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911 versus the new Corvette Stingray

  1. The difference between ‘bump’ and ‘jump’ is not just bad handwriting, but a mere 10mph, as it turns out. A worrying lack of detail in the pacenotes means it’s almost impossible to work out whether the bend in front involves third-gear-over-slight-crest-onto-straight or fourth-gear-over-slight-crest-into-dry-stone-wall-without-touching-floor. Even more worrying is that I haven’t got any pacenotes, using instead something more commonly known as a satnav.

    This is patently a silly idea, and one that is abandoned quickly, given that this road - the Kirkstone Pass from Windermere to Penrith - is a mischievous tarmac rollercoaster bordered by dry-stone walls with the crash-absorbency characteristics of a load of sharp rocks piled on top of one another. Put it this way, get this too wrong, and they’ll be recovering the resulting smear with Henry the Hoover while I pick sharp bits of the Lake District out of my chest cavity. My heart is beating rather quickly. If I were a shrew, I’d have exploded.

    Pictures: Lee Brimble

    This feature first appeared in Top Gear magazine

  2. Luckily, the two cars we’ve brought with us are more than capable of dealing with this sort of stuff: small enough to cope, fast enough to be mildly terrifying. The first, and most important, is Chevrolet’s new C7 generation, 460bhp Corvette, once again dubbed the Stingray. Just over 60-grand’s worth of American icon, all-new in this generation, and sporting the kind of styling you could slice your eyeballs on. Creases, vents, spoilers, the Stingray has them all, and despite being as subtle as Joan Rivers’s plastic surgeon, it’s got attitude aplenty and drive-by impact you can measure with a Geiger counter.

    The other, and the car the C7 was benchmarked against during its development phase (and mentioned several times in the Chevy press material), is Porsche’s 991-generation, 400bhp, 911 Carrera S. Less power and a third more money than the Stingray, but with the weight of European prejudice weighing heavily in its favour. Say what you like about Porsche’s apparent reticence to change the 911’s basic style, but it’s a handsome thing: smooth, subtle, confident and grown-up. We’ve headed north and brought them to some of the UK’s most challenging roads to see if the Corvette’s engineers paid attention when they went 911 hunting with their 0.50 calibre Stingray.

  3. It’s worth pointing out that we pottered up here in a gentle fashion, manual gearboxes slotted into respective seventh gears, engines and attitudes muted. Both swallowed plenty of luggage - the Corvette beneath its generous hatch, the 911 under its almost equally capacious nose, with a couple of extra bags lobbed into the 911’s tiny rear seats. Pretty much all square for the most part, then. The immediate surprise is that, if anything, the Corvette is the better cruiser of the two, adjustable damping set to supple and engine set to Eco, the better to take advantage of cylinder shut-down tech at a constant cruise that limits the engine to just four cylinders - effectively becoming a V4 - that yielded a scarcely believable 34.3mpg from the 6.2 V8. Helped, no doubt, by 1,400rpm at 70mph in seventh. The 911 was, if anything, a touch harder-riding, slightly less cosseting, and using various Porsche engine management systems to provide just over 30mpg from its 3.8-litre flat-six.

    Yes, the Stingray feels a bit less natural, being LHD only and feeling very cab-rearward - you stare out over a big expanse of bonnet - but once you’ve spent a little time in it (say, five hours on the M6) you soon get used to the fact that it’s to all intents and purposes not any physically bigger than the 911. Both have rather good satnavs and stereos, useful storage and comfy seats for a haul, and their interior appointments reflect their external appearances: the Porsche is sober and aesthetic, ergonomically brilliant and strangely comforting. The Corvette wraps its carbon and red leather dash around you, points lots of dials and HUD information into your face and feels a lot more exciting, if a lot busier and not quite as nicely finished as the 911.

  4. Which is a theme that runs through the initial experiences of the two cars - the Vette has lovely steering, irritated by a fuzzy area dead-centre, the Porsche’s is spot-on, if less genuinely chatty than in previous generations. The brakes on both are excellent and fade-free, the Porsche’s that little bit more progressive and reliable at the top of the pedal. The Stingray also has a long clutch and marginally less precise ‘box, but it’s wise to point out you can get a bit lost in the seven-ratios of either, especially when pressing on and being a touch too forceful across the gate. Which you might be, because both are capable of delivering supercar-baiting pace, especially if it gets twisty.

    Which brings us to the million-dollar question: can the C7 really stand up to the 911 on a horrible UK B-road when the grey sky is sweating a scary, flirtatious sheen onto the exposed bits? The answer, pretty unequivocally, is yes. Yes, it can. In fact, it comes as a bit of a surprise that, when threading through these technically challenging little roads, the Corvette will happily pull away from the Porsche without too much effort - especially given a short straight. It just blares a glorious V8 symphony from a quartet of centrally-positioned exhausts that look uncannily like the exhaust nozzles from a Saturn V rocket, and edits the view.

