Here’s what I’ve been led to believe about the new Chevrolet (C8) Corvette. First, it’s a blue-collar supercar that renders all sporting metal between $60k and $100k obsolete. Second, it’s a ground-up rethink that moves the engine midship, polishes the model’s luxury credentials and brings the fight to Ferrari’s V8s and Lamborghini’s V10s. Finally, it’s robust, reliable, affordable American muscle to conquer the snooty, high-maintenance Europeans.
Well, guess who recently purchased a snooty European halo car for ~$70k? Me. I picked up a used, 36k-mile 2016 Mercedes-AMG GT S in December and have been (mostly) loving its hair-on-fire demeanor ever since. So was I a fool to drop $70k and not leave the dealership with a C8 Corvette?
I’ll find out today. I’m on my way to test drive a used 2020 Corvette with a scant 1,700 miles and an eye-boggling $100k price. In fairness, the C8 is loaded with options and practically new. It has a flamboyant black and red leather interior, GT2 bucket seats, the Z51 performance package, magnetic-ride control, front-axle nose lift, a head-up display, premium Bose audio, 360-parking cameras, and so much more. Draped in ceramic-metallic gray paint (which looks white to my eyes!) and rolling on black throwing-star wheels, this C8 had an MSRP of ~$83k one year ago…although the original buyer was likely gouged by $10k or $20k of dealer markup.
I can’t wait to compare the Corvette to my AMG GT S.
On paper, the matchup between the 2020 Corvette and 2016 GT S is quite close. Both cars are two-seat, rear-wheel-drive coupes that tip the scales at ~3,600 lbs. Their rorty V8s have nearly identical horsepower and torque: The C8 (with the performance exhaust) produces 495 hp and 470 lb-ft, while the GT S generates 503 hp and 479 lb-ft. The rival transmissions are dual-clutch automatics, but the Corvette trumps the GT S with eight speeds instead of seven.
The differences between the C8 and GT S are their engine layouts (rear-midship vs. front-midship), steering assistance (electronic vs. hydraulic), cabin technology (cutting-edge vs. aging) and styling (fighter jet vs. classic elegance).
Oh, and the MSRPs. The well-specced $83k Corvette LT2 Z51 will try to stand toe-to-toe with my moderately-optioned $145k AMG GT S. (The 2020 Corvette was likely subject to dealer markup when new. But then again, so was the 2016 GT S.)
I exit the freeway in the Mercedes-AMG GT S and spot the dealership on the right. I’ll get there in due time, though, because my plan is to baseline for the head-to-head by running the test route in the GT S first. So I flick on the left blinker, and when the traffic light changes to green, I turn onto the highway overpass…only to be thwacked on the ass by a misaligned expansion joint.
Ride quality is my main bugaboo with the GT S. The firmly-sprung GT S puts the driver over the rear axle in a thinly padded seat. Road imperfections are transmitted with very little softening, and when combined with the iron-maiden grip of the AMG sports seat, long trips in the GT S can make me stiff and cranky. To be fair, the GT S seems a bit irritated with its stiff knees, too: over rough pavement, it squeaks and rattles from every corner.
I put up with the GT S’s flinty ride quality because the payoff is fantastic road feel and steering communication. As I roll out of suburbia and into wine country, the steering wheel and seats hum with the ceaseless vibrations from the engine, transmission and tires. Based on the height of the protruding roadstone, my hands can tell the difference between new and old paving. I know which front tire hit a patched pothole and how severe the sealed asphalt cracks are.
I mosey past olive groves, kitschy cafes and miles and miles of vineyards. Tasting rooms tempt me with cabernets, chardonnays and olive oils. I stop for photos but don’t imbibe. Parked among the vines, the GT S is sleek, elegant and unadorned. What a beautiful shape! In black, it flies under the radar too.
