Corvette dreams: What’s ahead in 2018 … and a little farther down the road (C8!)

Nirvana will descend upon the Corvette crowd in 18 months.

Chevy is celebrating the Corvette’s 65th birthday with a lavish 2018 model range, a few product upgrades, and a special Carbon 65 edition. That sets the stage for the new ZR1 coming this fall with an expected 750 horsepower and state-of-the-art aero tech. I’m convinced this rev up of America’s favorite sports car is an ingenious ploy to distract us from the mid-engine design that will green flag the eighth generation (C8) well before Corvette turns 70.

I toured the Bowling Green, Ky., manufacturing plant in hopes of catching a few hints of what the future will bring. Roughly 1,000 workers produce 40,000 or so Corvettes per year at this million-square-foot facility sprawled over 212 acres. In 1980, GM took over the factory originally constructed by Chrysler for its Airtemp division. The city of Bowling Green was so eager to put the abandoned property back to work that it gave GM a 99-year lease for a buck a year.

To pass the baton without interrupting the flow of Corvettes, both GM’s antiquated St. Louis plant and its new Kentucky factory produced C3 models during the summer of 1981. In addition to every C4 through C7 Corvette to date, Bowling Green also built 15,640 Cadillac XLR sports cars.

The 2018 Corvette lineup consists of the base Stingray, plus Z51, Grand Sport, and Z06 upgrades, each available as a coupe or convertible, all offering three distinct trim levels and scores of options. From the $56,490 base coupe to the $84,490 Z06 convertible, there’s something for anyone seeking a hot sports car at a high-value price.

For ’18, the standard Corvette wheels are an inch larger in diameter: 19s in front, 20s in back; five different designs are offered. Magnetic ride control is now a stand-alone option while HD digital radio becomes standard equipment. The Performance Data Recorder, the rear-view camera, and the head up display have all been improved and there are revisions to the Corvette’s color palette and interior trim details.

Only 650 Carbon 65 edition models will be built to salute Corvette’s evolution from the 300 Polo White six-cylinder/automatic roadsters sold in 1953. This $15,000 package, offered on Grand Sport and Z06 models, includes ceramic matrix gray paint and competition sport seats plus a carbon fiber rear spoiler, rear-quarter air intakes, and steering wheel rim. A console plaque confirms each Carbon 65 Vette’s spot in the 650-car sequence.

Covert invasion
On a hot June day, I blended in with tourists who pay $10 per head to see how Chevy fulfills Corvette dreams. Walking a mile or so of each car’s 7-mile, 3.5-day-long trip through this beehive of activity is a fascinating experience every ’Vette fan should enjoy (according to my tour guide, 50,000 folks do so per year). Conveyors move components and partly finished cars hither and yon at a line rate of 0.09 mph. The plant is tidy though hardly pristine, and it is nicely air-conditioned. While no part is manufactured at Bowling Green, supercharged V-8s, aluminum space frames, and complete Corvettes are assembled here in a building with a footprint equivalent to 18 football fields.

On this 11-hour shift, the planned output was 185 cars to make up for Memorial Day time off. Final 2017 Corvettes were interspersed with the first 2018 models.

I spotted neither ZR1s lurking in the shadows nor any evidence of the mid-engine C8 Corvette. Bowling Green security is so tight that both cameras and note taking are strictly forbidden.

My fair-to-partly cloudy crystal ball
The hallowed ZR code allegedly stood for Zora Racer (in reference to patron saint Zora Arkus-Duntov) when it first appeared on 53 1970-72 C3 Corvettes. The badge returned during both C4 and C6 eras with a total of 11,623 cars built, first with Lotus-designed 5.7-liter 32-valve V-8 engines, then with a supercharged 6.2-liter pushrod V-8 delivering 638 horsepower.

My educated guess is that the 2018 ZR1 will break cover at Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin’s Road America race track in conjunction with the August 6 Continental Tire Road Race event. The photo op of the street ZR1s juxtaposed with Corvette C7.R racers is too golden an opportunity for Chevy to squander.

The new ZR1 engine will benefit from the same direct fuel injection and variable valve timing found in the Corvette Z06’s 6.2-liter LT4 V-8. Factoring in a significantly larger Eaton Twin Vortices Series supercharger and higher capacity air-to-liquid intercoolers should enable 750 horsepower. While speculation associated the LT5 badge GM has registered for this engine with a DOHC design, that was, in my judgment, either a smoke screen or an “accidental” document error.

This year’s ZR1 will also be armed with special features to optimize its aero performance: a means of accurately controlling each corner’s ride height to take maximum advantage of a variable front splitter and an active rear wing flying high and wide. In March of this year, GM applied for a patent that describes this equipment in intimate detail.

Considering that 2013 ZR1 list prices began at $112,000, I expect the 2018 edition will cost about $135,000. That sounds like a heap of cash for a Chevy … until you consider value. Then it’s Ferrari- and Lamborghini-beating performance at less than half the price.

Bowling Green shuts down for three months this fall to implement $773-million worth of plant upgrades. Two years were spent constructing new paint facilities and the engine shop has been expanded to build Z06 and ZR1 V-8s. What’s not acknowledged is that the plant will continue C7 production after the mid-engine C8 design bows in 18 months. The wildest rumor is that a new North Carolina job shop will upfit Bowling Green-built C8s with custom interior and exterior trim.

Considering that Chevy currently owns more than 40 percent of the $50-100,000 sports car market, flipping the switch from C7 to a radically different and more-expensive C8 would be insanity. Instead, building both Corvettes concurrently will allow the faithful to decide which best suits their fantasies.

With 500 or so horsepower on tap and a base price below $70,000, the 2020 C8 should revolutionize the supercar category. As this new platform matures, Chevy will add alternatives to today’s LT-1 including an all-wheel-drive hybrid (possibly called E-Ray) and a twin-turbo DOHC V-8 hammering out a remarkable 1,000 horsepower.

A warning: Don’t trust the spy photos of camouflaged C8 mules undergoing winter development tests. To hide the real design from our curious eyes, those prototypes were constructed by Chevy’s racing partner, Pratt & Miller Engineering, using Daytona Prototype exterior panels. When your task is nurturing wild Corvette dreams, chicanery is to be expected.

The delicious dilemma due in 18 months is what Corvette shoppers with $70,000 burning a hole in their wallet will choose. Will it be a Corvette Grand Sport with a traditional powertrain layout or the mid-engine C8? Ladies and gentlemen, start your deliberation engines.