If you want to totally enrage Corvette fans, here's a fun thing to do: argue that the Corvette should be a four-cylinder. Then watch the capillaries burst in their cheeks as red-hot indignation flows like 93-octane through a Holley double-pumper. The notion of neutering the Corvette down to anything less than full V-8 glory is right up there with pawning the Constitution to China or outlawing hamburgers or declaring soccer the national sport. And yet, when you see a new seventh-generation Corvette lope past on the street, chances are it's powered by a four-cylinder -- 3.1 liters, 126 hp, and 221 lb-ft of torque. Oh, great. Texas just seceded.
Fear not, fellow Americans, for the 2014 Chevrolet Corvette Stingray's four-cylinder antics are strictly temporary, and the new 6.2-liter LT1 small-block can be instructed to keep all eight cylinders ready to spin out 460 hp at a prod of the throttle. But the fact that the Corvette even offers cylinder deactivation is a signifier of how thoroughly reengineered the C7 is compared with its predecessor. This is not a C6 with 25 more horsepower and LED strips draped along the headlights.
I get my crack at the C7 at GM's Milford Proving Ground, where the first order of business is for a security guard to carefully place GM-issued stickers over my iPhone's camera lenses. Then we head out to the Black Lake to drive a . . . C6? The yellow Z06 is stuffed with what looks like Mars Rover lab gear beneath the hatch -- data-gathering equipment for the new active electronic differential, dubbed eLSD. GM developed the eLSD in-house, and this Z06 mule can demonstrate the breadth of its capabilities with the flick of a switch. Essentially, an open diff lets the rear end rotate and point the car into a turn, as evidenced by the tank-slapper that ensues when the steering wheel is cranked 45 degrees at 60 mph. A locked diff helps put the power down but results in a car that wants to go straight, a point proved by the Z06's dogged understeer after the same 60-mph juke to the right. Thus, the challenge was programming the electronic diff to progressively manage those two goals in real time as the car circles a racetrack. If you're going to go through all this trouble, why not go all the way and have a torque-vectoring active diff?
"Well, torque vectoring adds weight and cost," says Heath Holbrook, the guy in charge of developing the eLSD. "And if you've already got a lightweight, well-balanced platform, then you get 90 percent of the benefit without the drawbacks."
"So torque-vectoring is kind of a Band-Aid?" I ask.
"You said it, not me!" Holbrook replies.
The C6, frankly, needed some sort of Band-Aid where its ten-tenths behavior was concerned. Although it was always a world-class speed demon, a C6 at its limits is one of the scariest rides that doesn't involve rodeo clowns. Maybe it has something to do with GM building its own private racetrack ten years ago, but more recent cars like the Cadillac CTS-V and the Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 feel much happier on a road course than the outgoing Corvette does, even if they're not as fast.
To see whether that situation has changed, I fire up a searing red C7 and head onto an autocross course set up on the yawning expanse of blacktop. Chris Barber, vehicle performance engineer, rides shotgun. First impression: this thing sounds like a Vette, with a deep, ragged rumble that smooths out as you release the clutch. Second impression: great seats. Much has been made of the fact that the C7 offers two seating options: all-around touring seats and track-biased competition chairs. I ask Barber if this is the competition seat, and he informs me that this is actually the relaxed-fit base model. Compared with the old car's flabby, lazy-river chaises, even these standard seats are like Le Mans prototype racing shells. "I think the standard seats would be fine for most people, even for track driving," Barber agrees.
After a few acclimation laps, I run through the Vette's driver-assistance programs as I get more daring with the throttle. Like the ZL1, the C7 will progressively draw back the curtain on its capabilities according to your comfort level. Track mode is the last stop before "everything off," and the idea is to provide the kind of high-performance traction control that would be outlawed in most actual race cars: flatten the pedal on corner exit and the car will deploy as much power as the tires can handle, just like a Ferrari 458 Italia in race mode.
The Corvette's power management isn't as smooth as Ferrari's -- when your throttle foot overwhelms available traction, the big V-8 makes anguished stuttering noises that let you know it's struggling not to Hulk out and spin you into the bushes. But man, does it work. GM says that a pro driver will turn the fastest laps with everything off, but a driver who's merely really good will be fastest in track mode.
Out here, with nothing but cones to hit, I want to find out if the eLSD has tamed the Vette's appetite for destruction. So I deactivate stability control and go hot into the wide sweeping left at the beginning of the course. Tires howling, rear end crabbing, this would be the point where a C6 would reveal exactly where my skills run out. But the C7 hangs on and swings through the next slalom, the nose darting into the corners on lift throttle and the tail settling with a dose of power. Of course, I test the laws of physics and manage to spin a few times, but on the last set of corners, the rear tires leave a neat pair of stripes scribing an ess out onto the main straight. "I never could've done that with a C6," I say. Barber, gamely abiding these shenanigans from the passenger seat, translates my observation to engineering terms: "The C7 will tolerate more slip angle." Now let's go to the track.