The road chases the creek up the ravine and through a string of tiny valleys. I flip my GT S into Individual mode, which pulls up my favorite combination of max-attack drivetrain settings and soft suspension. The GT S and I become dance partners, cavorting through the corners. It’s a call and response; I lob the GT S into a turn, it swiftly settles its weight and then twitters back the suspension action and tire grip via steering wheel and chassis vibrations. When I hoof it out of the corners, the GT S lifts its nose ever so slightly to the heavens, and its steering lightens as the drive wheels shove from behind.
The fun continues when I turn onto Hwy 121. Hwy 121 is the rare rural highway that works in three dimensions, juking and twisting like a P51 Mustang evading a Japanese Zero. The GT S is my craft on this tumbling road, and I’m a kayaker riding the rapids. We skip over the rises and dive deep into the troughs, enjoying the ebbing and flowing grip as the car alternates between lift-off and splash down through the undulating turns.
The GT S is playful and eager. Thanks to its light and quick steering, it easily keeps up with the never-ending string of second-gear corners. The front end flits like a hummingbird and never washes wide. The rear end stays dutifully glued, even when it’s stressed by 503 horses. And yet, for all of the confidence-inspiring grip, I get the sense that the GT S’s chassis is just fractionally better than its firebomb engine. I don’t fear being spit off the road; the chassis isn’t overwhelmingly superior to—or bored by—the twin-turbo V8.
Eventually, I find an open stretch of road where I can test the GT S’s straight-line hustle. While cruising at 50 mph, I downshift and pound the throttle. The GT S immediately responds, but there’s a brief moment before the twin turbos reach peak boost and deliver max thrust. When I bolt from a lower rpm, I notice a step in power as the needle crests 4500 rpm.
Finally, I try a 0-60 mph run using launch control. The GT S doesn’t do snap necks like a 992-generation Porsche 911 or a Nissan GT-R, but its launches are consistent and undeniably fast. When fired from a stop, the GT S scratches its broad Michelin PS4S tires and flies through the gears with seamless, 6500 rpm upshifts. (Curiously, the computer chooses to upshift before the 7000 rpm fuel cut; is this a tacit acknowledgment that the engine does its best work below redline?)
Feeling reacquainted with the GT S’s backroad chops, I reverse course and flog my stead back to town. The return trip is as enjoyable as the outgoing one.
As I walk through the dealership doors, I’m amused to find the C8 Corvette sitting in the place of honor on the showroom floor. It’s for a good reason: This white-over-red C8 has been perfectly optioned to show off the car’s stunning design. Its creased sheet metal looks ready to scatter radar, its black intakes are poised, ready to devour the air, and its squinty red tail lights are the afterburners below its chopped tailfin. This isn’t a car as much as it is an American air superiority fighter.
While the sales team is finalizing the paperwork for my test drive, I reach into the Corvette’s gaping side intake, find the hidden door handle, and pull. The door is so exotic that I expect it to swing skyward, but instead, it opens horizontally/normally. An unfamiliar—and premium—door chime sounds as I slide into the tight cabin. The (upgraded GT2) driver’s seat’s red-leather bolsters wrap around my ribs while its black Alcantara seat bottom grips my derriere. I am firmly fitted into the car.
I feel like I’ve slipped into an F-35 fighter jet. Thanks to the LT2 package and some bold color choices, the interior is draped in contrasting red and black leather. The design is color-coded so that the occupants’ roles are clearly defined. The driver is the commander, bathed in battle red. His crimson cocoon climbs his door and center console and wraps around the instrument panel, directing his attention at the controls he’ll use in the fight. The passenger sits in the dark, walled off behind the HVAC chiclet cascade, unable to access the infotainment or driving controls. He’s along for the ride but has absolutely no sway in the proceedings. He might as well be riding in a motorcycle sidecar!
(Where the contrasting colors meet on the dashboard, the black leather overlaps the red hides, forming flying jowls that remind me of X-Wing pilot Sullustan’s flappy cheeks. It sounds terrible, but looks fantastic!)
