To survive, the car we love will have to evolve in ways we might hate.
Corvette is a car, not a brand
“With each passing year, it is increasingly evident that the Corvette needs an SUV variant.” That’s what long-time Detroit observer and Wall Street Journal reporter John D. Stoll wrote for us in the latest issue of Hagerty magazine. Is he wrong? As a lifelong fan of the crossed-flags marque—I owned a Torch Red coupe, I’ve run an all-night endurance race in an almost-stereotypical Velocity Yellow C5 Z06 prepped to NASA ST1 specs, and I was the first automotive writer to drive the current ZR1 against the clock on-track—I have no trouble mustering an emotional argument against the idea of a high-riding Corvette crossover, the same way I would have no trouble mustering an emotional argument against melting down every SR-71 in every museum to make titanium cases for prepaid mobile phones.
If I’ve learned anything from watching General Motors in the post-bailout era, however, it is that Mary Barra and her crew of bean-countin’ buccaneers have virtually no interest in preserving the heritage, the dignity, or even the market position of what was once the world’s greatest automaker. These are the people who put the Blazer name on a front-wheel-drive car, the people who funded the mighty Blackwing Cadillac CT6-V and then killed it on a whim, the people who put Lordstown to the sword while simultaneously slapping the Buick name on Chinese-made products. The whole sordid affair makes the AMF purchase of Harley-Davidson look like a fun and kitschy excuse to put sans-serif logos on sparkle-brown motorcycle gas tanks.
It seems inevitable, therefore, that there will eventually be a Corvette SUV, probably derived from the Buick Encore and built in one of those overseas factories where they have to put nets around the building to catch the people who jump off it halfway through their evening shift. The only way to prevent such a thing is to make a cold and logical argument that a Corvette SUV would be a net financial loss for GM—because New GM only accepts financial losses when they are related to engineering and building tens of thousands of politically correct but completely unwanted electric cars that are only good at keeping the floor tiles in dealership showrooms from flying away of their own accord.
Alright. Deep breath. Let’s try this. Expanding the Corvette line to crossovers and SUVs will be a poor financial decision because:
- There’s no evidence that a sporting brand commands a premium price in the crossover market, particularly in the long term. Yes, the first few years of the Cayenne made serious money—but nowadays it is outsold almost three to one by the Cadillac Escalade, which costs more in most trim levels and is, one suspects, far cheaper to build. The Lamborghini Urus, which made such a splash in the press last year? I’m now hearing from my sources that the waiting list has disappeared and the dealer stocks are swelling. Year One of the Corvette SUV would be a massive success—albeit at the expense of more profitable Cadillac and GMC trucks. By Year Ten, it would be just another expensive facelift for the Traverse.
- Sporting SUVs end up running down the geese who lay the golden eggs. The Corvette is generally profitable on its own nowadays, and it also draws family-car buyers into Chevrolet showrooms. The Corvette brand is extremely strong in 2019, thanks to 35 years of uncompromised engineering and execution. Once it is used on an SUV, however, the brand will weaken and wither to the point where there is no pride in owning a “real” Corvette. This, in turn, will eviscerate sales of the core product, which will eventually have to disappear as a consequence. Eventually, “Corvette,” like “SS,” will be just another meaningless trim level for the Equinox, and 70 years worth of carefully assembled brand equity will be utterly kaput.
- There is no evidence that the Corvette brand could actually support anything besides a conventional sports car. Porsche has been selling clearance-rack stuff since the ’70s; the vast majority of 911 owners, including your humble author, consider the Cayenne and Macan to be lesser products just like the “VoPo” 914, the 944, or the Boxster. Ferrari and Lamborghini have expanded and contracted their vehicle lineups as time and circumstance dictated, creating products as diverse as the “California” entry-level roadster and the FXX customer race cars. The Corvette, on the other hand, has always been a front-engine, rear-wheel-drive, two-seat personal vehicle, and it has had a V-8 and a convertible option for the vast majority of that time. We don’t even know if the mid-engine C8 will succeed. It’s a stretch to think that a $100,000 SUV is a guaranteed home run.
I have no trouble making a business case for traditional Corvettes in the year 2029. Even if you accept the pipe dream of Level 5 autonomous electric vehicles—a dream which requires a greater leap in computing capacity than the one which took us from the Apple II to the MacBook Pro—you have to admit that cars like the ’Vette will be the last ones to leave our roads. The alert observer of history will note that the rich still fly private even though the average family hasn’t been able to afford a Cessna since 1970. It will be the same way with Ferraris, Porsches, and Corvettes.
Should the Corvette become merely another variant of the Traverse, however, the same way that “Urus,” “Bentayga,” “Q7,” and “Cayenne” are kinda-sorta just variants of the Touareg, the brand equity would disappear faster than you can say, “48-month low-mileage lease offer.” Instead of a strong sports-car brand and a strong SUV brand, we would have neither. Perhaps it wouldn’t bother the General Motors leadership; after all, they’ve let everything from “Cutlass” to “Bonneville” slip away without so much as a regretful sigh.
Having made a practical argument to the best of my ability, I’d like to close with an emotional one. In failing to put the Corvette name on Traverses, Equinoxes, Encores, and toaster ovens, GM may, indeed, be neglecting some profit. And I understand that profit is the sole acceptable driver of corporate behavior in modern America. Yet we did not consider it when the American taxpayer bailed the company out 11 years ago. Surely the company could have been broken up and sold to Chinese or European interests for a greater immediate return on investment—but it was not, because even in modern times there are certain interests and considerations which trump the picayune accounting of quarterly profit or loss.
The bean counters may not see it, but Corvette is important. It is a dream for millions of potential owners, a satisfaction for the current owners, a unique and precious symbol of American competitiveness and excellence. Slapping the crossed-flag badge on some junkyard-bound crossover would be to admit that we simply don’t care about these things any more. While that may be true for some, we should consider how posterity will judge us for feeling that way. If you want a preview of that judgment, you should ask any life-long Harley owner how they feel about AMF. Take my advice: you’ll want to do that from a safe distance.