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The New Corvette’s Oldster Problem

Rick Newman
The Exchange

2014 Chevrolet Corvette Stingray (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)

Click to see a slideshow of the Corvette Stingray and its competitors.

To catch a glimpse of the new Chevrolet Corvette Stingray whizzing by, you might have to reel around pretty quickly. And if you’re a typical Corvette fan, you might find yourself laid up at the chiropractor.

The Corvette is perhaps the most storied sports car in the history of American motoring, which is why the debut of the latest model — the seventh generation of the car, known as the C7 — is a Big Automotive Deal. GM (GM) might sell only 20,000 Corvettes in a good year, a tiny fraction of the pickups, SUVs or sedans it sells. Yet the Corvette, like other “halo” cars, reveals GM’s peak capabilities as a car builder and gives the company’s biggest division, Chevrolet, an object of desire it can show off next to boring Malibus and thrifty Sparks.

As an ambassador of excitement, however, the Corvette has grown gray and paunchy, like an aging rocker strumming the same old tunes. The median age of a Corvette owner has risen from 54 to 61 during the past 10 years, according to research firm Strategic Vision. For a company eager to rejuvenate itself following its 2009 bankruptcy filing and federal bailout, such geriatric overtones cast the wrong image.

“We want a younger car,” says Mark Reuss, president of GM North America. “The Stingray represents the inflection point of the new company. We’re no longer talking about what we did before bankruptcy. We’re talking about what we’re doing after bankruptcy.”

Trying to break the mold

GM developed the new Corvette, which just went on sale, determined to break the mold on what had become staid, conservative styling. Engineers in their 20s and early 30s worked on interior design, electronic dashboard controls and other key elements of the car, to help incorporate the sensibilities of the millennial generation into the vehicle. To market the car, GM is holding invitation-only events with trendsetters in “coastal cultural centers” such as New York, Miami and Los Angeles, hoping hipsters will help create buzz after driving the Stingray and sipping cocktails in its shadow.

GM dubbed the latest Corvette the Stingray to evoke the second generation ‘Vette of the 1960s, which was an instant classic and the first to carry the Sting Ray designation (two words, back then). The C2 established the ‘Vette as a beautiful and muscular Detroit creation, a reputation enshrined in Prince's 1983 hit, "Little Red Corvette," that more or less survived all the way up to the debut of the C6 in 2005.

By then, however, the ‘Vette had developed such a devoted following — with many acolytes owning multiple Corvettes or being serial buyers — that designers were reluctant to change the styling very much, lest the faithful revolt. The result was a car that, up until this year, seemed like it hadn’t evolved much since those cartoonish, oversized front fenders disappeared in the 1980s. A Harvard Business School study commissioned by GM confirmed that the Corvette was becoming an automotive dinosaur.

Corvette owners can be so fanatical that merely changing the shape of the taillights on the new Stingray required unusual corporate cajones. Every Corvette since the C2 has had distinctive round tail lamps. For the C7, GM decided to scrap tradition and use futuristic trapezoidal tail lamps instead. Purists complained that the rear styling, among other things, too closely resembled the downmarket Camaro. Sacrilege!

Yet that sort of grumbling from the rank and file may be a sign that the Corvette’s revival is working. “People are comfortable with what they remember,” says John Fitzpatrick, marketing manager for the Corvette and Camaro. “The round tail lamps are a great cue for Corvette. But it’s also an area where you can change the perception around the car. We wanted a bolder, crisper, more exciting look.”

With a base price of about $52,000, the Corvette isn’t going to end up in the garages of very many twentysomethings. What GM hopes to do is broaden the appeal of the car beyond the blue-collar, middle-America demographic that forms the Corvette’s core fan base. The target customer for the C7 is a Porsche 911 buyer, along with people who might buy a Porsche Cayman, an Audi TT or R8, a BMW Z4 or 6 series coupe, or a Mercedes SLK or AMG coupe.

Such buyers aren’t exactly whippersnappers. The median age of a Porsche 911 and Mercedes SLK owner is 59, according to Strategic Vision; for the Audi TT it’s 57; for the BMW Z4, 56. But the import buyers GM is aiming for tend to be wealthier, more professional, more urban and more influential than Corvette owners, a challenge GM faces in many segments of its product lineup.

An easy sell

The latest Stingray ought to be an easy sell. Corvettes have long been known as the “poor man’s Porsche,” since they offer track-ready performance at a far lower price than most other premium sports cars. For the C7, GM made improvements to address well-known shortcomings such as a subpar interior, saggy seats and a gas-guzzler reputation. Yet the C7 still starts out more than $30,000 cheaper than the 911 and less than half the cost of the R8.

After a track test, Car and Driver concluded: “Considering the performance strides, the splendid interior, the Stingray’s screaming value, and its fun-to-drive vibe, here’s our Corvette report card: A+ for effort, straight As for execution.”

Rave reviews, in turn, will likely persuade Corvette loyalists to grin and bear newfangled features such as rectangular tail lamps. “The tail lights raised a question in my mind,” says Jim Parisi, vice president of the Corvette Club of America in Gaithersburg, Md., who is 57 and has owned seven Corvettes. “But when you see the car in person, it comes together. It’s gorgeous.”

Now, GM needs the Corvette Stingray to convey the same message to thousands of other buyers who would otherwise drive past the Chevy dealership on their way to check out Toyotas, Nissans or Volkswagens. “We want younger buyers to grow up wanting Chevrolets,” says Reuss. “And we want to sell them a lot of cars.” If the Stingray helps accomplish that, it did its job.

Rick Newman’s latest book is Rebounders: How Winners Pivot From Setback To Success. Follow him on Twitter: @rickjnewman.