  5. It’s noisy and slightly angsty, and frenetic. But it’s also exceptionally good fun. Obviously, I’d like to think the distance disparity comes from my exceptional driving skills, honed to perfection by my own healthy ego, but it’s more likely that even though the Corvette and the 911 are ostensibly the same weight, the Stingray has a 60bhp power advantage and, more pertinently, 140lb ft of extra leverage from 1,000rpm lower in the rev range. Translated, this means that the driver of the 911 has to be working the flat-six harder, and the wrong gear begets penalties. In the Vette, you can pretty much abandon it in any gear you fancy, and leave 6.2-litres of small block to smother your blushes. It’s a hugely elastic engine, with globs of character, not least the noise, which is pure sonic vandalism.

    It’s not the whitewash that it sounds, though. Get the Porsche in the right gear, the flat-six singing above 6,000rpm, and lean on the light-feeling nose right into a corner, and you’ll catch the Vette and keep it. You just have to work a little harder through the gears, and carry more velocity through the corner. While the Corvette has a tendency to want to oversteer - direct front end from sharp steering, lots of torque - the Porsche is pretty much resolutely neutral, slick as a salesman’s patter, unless you provoke it. As you drive, it just gets more comfortable, confidence-inspiring and faster.

  6. That’s not to say that the Stingray is in any way naturally lairy - a 50/50 weight distribution means that it hasn’t got any odd, snappy traits - but the magnetorheological dampers can sometimes be slightly caught out by repetitious bumps. The first two deflections are smothered beautifully - especially in Touring or Sport (Track mode is a bit tight for anything but an actual track), but it has a marginal tendency to bounce on a mistimed third movement.

    Under power and mid-corner, it’s a tiny bit less confidence-inspiring than the Porsche’s insane regularity of damping, and the charming indifference of those dry-stone walls tend to mean that the smallest of niggles matters.

  7. The basic feeling of both cars, back to back on the same road, on the same day, is that the Porsche feels slightly more together in every direction. From the way it delivers from the throttle, to the way the body is controlled, the feeling through the steering and the happy kick when the engine breaches 6,000rpm. The Vette requires a touch more thinking time, a little more finessing. Of course, both cars can be altered to suit - but even here the Porsche feels that bit more confident with just Sport and Sport Plus modes. The Corvette offers a five-position Drive Mode Selector (Weather, Eco, Tour, Sport and Track), which ‘optimises’ no fewer than 11 of the car’s systems from the information displayed on the dials to the throttle and through exhaust, diff, steering, damping, traction, launch, fuel management, as well as Performance Traction Management, which subsequently offers five further stages of torque reduction and brake intervention for track driving. It smacks of twiddling parameters simply because it’s possible, rather than because it is actually preferable. The basics of the chassis - an aluminium frame some 57 per cent stiffer and 45kg lighter than the outgoing model - plus all the excellent work by engineers who know what a satisfying car feels like, don’t need all the extra bells and whistles. But it’s a small gripe.

    Of course, there’s a misconception in the UK that the Corvette is so cheap in the US that you get one free with every Happy Meal, and it’s true that there is a version with the same basic bits on sale in the States for around $51k (£30k). But once you factor in the ‘drive away’ price and US tax, it’s not quite as cheap as a badly researched headline might have you believe. Plus, the car we get in Europe is the ‘Z51’ specification, which includes stuff like an electronic limited-slip differential, dry sump, better brakes, diff and transmission cooling, specific dampers and springs and anti-roll bars, different gear ratios, bigger wheels, brakes and better tyres as well as the aero package that offers extra stability at speed. Which makes it not exactly cheap, but - for the kind of experience on offer - still something of a bargain.

  8. In fact, Chevy has been very clever here, because the Stingray is sitting in a neat little sub-£65k niche. It’s theatrical but practical, wantonly fast but relatively efficient if you aren’t going mental, interesting, capable and fun. It’s not a 911, but emphatically doesn’t need to be. In fact, it’s more Nissan GT-R-ish (£76k) in some ways, though less intent on sheer speed at the expense of lower-than-Mach-1 thrills. Perhaps a more pertinent competitor would be something like a Jaguar F-Type V6 S Coupe at £60,235, for which you get a Jag and RHD, and a prettier car, but also a less singular experience. In fact, the things that really limit the Stingray are the aggressive styling and the fact that it comes in left-drive only in the UK, which is also presumably one of the reasons it’s not £85k.

    And so to a conclusion. The fact that the Stingray was benchmarked against the 911 is in no way a bad thing, but it is misleading. The 911 still has the extra finesse in everything it does, from the interior to the one-shot damping to the way that flat-six yowls. It feels unburstable, brilliant and, when push comes to shove, sublime - really at the top of its game. But it should. To get a vaguely comparative 911, you need this 400bhp ‘S’, and that costs, without options, over £83k. A 22-grand premium over a Z51 Stingray, which comes with more standard kit and more easily accessible speed.

  9. But more to the point, there was a time when buying a Corvette in Europe came pre-damned with faint praise, or a slightly whiny sub-clause. The Vette was always good “for the money”, or “for American muscle”. That time has passed. The Corvette C7 Stingray is simply a damn fine sports car, irrespective of the price point. The fact that it feels like good value is just another plus. The Corvette always felt like it would one day come of age. That time, it seems, is now.

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