What the New Corvette Will Do for GM

The automaker kicks off a must-win year by unveiling a racy new version of the classic sports car.

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Journalists surround the new 2014 Chevrolet Corvette Stingray at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit.

Quick—think of an exciting and inspiring automaker.

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Ferrari might come to mind. BMW. Maybe even Volkswagen or Mazda, which make sporty, affordable sprinters. But you probably wouldn't think of Chevrolet, or parent company General Motors, who are better known more for workmanlike, everyman vehicles.

The 2014 Chevy Corvette, which debuted recently at the Detroit auto show, is meant to change that. The Corvette has been part of the Chevy lineup since 1953, in six iterations that have all become classics in one way or another. The last update to the car came in 2005, and GM has been through a lot since then: Bankruptcy and a government bailout. Radical liposuction that shrank the sprawling automaker from eight brands to four. A halting emergence from bankruptcy as "government motors," an epithet popular among critics of the GM bailout.

Four years after the automaker imploded, 2013 is looking like the year GM may finally start to regain some luster. The U.S. Treasury, which still owns about one-third of GM shares as part of the 2009 bailout, plans to unload that stake over the next year or so, ending the government's involvement with the automaker and, GM hopes, the stigma that has come with it. Meanwhile, a drought of new models caused by bankruptcy reorganization will end this year, with GM introducing nearly a dozen new vehicles, including its all-important pickup trucks. "GM's brands need strengthening," says Tom Libby of Polk Automotive. "It needs to happen this year."

The new Corvette, which will go on sale in late summer, is the kind of buzz-generator GM desperately needs. In a good year, GM might sell just 25,000 Corvettes—compared with total 2012 U.S. sales for Chevrolet of 1.85 million—yet the two-seater is a "halo car" that draws buyers to Chevy showrooms and brings some panache to what is otherwise a middling brand. "It's highly respected by performance-oriented drivers," says Libby. "That helps Chevrolet and GM both."

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The new 2014 Corvette, known as the C7 to insiders, will arrive with a roar meant to get the attention of GM doubters. The company says the base model will be the fastest ever, with a 450-horsepower V8 engine that blasts the car from zero to 60 in less than four seconds and also gets 30 MPG on the highway. The design is futuristic and exotic, like a cartoonish Ferrari. GM says a much-improved interior ought to eliminate the biggest source of gripes about the outgoing Corvette. It has even designated the new model the Stingray, a name evoking the best of the Corvette heritage, last used in 1976.

The 2014 Corvette, however, needs to do more than simply move fast and look cool. "GM needs to go after younger buyers without alienating older ones," says Karl Brauer, CEO of Totalcarscore.com. The average age of a Chevy buyer is 52, according to Polk, which is higher than other mainstream brands such as Volkswagon, Honda, Nissan, Jeep and Toyota. The average customer for GM's Cadillac and Buick brands is even older.

The new Corvette's edgy looks are meant to evoke something from a Transformers movie or a video game, Brauer suggests. That's a sop to younger buyers, whether or not they have the fifty grand or so a starter Corvette may cost. The Stingray designation, meanwhile, is a throwback intended to entice baby boomers who grew up dreaming of the legendary 'Vettes—and who are more likely to have the wallet for such a car.

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There's a suite of new technology on the Corvette meant to signal that GM is capable of pulling off some engineering magic. The driver can customize the Corvette's performance by selecting from 12 "attributes" preferred in the car. The manual transmission that's available is an unusual 7-speed, similar to one offered by Porsche. And it comes with a feature called "active rev matching" that mimics the heel-and-toe shifting technique race-car drivers use to keep RPMs in the optimal zone.

If GM had one final wish, it would be that the 2014 Corvette makes more people thankful that America's biggest automaker is still around. The Corvette has long been the poor-man's Porsche, offering genuine track performance for many thousands less than the hottest racers from Europe. Had GM disappeared in 2009, there would be no new Corvette. Driving purists may grow fonder of "government motors" after all.

Rick Newman is the author of Rebounders: How Winners Pivot From Setback To Success. Follow him on Twitter: @rickjnewman.