2020 Chevrolet Corvette Z51 Track Review: Awesome, But What's Next Might Be Stunning

A hard drive of the 2020 Corvette Z51 shows how much potential Chevy's mid-engine platform really has.

chevy corvette c8 track review
Chris Szczypala

Beginning in 1997, when the Corvette team hatched the wildly successful C5 model—with blue-collar dreams of competing at the 24 Hours of Le Mans—America’s sports car was back on track, in both senses. Winning Le Mans proved more difficult than then-Chief Engineer Dave Hill and Co. had imagined. (It always is.)

But eight Le Mans class wins later (though only one for the C7 R, in 2015), the Corvette has achieved a level of respect, in America and abroad, that would have seemed unimaginable in the Malaise Era, when late Seventies and Eighties Corvettes became fiberglas mediocrities. Racing has had a lot to do with that; a bit ironically, because Corvette owners have been notorious no-shows at track days. 

At tracks like Monticello Motor Club in New York’s Catskills region—where I took my first laps in the new C8 Corvette Stingray—I see 10 or 20 Porsches, BMWs or Miatas for every ‘Vette. Honestly, on most track days I attend around the country, there are no Corvettes at all. In musical terms fit for its Boomer-y demographic, Corvette owners have long preferred Takin’ it to the Streets, and a smooth rendition at that. And though I have a weird track affinity for Blutos like the Corvette Z06 of 2006-2013—with its hot-tempered, big-block 427 V-8—that 505-hp Z06, in inexperienced hands, was a breakup number worthy of Blood on the Tracks. Ditto the supercharged, 755-horsepower Corvette ZR1. So what have we got here?

Chris Szczypala

The 2020 Chevrolet Corvette Z51, By the Numbers

  • Base Price (as Tested): $65,990 ($86,895)
  • Powertrain: 6.2-liter V8 | 8-speed dual clutch transmission | rear-wheel drive
  • Horsepower: 495 @ 6,450 rpm
  • Torque: 470 lb-ft @ 5,150 rpm
  • 0-60 mph: 2.9 seconds
  • Top Speed: 184 mph
  • Max Cornering: 1.03 g (Car & Driver)
  • EPA Fuel Economy: 15 mpg city | 27 highway | 19 combined
  • Quick Take: A phenomenal value in the land of supercars.

Better Living Through Mid-Engine Performance

Even as I critique the C8’s track chops, a caveat: As a baseline model, the first mid-engine Corvette in a 67-year history, this is a brilliant streetgoing sports car. To further torment the bang-for-buck angle, even this loaded-ass Stingray Coupe with an $11,950 3LT premium package checked out at $86,895. The Porsche 911 4S Targa I recently drove—with its automated Targa roof versus the C8’s removable panels—is a still a decisively better, more-rewarding sports car, but it also cost $180,000 with options.

Chris Szczypala
Chris Szczypala

The Corvette’s own evolution into a more dramatic and desirable machine—as evidenced by giddy onlookers who kept mistaking my pumpkin-orange C8 for a McLaren—couldn’t be better timed, with Covid on the loose and sports cars sales slumping badly. And kudos to Chevy for trying to lure more owners into lapping cars and experiencing their capabilities. But look, Chevy knows full well how most owners use their Corvettes: Weekend runs with a loved one, not squeezing into his-and-hers fire suits and burning through a pricey set of tires.

So: This C8 is still a baseline model, with plenty of room to grow and improve. But for all its objective speed, the Stingray feels a little tame, a little tamped down on Monticello’s sprawling, 3.8-mile Full Course. The accommodating personality that’s the signature of modern Corvettes—the chill ride, moderated exhaust note, luggage space and please-the-masses performance—involves compromises that are most exposed on track.

Why It Matters on Track

Before the grousing, the good stuff: The switch to a mid-engine layout allowed Tadge Juechter, just the fifth chief engineer in Corvette history, to give the ‘Vette the skinnier wheels and tires that engineers had long desired. The move improves steering agility (including in fast transitions), reduces unsprung weight and avoids annoying wandering on lumpy roads—all historic handling advantages of the ‘Vette’s rear-engined nemesis, the 911. With better front-to-rear balance, the C8 no longer has to “cheat” its way to cornering grip with oversized slabs of rubber, especially up front.

Chris Szczypala
Chris Szczypala

As noted, it’s a rare sight here, but a C7 Grand Sport coincidentally sits in the paddock, recently bought by a Monticello member. I compare the staggered tires for these C7 and C8 models, both with the optional Z51 performance package.

Where the C7 has 11.2-inch wide tires on 19-inch wheels up front, the C8’s are 1.6-inches narrower, also on 19-inch wheels. Same story at the rear, where the C7’s 13.2-inch-wide tires compare to 12-inchers on the C8, both with 20-inch wheels.

Critically, the mid-engine layout puts drivers about 16 inches closer to the Chevy’s front axle, improving visibility over the dramatically shortened (if overly tall) hood. The center of gravity drops as well. On track or street, that makes it easier to feel the ‘Vette rotating and to judge the limits of its prodigious grip, boosted here by Michelin Pilot Sport 4S run-flat tires. That aggressive rubber is part of the $5,000 Z51 package, which stiffens the suspension, enlarges four brake rotors, and adds heavy-duty cooling, an electronic limited-slip differential, a downforce-enhancing rear spoiler and a shorter rear-axle ratio for improved thrust off-the-line.

