Is a V6 Corvette in the Future?
By Chris Haak
If GM’s new product-development chief Tom Stephens has anything to say about the question posed in the headline, the answer is no. For now. Any student of Corvette history knows that the very first Corvette – the 1953 roadster – was powered only by an inline six cylinder engine. Chevrolet’s new small block V8 didn’t find its way under the Corvette’s hood until the car’s third model year, in 1955. Since then, the only question about what kind of engine might be found under the Corvette’s hood was “which V8?” and not, “is it a V8?”
Chevrolet’s Corvette occupies a hallowed place in Chevrolet’s lineup. It seems that were it not for tradition, the Corvette wouldn’t even be a Chevrolet today. The top Corvette model, the ZR1, costs roughly twice as much as the next-most expensive non-Corvette Chevrolet model. The ZR1 also happens to have 46% more horsepower than the next-most powerful non-Corvette Chevrolet, the manual transmission-equipped Camaro SS (620 horsepower vs. 426).
The Corvette didn’t always set such lofty standards for itself. After the horsepower wars of the 1960s, mostly topped off by the high-compression 427 cubic inch V8 identified by RPO L-88, sold only from 1967 to 1969. Though rated at 430 horsepower, actual output was somewhere over 500 (gross). Then began the Corvette’s decline into the malaise era, with the low point coming in the 1980 model year. In that year, the only engine choice offered to buyers in California was a 180 horsepower (net) 305 cubic inch V8, mated to a three-speed automatic. I would not be the least bit surprised to see a new Honda Fit outrun a 1980 California Corvette.
After the low point, horsepower and engine choices gradually improved, and now we’re in what some are calling the end of the horsepower wars. And it really is an amazing time to be in. The base 2010 Corvette has a 6.2 liter V8 that produces 430 horsepower. Adding the performance exhaust option not only adds sound effects that make the hair on your arms stand at attention, but also six more horsepower. Then there’s the Z06 with its 7.0 liter “427 cubic inch” (really 426 cubic inch) V8 that produces 505 horsepower, and the King of the Hill, the 620 horsepower ZR1. So basically, the base 2010 Corvette almost certainly outpowers and outperforms the legendary L-88 cars (saying nothing of nearly every other Corvette sold in the prior 55+ years, including the 1990s ZR1), but has almost 2 1/2 times the horsepower of that 1980 low point.
So, are we at the end of the horsepower wars? Perhaps, but honestly, I’m not worried. The next generation Corvette, known as the C7, will almost surely improve upon the already-impressive performance of the currenct C6 model. It will retain the front engine/rear drive layout that has stayed consistent for the Corvette since day one. It will also be lighter – perhaps slightly smaller – and will get better fuel economy than the current model’s fairly impressive highway numbers.
Many folks question why, if the Corvette can get 16 mpg in the city and 26 mpg on the highway with its 436 horsepower 6.2 liter V8, the Pontiac G8 GXP can only get 13/20 with basically the same engine. The answer, of course, is weight. The G8 weighs almost a half-ton more than the Corvette does, and lugging that extra weight around isn’t without cost. So it stands to reason that lowering the Corvette’s weight by a few hundred pounds – while keeping its passenger compartment and luggage dimensions comparable to the current model, improving the interior’s luxury quotient, and maintaining crashworthiness – GM will not only be able to make the Corvette perform better with the current powertrains, but could also make the choice to perform equivalently with smaller and more efficient powertrains. Or perform slightly better and be slightly more efficient.
Down the road, when CAFE standards exceed 35 mpg, the Corvette’s front engine V8 layout should still be safe from the government’s meddling. The Corvette sells in low volumes, isn’t really too bad in terms of fuel economy anyway, and will get even more fuel-efficient in the next generation. If the C7’s published highway mileage number hits or exceeds 30 mpg – which seems well within the realm of possibility – its CAFE number will be even higher, because unlike the recalibrated EPA ratings starting with the 2008 model year, the CAFE numbers have never changed from their optimistic origins in the 1970s. And even if the Corvette falls a few miles per gallon short of the required average, its low volume should be easily offset by overall fleet efficiency improvements from the likes of the Cruze, Malibu, Orlando, and even smaller GM cars on the drawing board for the next several years.
If the doomsday scenario unfolds and the Corvette just isn’t a viable case with a V8 anymore (and frankly I don’t see that happening anytime in the next decade, if ever), there’s always the option of a forced-induction V6 or even a hybrid. Personally, I would have no problem with a turbo V6 under the hood of some or all Corvettes. The performance would definitely be there – just ask anyone who’s driven a Nissan GT-R. The only thing missing would be the tradition of the naturally aspirated front engine V8. Oh, and that magnificent soundtrack.
While I believe that CAFE standards are not going to be a way to successfully curb fuel consumption, I also feel that they are forcing automakers to reset size expectations, similar to what we saw in the late 70s/early 80s when American cars were significantly downsized from their bloated, almost cartoonish footprints prior to the 1973 oil embargo. Cars are getting too fat and heavy again, so let’s lighten them up. I have a feeling that, with engine technology where it’s at today, we will never have a repeat of the 1980 Corvette’s embarrassing powertrain. And if it comes to that, they should just kill the car. My bets are on smarter, faster, lighter cars in the future, though.
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