camaro SS 1LE (22.9 seconds). I'll go ahead and blame the awkward brake-by-wire system. We all agreed there's more work to do here. "It's near-impossible to accurately modulate the braking effort in Track mode, the system defaulting to instant-on ABS intervention at pedal speeds and weights a steel-braked 911 would shrug off," MacKenzie said.
But those are modest complaints. The C8 wins our top award on the strength of how it drives. "Phenomenal performance," news editor Alex Nishimoto said. He's right. While conducting limit testing of the entire field at the Hyundai Motor Group California Proving Ground, I knew the Corvette deserved to be a finalist—but my mind remained open to other vehicles taking the top spot.
It was after cruising the twists and turns of Cameron Road on our finalist loop near Tehachapi that I became convinced the mid-engine Corvette had to be our winner. "It's so easy to drive," editor-in-chief Ed Loh said. That's perhaps the No. 1 big change from behind the wheel of the C8 compared to the C7. You can just go for it and attack a road with abandon. I loved how potent, aggressive, and in control I felt. Total confidence.
Many judges mentioned that there's a touch of understeer. Note, I did not say complained about said phenomenon, just mentioned that it's there. Loh noted that dialing in some understeer is a "sensible strategy," as this will be many owners' first time driving a mid-engine car, and understeer keeps the nose pointing in a straight line when you push the throttle farther than your skills allow. Let me stress that we're talking a skosh, a pinch, a tiny amount of understeer. We're just saying the car isn't tail happy. "The genius of this Corvette is it feels benign to beginners," MacKenzie said, "but it's not boring for experts."
As a group of experts, we collectively loved driving the thing. "The sound is just thrilling when you accelerate, punctuating each shift change, sounding and feeling fabulous," Priddle said. Theodore agreed: "The C8 is very easy to drive, with very high capabilities that most owners will not reach." Nishimoto added, "Happiness is having a small-block V-8 rumbling behind you." Rechtin called the C8 "something that can be driven very fast, all day, but you emerge completely rested and relaxed." And MotorTrend en Español managing editor Miguel Cortina said, "Finally, a Corvette that I enjoy driving."
To become a MotorTrend Car of the Year, you have to punch hard against our six key criteria. To quickly break it down, the new Corvette fares worst in terms of advancement of design. However, as a car's interior is included in this metric, the C8 did OK.
The 2020 Corvette's engineering excellence is through the removable roof; it features world-class performance combined with shockingly good ride comfort and noise levels. Chevy's top dog also scores big in terms of performance of intended function, assuming that intended function is to be a daily-driven supercar.
Safety is trickier with the Corvette, as neither IIHS nor NHTSA have or will crash-test it, but based on safety scores for GM's other recent offerings, we'll give Chevrolet the benefit of the doubt here. As for efficiency, the small-block has cylinder deactivation to loaf along while powered by just four cylinders.
Value is where the C8 goes off the charts. Why would you buy a BMW M4 for the same money? Why would you spend half again as much for an equivalent 911? Besides a badge, what does a Ferrari give you? And just wait until the more powerful Corvette iterations show up.
Few cars change the automotive landscape, forcing other manufacturers to react, as the status quo will no longer do. It's déjà vu all over again, again, folks. Chevy is selling a supercar for sports car prices. As I told a wealthy supercar collector friend of mine, "If I were you, I'd buy three." Or as MacKenzie put it, "Hallelujah! A real, honest-to-god, mid-engine supercar for the price of a Corvette." Great job, Chevrolet.