The digital readout on the head-up display at the base of the windshield confirmed we were well into triple-digit speeds. Not a soul was on this desolate stretch of California State Route 156 that shoots through the arid backcountry of Monterey, California.
Our deep-blue 2014 Chevrolet Corvette Stingray test car, equipped with an optional Z51 performance package ($2,800), could have easily gone faster – the all-new LT1 V8 under the hood feels as though it has endless power. But a sharp turn loomed ahead at the foot of a mountain, and it was growing larger by the second.
Time to back off the throttle.
That's when the Corvette started to feel clairvoyant. It seemed to instinctively know what to do next, even before being given input. Not only did the car slow down instantaneously with a firm push on the brake pedal, it also anticipated each downshift of the seven-speed manual transmission, knowing exactly when to blip the throttle on its own and synch the engine speed with the lower gear.
This Active Rev Match function, a new feature for the Corvette that comes standard with the manual transmission on 2014 models, is designed to mimic an advanced driving technique that race-car drivers use. More important, it is just one of the many ways the 2014 Chevrolet Corvette Stingray turns ordinary people into superhumans when they get behind the wheel.
"The car will make you feel like a hero," says Tadge Juechter, chief engineer of the Corvette.
This is a big change from how Corvettes used to be, or so we found after driving examples from the previous six generations during the press launch of the new 2014 C7 model in Monterey (so-called by insiders and enthusiasts because it's the seventh generation). Each was thrilling in its own way, from the light and lively feel of the second-generation 1954 Corvette Sting Ray (back then, "Sting Ray" was two words instead of one, as it is now) to the uncanny grip and brutal performance of the 2001 Z06 from generation five.
Seat time in each model confirmed that Corvettes have always been fast, cool, and in your face. But they were also somewhat crude machines at their core, requiring a firm hand and steel nerves to extract their full performance potential.
The 2014 Corvette is a sophisticate by comparison. It's still as brutally fast as it was, thanks to 455 horsepower on tap. But now it also has an almost limitless margin for error when it comes to driving dynamics.
Take a turn too fast as we did on one of the many switchbacks along Route 156, and instead of ending up in a ditch, the car practically corrects itself. (There's that uncanny clairvoyance again.)
On an autocross course that Chevy set up for us to safely test the car's limits, we could really feel the positive influence of the limited-slip rear differential as the car eagerly dove into turns and held on under hard acceleration. It took a lot to break the rear tires loose, even with all of the traction aids off. And when the tail did begin to slide, it was easy to catch. Again, that's not something to expect of older Corvettes.
But as much as the 2014 Stingray is a departure from its predecessors, there are ways in which it sticks to its roots. The most significant is how comfortable the car is for everyday driving and on extended road trips, even with the Z51 package, which includes a stiffer suspension and larger wheels with lower-profile tires, among other track-oriented upgrades. This is something that has set Corvettes apart from competitors, many of which have downright punishing rides.
We didn't once feel uncomfortable on our four-hour tour of the Mars-like countryside outside of Monterey, thanks to the 2014 Corvette's longer wheelbase, stiffer all-aluminum chassis, completely redesigned suspension, and well contoured seats with just the right amount of padding.
A new Driver Mode Selector also helped. This large knob on the center console is the type of upscale feature typically lacking on previous Corvettes. Its five settings – Weather, Eco, Tour, Sport, and Track – change 12 different parameters, including the steering, transmission, and throttle response.
Tour mode is the default, and it offers a nice balance between comfort and performance. Eco dials back the power to boost fuel economy by curbing throttle response and shutting off half the engine's cylinders when only minimal power is needed to keep the car cruising. This is no doubt a major contributor to the car's Environmental Protection Agency–estimated fuel economy of 17 miles per gallon in the city, 29 miles per gallon on the highway.
Sport mode sharpens the car's reflexes, including making the optional six-speed automatic shift faster and more aggressively, almost like a dual-clutch transmission. Track mode dials up the performance even further, while Weather mode reigns it in to prevent skidding in rain and snow.
Each of the three modes we used the most – Eco, Tour, and Sport – felt distinct, unlike in some systems where it's hard to tell a difference. The louder exhaust sound in Sport mode will please enthusiasts who relish the sound of a burly V8 engine.
The interior is quieter than previous versions, though you won't mistake it for a luxury sedan – or even a family sedan, for that matter. But speaking of luxury, it finally does have the high-end feel that has been missing since the start of the Corvette's third generation in 1972, when quality and craftsmanship took a nosedive.
The leather feels and smells rich. The metal bits are real aluminum, and you can order a matte-finished, carbon-fiber dashboard that is formed from one piece. Several of the test cars had this $995 option and it looked great. Combine that with the optional faux-suede headliner (also $995) and the new Corvette leaps to a different league than before in terms of luxury. And it still has the Stingray's large trunk.
The downside to all of this newfound goodness is that pricing has gone up $1,400. But what do you expect? It seems worth it, considering all of the added technology and new features, including a customizable digital dashboard.
The one wild card is the styling. You either love it or you hate it, as the cliché goes. Corvettes have always shaken things up, incorporating drastic changes from one generation to the next as a way to keep the car fresh and of the moment.
The latest 2014 Corvette is no different, and it has its share of detractors, particularly regarding the taillights, which have been round for decades and are no longer. Tom Peters, director of design for performance vehicles, who oversaw the Corvette's development is unapologetic. "It kind of unnerved some people," he says. "But when you do that, I think, you're onto something. I get paid to do things that are different, and so that's my goal." [MSRP from $51,995; chevrolet.com]