It’s a stunning interior and one that is well beyond anything I’ve seen in prior Corvettes. As my eyes and hands move around the cabin, they find tight, beautiful and luxurious interfaces. The squared-off Alcantara steering wheel frames the bright digital instrument panel. To the right, canted towards me, is an equally crisp navigation screen that responds laglessly to my inputs. The most frequently used controls—those for the doors, windows, stereo and drive modes—are made of knurled metal or capped in cool aluminum, so my fingers touch fineries rather than plastic. Only the HVAC chiclets respond with less than perfect tactility: the little plastic buttons are wiggly and imprecise when pressed.
I love how the Corvette team has sweated every detail. From the door chimes to the switchgear and the instrument panel, everything looks new, fresh and tailor-made for the Corvette. There’s not a single bowtie to besmirch the C8; this car may hail from Chevrolet, but it represents a standalone brand.
Eventually, I’m extracted from the C8, and the C8 is extracted from the showroom. I park the Corvette next to my GT S and inspect the rivals side by side.
The C8 and GT S have nearly identical power outputs, weights and footprints. But if these two cars are twins, then they are Danny Devito and Arnold Schwarzenegger. The cab-backward GT S is as smooth and simple as a river stone. The angular C8 is fussy, adorned with sharp wings and slashing inlets, and its cockpit rides well forward of its massive trunk thruster. Both cars are striking, but for entirely different reasons.
I move my gear into the Corvette and get underway. While the ventilated seats are incredibly comfortable, I feel like I’m sitting an inch too high in the C8. (I’m lower in the GT S.) Combined with the chopped windscreen, I have to stoop to see overhead stoplights.
Within 1000 feet of city roads, I know the C8 is a completely different kind of sports car vs. the AMG GT S. Rolling through town in Tour mode, the Corvette hides its athleticism and moves in shushed luxury. Sound deadening is laid on thick, keeping out the bustle of the world and, for the most part, the thrum of the engine. The V8 responds with relaxed confidence when I dip my throttle foot. The Corvette’s body is tight and rattle-free, and the (optional) magnetorheological dampers deliver a magic carpet ride: The overpass expansion joint that whacked me on the ass in the GT S can hardly be felt in the Corvette. Strangely—amazingly—the Corvette coddles like a modern Cadillac: The CT6 had this same isolation and exceptional blend of body control and bump absorption.
If the loud and flinty GT S hails from the old school of sports car chassis design, the C8 Corvette is firmly a new school vehicle. It’s as comfortable as falling into a feather-blanket bed after a day at the Ritz-Carlton beach club. For relaxed (boring?) daily driving, the Corvette is vastly superior.
Which has me worried. Is the C8 a sensory deprivation chamber on low-profile tires?
I strain to sense the road through the Corvette’s controls. Thankfully, a filtered stream of communication is present in the chassis and electrically-assisted steering. The coarse pavement sends quiet, high-frequency vibrations into my hands and feet, and the thumps from cracks ping through the controls. But missing from the stream is the whir of the transmission and the hum of the engine.
I cross Suisun Valley, stopping by villas and vines to shoot glamour shots of the C8. Along the way, the C8 Corvette breaks one hundred necks. (One hundred and one, if you count mine.) Gas station patrons peer around the pumps at the glacier-white car. A roadside rose vendor swivels his head, tracking my progress through the intersection. Men and women in SUVs gawk at me from on high, wondering what supercar they’ve spotted. The Corvette may be obtainable American metal, but to the passerby, it’s as exotic as they come. (The only time I’ve gotten this much attention in a car was in my brilliant blue Focus RS, and then the attention only came from car guys.)
Soon, I’m at the mouth of the ravine, and the road starts to coil and twist like a corkscrew. It’s time to get serious about driving and test the C8’s performance credentials.
I twist the (impressively heavy) drive mode knob to the right, activating Track mode. Whoa! What is this?!! Track mode puts the engine, transmission, suspension and steering into their most aggressive modes, and while the engine is now singing loudly and eager to rev, the steering is now so ridiculously heavy that it’s fighting my inputs! The artificial weight requires so much muscle that the Corvette now feels leaden and unwilling to turn. A mid-engine C8 should out-dance a front-engine GT S, but the Corvette is entering turns with the alacrity of a sack of potatoes, while the GT S seemed to be fueled by nectar.
