Is Chevrolet Serious About Its $20,000, Rear-Wheel-Drive Sports Car?

Chevrolet’s stand at the Detroit auto show provided an intriguing if confusing look into the bow-tie brand’s sport compact strategy, from the mild — a slightly modified version of the Sonic due out later this year — to the wild — a Lamborghini Gallardo knock-off called the Tru 140S, which would ride on the same platform as the Cruze.

The most tantalizing possibility, though, is the Code 130R, a four-seat, rear-wheel-drive coupe that would cost around $20,000. Far fetched? Not necessarily.

“We know how we’d do it,” said GM North America president Mark Reuss.

We think we know, too. The key is found about 100 feet away from the Chevy stand in the form of the 2013 Cadillac ATS. The 3-series fighter employs a new, lightweight rear-wheel-drive platform known as Alpha. Though Reuss and the engineers behind the Alpha platform stress they are “focused on just Cadillac,” they add that it’s also flexible and scalable.

“We’ve got an architecture where we’ve…done a lot of things right and so, yes, there are other opportunities that we’re investigating,” said Alpha lead engineer Dave Masch. He said there’s no fundamental issue with using this architecture for smaller vehicles, though the Code 130R, with its ultra-short overhangs, is hardly a production-ready concept.

The ATS’s more expensive elements, like aluminum front strut towers and magnesium engine mounts, can be exchanged for cheaper steel with relative ease, Reuss says. Even then, any car built on the platform would benefit from the extensive focus on weight savings that went into designing the architecture. For instance, the engineers set up the suspension geometry with a mind toward using the thinnest hardware possible, including smaller fasteners than GM has used in the past. The concept was described as featuring the 1.4-liter turbo four-cylinder found in the Cruze and Sonic paired with GM’s eAssist technology. A production version also might also offer a version of the ATS’s 2.0-liter turbo. Any larger engines would overlap with the Camaro, which is also likely to move to this platform.

So, Chevrolet can build the Code 130R or something like it. But why would it? The answer is that GM has something of a youth problem. Like every company, it’s desperate to attract the so-called “millennials,” those 11-30 year olds who will become the bulk of the car buying market within the next fifteen or so years. But GM created another hurdle for itself by killing its two most youth-oriented brands, Pontiac and Saturn. The average Chevy buyer is 55. The Cruze has attracted some young buyers and the new Sonic will certainly attract more. But neither of those are the sort of affordable halo car — think Kia Soul, Hyundai Veloster, or MINI Cooper — that will grab a young buyer’s attention and build brand loyalty.

A front-wheel-drive product like the Tru 140S might be an easier solution and would more directly compete with the likes of a Veloster. But that too may be a reason to do something different, something distinctly American.

“Anyone can build a 140S. The 130R can only be built by GM, Ford or Chrysler,” says auto analyst Jim Hall of 2953 Analytics. And though Chevrolet already has a distinctly American, rear-wheel-drive coupe in the Camaro, Hall argues it’s “boxed into a corner” that will prevent it from ever becoming small enough or cheap enough to become a viable option among young buyers. “[Chevrolet] can use a second rear-wheel-drive coupe,” he says.

The next step is for Chevrolet to tour the two concepts around the country in search of youth feedback, though Reuss says he will make sure his opinion counts as well — “I will weigh in, you can bet on that.” If the Code 130R gets the nod, it would probably appear sometime around 2015.

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