That Z51 group allows another key mod, with manually adjustable spring seats that let owners adjust ride height over nearly two inches; but only if one doesn’t select the $1,495 Front Lift system, which boosts the C8 to clear steep driveways or obstacles. In stock trim, the C8’s awkwardly tip-toed stance is its least appealing visual feature, along with that Camaro-caboose of a rear end. The rest is pretty damn great, as evidenced by the rapturous attention the C8 draws wherever it goes.

It’s also easy to adjust wheel camber for track excursions or Type-A street drives, with Chevy engineers recommending a dramatic, negative three degrees of front wheel camber to quell the C8’s annoying understeer in certain situations.

Chris Szczypala

Driving Hard Is Almost Too Easy

I wish my grandmother were alive to see the C8 at Monticello, because she’d be running swift laps before she could finish knitting a shawl. The C8 is stupidly easy to drive fast. Yes, easier than the C7 Grand Sport, which I always found a sweetheart on track. With its 495-horse, 6.2-liter V-8, and 1.0-g plus vise grip, the C8’s jack ‘o lantern mug is soon haunting BMW M2s, race-prepped Miatas and other lesser cars, their drivers pulling aside to let the Corvette fly by. (The limited-run, 444-horsepower BMW M2 CS that I tested here the previous week, on track-centric Michelin Pilot Sport Cup tires, would have made for a more-interesting tussle). 

The Corvette’s Competition Bucket Seats ($500), the most aggressively bolstered of three seat choices, worked great on this road course, but proved too hard and unyielding on multi-hour drives. The car’s high-stamina brakes, e-diff and multi-mode Performance Traction Management (PTM) system work in sweet tandem, the latter like a video game for drivers of varying skill levels. Too bad Chevrolet continues to make accessing PTM—one of its best and coolest tech features—akin to entering secret nuclear codes. Once you figure out the button-and-knob sequence (guaranteed to require a trip to the Internet or owners’ manual) PTM successively loosens the C8’s electronic traction and stability oversight in Wet, Dry, Sport 1, Sport 2 and Race settings.

The C8 feels most alive in Race, naturally, finally free to coax into a saucy powerslide, including in the track’s final, second-gear hairpin before the start/finish line. In more electronically mediated modes, the Stingray lets less-experienced drivers get back on throttle earlier than their skills might allow, and exit corners without excess drama or danger.

But it’s that lack of drama that dings the Corvette. The Motown V-8 sounds solid from outside the car, ballsy and rich. But not enough of that Marshall-stack sound penetrates the cabin to rock occupants. (Another Corvette tradition lives on, with the inaugural C5, C6 and C7 also sending owners racing to the aftermarket for more-aggressive exhaust systems.)

The C8 steers unerringly, with excellent weighting (aside from the gluey-feeling Track setting). But there’s a bit of handling vagueness and squish in some curves, and too much chassis isolation as the C8 carves its path with remorseless efficiency. Few will call this C8 “playful.” Honestly? Given the on-track option of a Mustang Shelby GT350 R and the C8, I’d take the Mustang in a second: From its flat-crank V-8 hurricane to a surplus of sensation, the Shelby is just the more-visceral, memorable experience, especially for drivers who can exploit its performance envelope. Of course, the Corvette’s comfortable ride, (especially with optional Magnetic Ride Control), luxury features and versatility make it a far-better choice as an everyday sports car.

Chris Szczypala

The Corvette has one mechanical weak link as well, the eight-speed, dual-clutch Tremec automated gearbox. Full throttle upshifts are snappy. But the C8 sometimes missed paddle-shift signals and smacked into the rev limiter; it also ignored some bids to downshift to third or second gear under hard braking. Even in full automatic mode, the shift speed and logic doesn’t approach the spooky magic of Porsche’s PDK transmission, which always seems to be one step ahead of the driver; or dual-clutch units from Ferrari, McLaren and Audi.

Finally, let’s remember that “speed” is relative. We hear a lot of “supercar-this” and “supercar-that” with the C8, some justified, including the ‘Vette’s 2.9-second scamper to 60 mph with launch control. But a 495-horse, naturally aspirated Chevy V-8 is not a supercar motor, especially as speeds climb higher. Even with late braking, the Corvette works to nip 145 mph on Monticello’s longest, downhill-kinked straightway, a stretch where I’ve seen 160-to-165 mph in turbocharged supercars like the 911 Turbo S, McLaren 720S and Ferrari 488. As the laps add up, cars of that level will leave this C8 gasping.

Verdict: Nearly the Complete Package

Little of this matters on the street, where the autumn-hued C8 dominated every road it encountered, including a long run from Brooklyn to New England, then from Brooklyn to the track and home again. It’s a terrific sports car that understands its mission, a total crowd-pleaser, and I was bummed to hand it back.

And the Corvette team is working on its own secret weapons that will lift the C8 closer to true supercar territory, whether its own flat-crank, overhead-valve V-8 (with at least 600 horsepower) or a hybrid model with 900 horses or more. I’m looking forward to a Monticello date with a C8 Z06, Grand Sport or ZR1, models that should restore some of the Wild Child, angry edge that’s missing in this somewhat Botoxed C8.

Chris Szczypala

Lawrence Ulrich is an award-winning auto journalist and former chief auto critic for The New York Times, Detroit Free Press, and The Drive. He's currently a contributing writer at a variety of outlets and lives in Brooklyn with a territorial cat and a fast-but-frustrating 1993 Mazda RX-7 twin-turbo R1.