Strange. The Track mode programming for the other systems is spot-on:
The throttle has dropped its Tour-mode lethargy, and the C8 now lunges when I stomp. (The C8’s natural aspiration delivers more even thrust than the GT S’s turbocharging, as the AMG suffers minor lag.)
The exhaust flaps are open, amplifying and richening the engine sound. When I run to the redline, the LT2 V8’s healthy honk rises in pitch. (I prefer the Corvette’s two-tone chant to the AMG’s monotone belt.) When I lift the throttle, the C8 overruns without the GT S’s theatrical pops and cracks.
The damper tuning is tightrope taut, yet the suspension maintains its impact-softening suppleness. The C8’s wheels and body are very well controlled, and there’s no sense of tip or slop in side-to-side transitions. Versus the GT S, the C8 chassis feels more composed and substantially less harsh.
As I flap through gears using the steering wheel paddles, the Corvette’s brand new dual-clutch transmission delivers seamless, split-second upshifts and shock-free downshifts. It’s equally as good at cog swaps as the GT S. (Yet the C8 was much smoother in parking lot plodding.)
But curiously, the C8 feels slower to react to my trigger pulls than the GT S. Didn’t Chevy brag about this transmission’s reaction times? I scrutinize the shifter action and realize the delay is in the physical design of the paddles. The Corvette’s paddles require twice as much travel to click, so subjectively, they feel less responsive than the GT S’s. But once clicked, both cars are equally quick at changing gears.
As I turn onto rollercoaster Hwy 121, I toggle through the drive modes, trying to rid the steering of its Track-mode molasses lubrication. Sport mode is better (pancake syrup), and Tour mode is the best (olive oil), but I’m loath to give up the aggressive throttle, exhaust and suspension settings. Then I remember that the Corvette has a fully configurable Z mode.
I dig through the infotainment menus and find the Z settings. Scanning the page, I laugh aloud when I see someone set Steering to Sport and the rest to Track. Clearly, they thought the Track steering was too firm, too! I activate Z mode by pressing the metal Z on the steering wheel. The button glows red—cool!
In motion again, tight and undulating Hwy 121 challenges the C8’s sky-high limits. Through most corners, the Corvette has more grip than grunt. The C8 is unflappable over the kiddie-coaster whoops and follows my steering inputs with laser-guided precision. The Michelin PS4S tires never run out of stick, but I occasionally feel a hint of power-on understeer—this is a rear-engine car, after all—or the scrabble of a rear tire as the LSD manages the power. The C8 chassis feels ready for the hugely powerful engines that will come with future Z06s and ZR1s. (Right now, it is a bit underwhelmed by the Stingray’s 495 hp.)
So the C8 is capable but aloof and clinically dry. I start to pine for my favorite rides.
Great mid-engine cars—like the Porsche Cayman—change direction with frictionless fluidity. The heavy-helmed Corvette isn’t even in the same league. The quick-steering GT S gets much closer but still can’t match the weightless Cayman.
Great sports cars—like the Mazda MX-5 Miata—communicate openly with their drivers, letting man and machine meld. The C8 is as far from a Mazda Miata as they come. Its steering doesn’t say a word about the available traction, and I have to guess at the car’s demeanor using visual references and inner-ear sensations. Conversely, the GT S’s hyper-informative steering forms that mind-meld with me. Its ever-changing steering weight and chassis vibrations apprise me of the tire loads and grip limits.
A construction site approaches. Rather than wait for my turn through the zone, I pull over for photos. A worker spots the Corvette from afar and comes over to ogle the white weapon. Unmistakable, chiseled and approachable, the C8 is a four-wheeled Dwayne Johnson.
I’m thinking about how the retina-shocking C8 makes discrete transgressions impossible when the worker surprises me with an inquiry, “Weren’t you driving a black Mercedes this morning?” “Yes…” I reply. It turns out that the GT S doesn’t fly under the radar either!
