The news that General Motors (GM) will be spending $130 million to upgrade the Kentucky plant that builds Corvettes moved my fellow BNET blogger Jim Motavalli to say, "Bad idea! Time to axe the 'Vette!" Even if the car sells modestly and gets about 12 miles per gallon, I say, "You're wrong, Jim -- Corvette must live forever!"
The only American car that inspires awe
The Ford (F) Mustang has its fans, as does the exotic, race-derived (and discontinued) Ford GT, but when you get into the lofty realms of Ferraris, Lamborghinis, and Maseratis -- the vaunted European supercar class -- the USA has but one competitor, and its name is Corvette.
In continuous production since 1953, Corvette has moved far beyond its beginnings as a stylish roadster and, of late, disconnected from its status as the most expensive Chevy money can buy (the top-of-the-line model goes for more than $100,000). It occupies a special niche all its own.
And, unique among American cars, it can still move wizened automotive writers to song. This is Scott Evans in Motor Trend:
To say that the Corvette Z06 is fast is to say that Led Zeppelin played music. You don't have to be a fan of either to appreciate what an enormous understatement that is. You can feel the raw power of the 7.0-liter V-8 pulsating through the car as it idles. The Z06 is so completely devoid of sound- and vibration-dampening measures that you feel more connected with the car.But is there a business case?
GM builds about 15,000 'Vettes a year -- and doesn't make much money on them, although margins on the ultra-pricy trims levels are respectable. The real question, as Motavalli has outlined it, is whether the New General have any business spending many millions to perpetuate what has long been its premier "halo" car.
Admittedly, I asked the same question when Toyota (TM) rolled out an ultra-expensive supercar in 2009 -- the Lexus LFA. Given Toyota's mounting recall struggles at the time, the LFA seemed like a vast distraction.
It's true that GM has streamlined its brands and re-oriented itself toward the more versatile and more fuel-efficient -- if less thrilling -- car of the future. In this context, the Corvette is questionable.
Distinctiveness as differentiator
But GM is never going to be the American Toyota. In fact, it doesn't even need to try to be any more, given that Toyota has been bleeding U.S. market share and, in the aftermath of the Japan quake/tsunami, is returning the mantle of worldwide number one automaker, very briefly held, to GM.
Toyota's triumph is to make bland reliability and staid quality the default option for car buyers -- you don't have to think about it. But GM, bless its heart, still wants you to feel something about what you drive. The Chevy Cruze is much more fun than the Toyota Corolla. The Malibu is friskier than the Camry. Bold, brash Cadillacs do not generally appeal to Lexus owners. And Toyota, obviously, doesn't have a Camaro killer.
On emotion, GM beats Toyota in every segment (and crushes it in pickup trucks). And at the very peak of that lively ladder of brands is Corvette. Actually, you could say that what GM is, at its heart, emanates down from Corvette through the other brands. It's the flagship of the entire company. Even considering killing it now would be a form of admitting defeat in the face of victory.
Rude, crude, and all-American
Corvette also represents the closest thing the U.S. has to a theory of the sports car. The Italians build sleek, sinuous Ferraris that inspire love. Corvette makes a romping, stomping redneck rocket-sled that evokes pure lust. You probably want one right now. Go on, admit it -- there's no shame in it. And you're not alone.