2012 C7 Corvette Spy Report: After ZR1, Is Fuel Efficiency Next?

MILFORD, Mich. — Even before the tires had cooled on what is the fastest, most powerful Corvette ever to hit the streets of America—we’re talking about the 2009 Corvette ZR1 of course—we couldn’t help but wonder: How in the world are they going to top this?

“We can’t comment on future product,” came the usual, deadpanned reply from the engineers on hand here at the test track. But we have other sources. And we tapped them to find out if there was any truth to the mid-engine rumors, if certain powertrains had been locked in this far ahead of schedule and exactly what design direction the next Vette might take.

So here’s our best guess for what General Motors has in store for the C7 Corvette. But keep in mind that a lot can happen between now and 2012, when this car is set to debut. Thanks to high fuel prices, the auto industry has changed more in the past two years than it has in the past decade. So don’t be surprised if what you read here differs from the fiberglass, steel and aluminum reality of the future.

The Architecture

One thing we know with certainty is that the mid-engine Corvette—the one that pops up as a production possibility every decade or so—remains just a wistful idea. “The mid-engine Corvette is simply too expensive,” says auto analyst Jim Hall of 2953 Analytics. “It would need costly new tooling and offers little weight savings because it requires an extra, metal-intensive firewall.”

The Corvette rides a fine line between price and demand. The median Corvette price hovers in the low-$50,000 range, and the Chevy folks say that a fair number of buyers stretch, financially, to own one. Chevy currently moves about 30,000 Vettes every year, which—combined with a few thousand Cadillac XLRs (it uses the Corvette platform)—keeps the Bowling Green, Ky., factory humming along efficiently at the plant’s designed output. The current production levels earn GM a tidy profit, too. Raise the price and demand will fall, resulting in costly plant downtime that could very well erode one of GM’s moneymakers.

So the mid-engine design is out, and that means the next Corvette will retain the front-engine, rear-transmission layout of the current car. That architecture dictates that the dimensions—wheelbase, length and width—won’t change dramatically, although the size will probably shrink slightly. But part of the Corvette’s appeal is its roominess and generous cargo space, and those attributes are likely to remain.

The Drivetrain

But what exactly will ride in that engine bay up front? It’s nearly impossible to imagine a Corvette without a V8, but some interesting options are on the table. A diesel engine has been suggested—the new 4.5-liter diesel V8—but we think that is unlikely. “I would say that a twin-turbo V6 is a very strong possibility,” says Paul Lacy of Global Insight. A twin-turbo version of the direct-injection 3.6-liter DOHC V6 that’s currently in the Cadillac CTS could easily pump out 400 hp—just 36 shy of today’s V8.

While there may be a V6 as the base engine, a pushrod V8 will certainly be a part of the plan. Still, we’d guess that displacement will fall from today’s mammoth 6.2-liter and 7.0-liter engine sizes, to between 5.0- and 5.7-liter. Turbocharging and variable valve timing are distinct possibilities to make those smaller V8s really move. It’s still too early to know exactly what the powertrain lineup will look like, but expect three levels of performance similar to today’s—base, Z06 and ZR1. Yes, we have heard that the ZR1 could live on in the C7.

The Fuel Efficiency

The drive to smaller, turbocharged engines is a response to expected higher fuel prices—not to mention the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 that mandates a fleet, fuel-economy average of 35 mpg by 2020. (Shorter-term regulations are still under debate). Since the Corvette accounts for only 2 percent of GM’s car fleet—and therefore doesn’t have a huge impact on the company’s fleet-wide average—the swift sports car won’t be required to hit lofty fuel-economy targets. Still, fuel efficiency will certainly improve to satisfy customer demand, and to avoid the stiffer gas-guzzler taxes that many think are on the horizon. Remember, price is critical to the success of the Corvette, and GM brass will want to avoid fuel-use surcharges—however expensive they may be.

Development money is tight at GM. We’ve heard the majority of research funds have been channeled to future hybrid programs, and, of course, completing the costly Volt plug-in range extended hybrid and it’s E-Flex chassis counterparts. So there’s not enough money to develop the dual-clutch automated transmission that the Corvette really needs. A twin-clutch gearbox with seven gears would allow a wide ratio spread to help save fuel and replace two transmissions—the automatic and manual—with one. But the cost to engineer and produce a new transmission is expensive—over a half a billion dollars. And the resulting unit would only be suitable for the Corvette. So it’s out—for now.

The Light Weight

As one might imagine, lighter-weight materials will play a role in increasing the Corvette’s fuel economy. While the current car is already quite light—the Corvette Z06 weighs just 3200 pounds, hundreds less than the Dodge Viper and Porsche 911—we expect the next car to trim even more weight.

“Carbon fiber and aluminum have been something of a drug for the Corvette crew,” says Hall. And those lightweight materials, he surmises, will be tapped to a larger degree with the next car. One possibility is to ditch the steel frame that’s currently used by the base and convertible Corvettes and exclusively employ the aluminum frame of the Z06 and ZR1. That move alone would save 136 pounds. “The real trick will be finding ways to make the car lighter without passing too much cost on to customers,” Hall insists. “Sure, they could substitute carbon-fiber body panels for fiberglass, but carbon fiber is multiples of 10 more expensive. The majority of the development dollars are going into finding cost-effective ways to make it lighter.”

The Design

Take comfort that the next Vette will be styled by the same talented team that’s penned such recent stunners as the Cadillac CTS, the Pontiac Solstice Coupe and the Chevy Camaro. Expect the next 2012 Corvette to have even more swagger and attitude and to possibly use elements from the recently seen (but horrendously named) Corvette Centennial Design Concept. Retractable headlights—long a Corvette trademark—will not be making a return; European pedestrian-impact standards have effectively killed that design element. But the next headlights will be better integrated, and LEDs will probably be part of that program.

The Bottom Line

The C7 Corvette won’t be the mid-engine answer to the Ford GT. And its performance probably won’t substantially eclipse the current car. But with lighter-weight and similar horsepower outputs, the C7 is sure to be an all-around tasty recipe. The Corvette is one of the best sports-car bargains on the road today. So with another four years of development time, it can only get more refined, more stylish and more fuel-efficient, too. We’re already salivating.

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