While I am parked on the roadside, I dig through the manual to figure out how to turn on Performance Traction Management. PTM is GM’s killer stability control programming, and it’s adept enough to handle hot laps by professional drivers. I hope PTM: Race will unlock some yet unfound agility in the Corvette. The instructions say PTM is available in Track mode with a double press of the traction control button. I try again and again, but for the life of me, I can’t turn on PTM. ESP Competitive Mode is available, but PTM is not. I have no idea why!
Defeated and frustrated, I move on to launch control testing. The steps are simple. Engage Track mode, stand on the brake, floor the throttle, let the revs settle, and then release the brake to go. I find a quiet stretch of road and ready myself for blast off.
For my first attempts, the computer holds 2k rpm and then drops the clutch. The tires chirp, and the C8 bolts, notching 4.1s and 3.6s 0-60 mph. These sprints are quick but not magazine-worthy. Then, for unknown reasons, the computer allows me 3.5k rpm. I release the brake and hold on.
What happens next is a blur. My left foot lifts, the clutch closes, and I’m catapulted forward. Through first gear, the rear tires lightly hop as they scrabble for grip. A split-second upshift at 28 mph carries the momentum into second gear, and then another shift at 53 mph puts me into third for the final sprint. The run is as vicious as it is smooth. The result? 2.9s 0-60 mph, as reported by the C8’s performance timer. The thrill ride is as jaw-droppingly fast as the 992 Porsche 911 Carrera S (which Car and Driver reports as 3.0s to 60 mph) and much quicker than the ~4.0s runs from my GT S.
While the C8 does some of the best drag starts I’ve ever experienced, its rolling sprints are less dramatic. My sense is that the Corvette’s low-speed fury doesn’t carry into the triple digits, whereas the twin-turbo GT S holds its steam as it climbs the gears. Motor Trend’s ¼-mile testing says the Corvette is quicker: The C8 does an 11.2s vs. the GT S’s 11.4s (on Michelin Cup 2 tires), but the GT S is 3 mph faster through the trap.
It’s time to return to the dealer. On the way back, I use Z mode to pair Tour steering with the aggressive drivetrain and suspension settings. With the lightest steering, the Corvette changes direction as easily as I’d like, but it’s still unwilling to tell me anything about the front-end grip.
Once in town, I detour to try the C8 on the highway. It’s a sharp right onto the entry ramp. I crank the steering and pounce on the throttle, and, for the first time, the Corvette wags its tail. The C8 and GT S can get frisky at low speeds, but both cars are glued down at high speeds.
Cruising with traffic at 70 mph, the Corvette is serene and calming. The engine quiets, the suspension smooths, and the seat coddles. I appreciate how the Corvette’s heavy, measured steering avoids the GT S’s flighty reactivity. I can glance out the Corvette’s side window without accidentally changing lanes. Amazingly, my back is feeling refreshed after three hours in the Corvette. Somehow the GT2 bucket seats have repaired the damage done by my morning’s drive in the GT S!
As I pull back into the dealership, I’m equally gobsmacked and disappointed with the C8 Corvette. The Corvette is absolutely a blue-collared supercar. Its aggressive, exotic design captures eyes like a Ferrari or Lamborghini. (And its build quality matches the high-dollar metal, too.) Its performance is undeniable, too, besting my GT S to 60 mph and keeping up with studs like the 992 Porsche 911. But its driving involvement is an utter letdown. It does relaxed and comfortable like no other but never fully wakes up and becomes an eager dance partner. Rather than tuning the Corvette to appeal to club racers, Chevy built a car for country clubbers.
And that’s the sticking point for me. The C8 is quicker, more comfortable, more technologically advanced, and more strikingly styled than my GT S, but it doesn’t reward the enthusiast driver. The foreign competition has it beat for driving excitement. So as much as I love the flashy, revolutionary C8 Corvette, I made the right choice when I dropped my $70k on the Mercedes-AMG GT S.