2020 Corvette Chief Engineer Tadge Juechter: Triumphs & Challenges of Developing the C8
Reinventing an icon is never easy.
By now, even those who live under rocks know about the 2020 Chevy Corvette's transition to a mid-engine layout for its eight generation, but what you might not know is what it was like to get there. Who better to ask than the man behind the car's development, and that of the previous three generations of Corvette, too, Executive Chief Engineer Tadge Juechter? We were lucky enough to pull him aside for a quick chat just before the debut of the new C8 Corvette.
AM: It's got to be a relief to be done with development, right?
TJ: We're not done with it. You're talking hours before the reveal. We're not in production yet. We're still making the 7th generation car… The terrible thing about how complicated the electronics are in cars today is that the software is now the long lead time. Longer than giant tools that you have to make for body panels or structure or anything. The good thing about that, though, is you can tune right up until the day of production, and then you can pull a calibration out of the cloud and drop it on the end of the line. So, we work right up until the last minute. But to the premise of your question, it's great to be far along enough where we're actually able to start sharing it. We've been working on the thing for a long time, and to see it finally come to fruition is very gratifying for me and the whole team.
AM: Do you worry about how the new car will be received, especially given the mid-engine layout?
TJ: I think the product will speak for itself. Every time you bring out a new Corvette, there's people who want to keep the old standards, the old everything. Every generation I've been involved with there's been people who say, "Oh you are making a mistake by getting rid of pop-ups. You're making a mistake getting rid by going away from round tail lights." Whatever it is, whatever their thing that they've come to associate with Corvette, when you change it fundamentally people are uncomfortable with that, and so you have to tell them the story of why you did it.
But we don't just do it willy-nilly… To make the whole car and ownership experience better is the reason at the root of it, but you sometimes have to explain a long way as to why making their pet peeve a problem for them, that they're going to like the end result better. I'm very confident now. We're actually driving the very first cars around now. I'm very confident that any of the naysayers, if they give it a chance and get in the car, they're going to be blown away.
AM: What was it like setting out on the mid-engine journey?
TJ: In the beginning we weren't overconfident at all. This is our first mid-engine exercise. Having no history to leverage on, we had to do it right out of the box. We were honestly paranoid about all the things that could go wrong. That was a healthy paranoia because it led us to do deep engineering and technical investigation into the things that we were paranoid about, and make sure that we had technical solutions that would avoid any potential pitfalls. You don't just throw the engine on the back and everything else magically works out. There is peril associated with putting a bunch of weight on the back end. Other people have had generations to figure it out. We had one. We had to figure it out.
AM: You've now been involved with or at the head of four generations of Corvettes—half of the generations ever built. How does it feel to have such a legacy even while you're still going strong?
TJ: It's not about me at all. To me Corvette is one of the most valuable brands GM has. It's the longest running car nameplate in automotive history. It's a huge responsibility for me, our team, and GM to do the right thing for it. Some people will say, "Why would you take such a risk on a market that's so important to you?" We have to. It's not like we're going in it with a bunch of trepidation. We're doing it all locked arm in arm. We've got to do this. We've got to make it work. It's the only way Corvette survives for generations to come. Nobody is thinking about their legacy, that's for sure.
AM: What's your favorite aspect of the new mid-engine Corvette?
TJ: I would have said, and my traditional answer is, I'm proudest of the bandwidth of the car. That it does so many things well. It's great on the track. It's an easy daily commuter. My wife and I like to go on long distance trips with it. This car strikes all those chords. That would be a perfectly good answer, but having spent enough time behind the wheel in a variety of situations, the way this car handles is better than people are going to expect.
It's surprisingly good. We knew, okay the basics are good. I'm not saying this is to have myself or to try to coach you into this because I wouldn't claim it if I don't think everybody, once they get behind the wheel, they're going to realize in a 100 yards, wow this is a different kind of Corvette than I've ever been in. When you go hammer it on the track, you're not going to believe how quick it is, how nimble it is, how modern it is in every sense of the word. It's the driving experience in all different ways. I think that's what I'm proudest of because we knew it was one of the biggest challenges. We could've easily not gotten all the way there, and I feel like we've gotten all the way there. We've wrung every bit of capability out of this new architecture.
In fact, it's amazing the architecture is so powerful. We didn't have to lean so heavily on things we've done traditionally like aggressive tire compounding. Like on today's car, you get a Z51 or any of the up-level cars, they stiction around corners because at lower temperatures the tire compound stiffens up and you get a stick-slip phenomenon. This car doesn't have that. It corners just as quick as the current car, but it doesn't have that. It doesn't have any of those downsides.
AM: What was the biggest challenge you faced during development?
TJ: It wasn't discussed much on the internet when people were speculating about the car, but where's the roof go? You know, we used to have the [Saturn] Sky, where you had to leave the roof in the garage—that wasn't going to be okay. We talked about could we make the roof out of two pieces and put it in the front [trunk], no. One piece is what you want for body structure, for fit and finish, everything. We had to figure out a way, how do you stow a roof in the back of the car, behind the engine, and still keep it cool and not have these proportions that are really weird?
We wanted a nice and compact modern proportion, but it still had to do all these other things.
Now, we put all those constraints on a design that has to have super good body structure, so good load paths, you know, big sections—now where does the air go? How does the air get around? You can't put radiators on center line anymore. They have to go upward in the corners. We had to put them in the rear corners. Then you also have to evacuate the hot air in the engine department. That challenge, both technically and aesthetically, I would say was the biggest challenge.