Of all the mid-engine Corvette prototypes, the 1990 CERV III was arguably the closest one to reaching production reality. The third Chevrolet Engineering Research Vehicle was an evolution of the 1986 Corvette Indy, and while it was intended as GM’s showpiece for the 1990 Detroit auto show, many of its elements indicated the possibility of a production-ready car.
Much of the CERV III’s technology is relatively commonplace today, but in 1990, it was dreamy stuff: All-wheel drive, four-wheel steering, and a computer-controlled active suspension. The transmission was a six-speed automatic, built from the existing Hydramatic three-speed, and the brakes used dual discs at each wheel.
The body was made from an exotic mix of carbon fiber, Kevlar, and Nomex and reinforced by aluminum, and the suspension components were made from titanium. In an era where many young men had Lamborghini posters on their walls, it comes as no surprise that the CERV III sported scissor-style doors. Inside, the CERV III sported a gamepad-like controller and a small CRT display. Contemporary videos show a moving-map navigation system, though this was five years before GPS became fully operational.
This all sounds like dreamy stuff, but view the CERV III with an engineer’s eye, and you can see why we say it was close to reality. Compared to the Indy, the CERV III’s nose was shorter and higher off the ground, allowing the car to meet federal bumper-height standards. The side glass was shaped so that it could roll down into the doors. Rather than hugging the wheels, as is common in concept cars even today, the CERV III’s wheel arches provided clearance for a reasonable amount of suspension travel.
Power came from a Lotus-engineered 32-valve DOHC version of the venerable 5.7 liter small-block V-8—an engine that would be offered to the public in that year’s Corvette ZR-1. The CERV III version added a pair of Garret T3 turbochargers, which boosted its output to 650 horsepower and 655 lb-ft—incredible numbers when a 210-hp Lumina Z34 was considered pretty hot stuff. The CERV III was timed to 60 in 3.9 seconds and could pull 1.10 g on the skidpad, giving it true supercar status.
Had the CERV III gone into production, it likely would have required a supercar price. GM’s bean counters reportedly calculated that the car would require a price tag in the neighborhood of $300,000 to $400,000, this at a time when base Corvettes sold for around $32,000 and the exotic ZR-1 was just a shade less than $59K. Times were tough for General Motors, which was getting its butt thoroughly kicked by the Japanese, and Corvette sales were slowing. GM had never seriously considered putting the CERV III into production—it really was intended to be a research vehicle—but the economic realities dictated that the Corvette would retain its front-engine layout for the foreseeable future.
That said, members of the public would get a chance to drive a CERV III of their own—virtually, at least. The CERV III (by now the initialism stood for Corporate Experimental Research Vehicle) was included in Accolade’s 1990 video game Test Drive III: The Passion. One need only look at a screen shot of that long-ago game to realize just how far ahead of its time the CERV III was.
Still, one could argue that CERV III wasn’t a complete dead end. GM was getting serious about Corvette performance, as witnessed not only by the CERV III but by the ZR-1. The C5, under development at the time and repeatedly delayed due to GM’s business woes, would embrace more exotic construction methods, including a hydroformed frame and a rear-mounted transaxle, and would emphasize handling rather than just straight-line speed. The sixth- and seventh-generation Corvettes further helped the Corvette to shake its reputation as the Plastic Pachyderm and instead join the ranks of the world’s great sports cars—and always at a bargain price.
And now, nearly 30 years after the CERV III’s appearance, GM is finally introducing the long-awaited mid-engine Corvette. If you squint, maybe you’ll be able to see a little CERV III influence in the new car.