GM hopes redesign will make the venerable ‘Vette cool again

SOUTHFIELD, Mich. — The Chevrolet Corvette, once the coolest of cool rides on Route 66 and the rest of America’s roads, has suffered the cruelest of fates: It’s known as an old man’s toy. Even the head of Chevy marketing acknowledges that too many people see it as the car of “the successful plumber.”

General Motors is determined to change that.

In two days, Chevrolet will unveil the new Corvette, which so far GM has teased as having a sleeker exterior, a bigger engine and a dramatically improved interior.

GM design chief Ed Welburn this week unfurled a poster on a table at his office in suburban Detroit showing images of the remodeled Corvette along with Stingrays from 1959 and 1963.

“I want this image on every kid’s wall,” he said ahead of Sunday’s unveiling on the eve of the North American International Auto Show in Detroit.

The redesigned Corvette, code-named C7, arrives as one of 13 new Chevrolets that GM is bringing out in the U.S. this year to update showrooms that have grown full of old models left over from the automaker’s 2009 bankruptcy reorganization. The company needs new products to help stave off declining market share in the U.S. that reached an 88-year low in 2012.

The challenge for GM’s Chevrolet brand is to draw on the strength of Corvette’s 60-year heritage as a dream-inspiring racer while overcoming its recent baggage as an afterthought to Volkswagen’s Audi and Porsche. The Detroit-based company is betting new styling, improved interiors and marketing efforts, including aiming the car straight at young people through placement in video games, will help.

“The big thing is bringing people to the brand and bringing a lot of energy to the brand,” Welburn said. “People will look a bit differently at Chevrolet if Corvette is an even more relevant vehicle, a vehicle that is very inspiring, that is on the leading edge in so many ways.”

About 46 percent of Corvette buyers last year through October were 55 or older compared with 22 percent of Audi R8 and 30 percent of Porsche 911 customers, according to Edmunds.

Introduced in 1953, Corvette production peaked in 1979 at 53,807, according to GM.

“As time has gone on, the market has become much more clouded; the Corvette doesn’t stand out as much anymore as it used to,” Jerry Burton, who has written books on the car, said in an interview.

Last year, sales of the Corvette, which starts at $49,600, rose 7.4 to 14,132 in the U.S., according to researcher Autodata Corp., about a quarter of its peak. Deliveries of the Porsche 911 Carrera, which starts at $82,100, rose 65 percent to 7,784 while the Audi R8, which starts at $114,200, declined 30 percent to 802.

The importance of those cars goes beyond sales figures. The cool factor for the 911 and the R8 helps lift the image of the entire Porsche and Audi lines. Corvette has lost that aura.

As GM’s business struggled leading up to its 2009 bankruptcy reorganization, Corvette wasn’t always a priority.

“We haven’t been managing the perception of the brand,” said Chris Perry, head of Chevrolet marketing in the U.S.

“To hit our sales target, we don’t really need to advertise Corvette,” Perry said. “There are a lot of people waiting to buy a Corvette, but to help change the perception of Corvette and help change the perception of Chevrolet, we’ll definitely be putting some marketing behind it.”

On the Internet, the Corvette gets lapped by exotic sports car brands. Corvette’s Facebook page had 1 million “likes” on Jan. 10 while Chevrolet as a brand had 1.7 million. Ferrari had 10 million, Porsche had 4.9 million and Audi had 6.2 million. A separate Facebook page for Audi’s R8 has 1.48 million “likes.”

Other parts of cyberspace are more harsh. Google’s autofill asks “Is a Corvette an old man’s car?” and returns with 2.36 million search results. When fourth-grade boys at Neinas Elementary in Detroit talked about cars last month, they wanted to know about the Chevrolet Camaro and exotic brands, such as VW’s Bugatti, that they’re familiar with from video games. Only one child mentioned an interest in the Corvette, and he got teased.

“Because of the heritage of Corvette is a little bit more of a Midwest sports car, the successful plumber,” Perry said. “That’s one of the things we’re going to change, especially on the coasts.”

In trend-setting cities such as Los Angeles and Miami, he wants the new Corvette to attract attention from buyers in their 30s and 40s making around $150,000 annually, while still appealing to loyalists.

Part of GM’s plan includes promoting the Corvette in video games, Perry said. GM worked with Sony to make available in November a camouflaged version of the new Corvette in the popular PlayStation 3 video game “Gran Turismo.”

The new version of the Corvette will be available Monday for the video game, Perry said. The real car reaches showrooms by year’s end.

“It’s amazing how these young people influence that older group,” said John Fitzpatrick, Corvette’s marketing manager. “It’s the old saying, ‘Nobody wants to be seen driving an old man’s car, but everybody wants to be seen driving a young man’s car.’ “

While GM hasn’t unveiled the new Corvette yet, it has hinted at what’s in store. Designers and engineers sculpted the new car in ways to improve aerodynamics, reducing lift for greater high-speed stability, GM said in a November press release.

GM has promised that the sports car’s new 6.2-liter V-8 engine will make it the most powerful standard Corvette ever with 450 horsepower along with being the quickest with a zero to 60 in less than four seconds. It will also be the most fuel-efficient Corvette, at better than 26 miles per gallon on the highway.

“From the marketing standpoint, we have the goods,” Perry said. “We have the product that delivers on that aspiration. Now we just have to change that perception.”

There are signs of excitement and hope for the halo car among those of buying age. Tickets to a special event unveiling the new model, with proceeds going to the National Corvette Museum in Bowling Green, Ky., sold out in about 10 minutes, with donations to get in reaching $1,200, according to GM.

A Google search for “new Corvette” on Thursday resulted in 90 million results.

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