Much like America itself, the Chevrolet Corvette, the country's longest-running sports car, faced hard times in recent years.
A new era began Sunday night.
Inside a ramshackle industrial facility in northern Detroit, Chevrolet unveiled the 2014 Corvette C7, the model's first overhaul in nine years. It contains a next-generation V8 engine, a small-block LT1 that combines several advanced technologies into one package and takes drivers from 0 to 60 in less than four seconds.
But for Corvette, this isn't about statistics. "It's more than just a sports car," said GM design chief Ed Welburn. "It's an emotion. It's a passion. It is a vehicle that is larger than life."
For those reasons, it was perhaps the perfect vehicle to headline the first night of the North American International Auto Show. After years of economic doldrums brought on by the Great Recession, the auto industry needed a larger-than-life icon to help celebrate more than 15 million units sold in 2012.
Hundreds of sports-car enthusiasts hooted and hollered Sunday night as Chevrolet pulled curtains back and revealed the C7 inside the Russell Industrial Center, which felt more like a nightclub than a factory. They lingered around the bright-red specimen displayed for more than an hour after the reveal.
Most of the hard-core already knew some specifics about the model, like it's 450 horsepower and 450 pound-feet of torque.
Chevrolet added a twist, announcing the C7 will carry the Stingray name, a nod to the Corvette's early heritage throughout the 1960s.
"It matches the concept they had a couple of years ago, and they really hit the nail on the head," said John Dunlap, a 27-year-old Corvette owner and enthusiast who scored a ticket to Sunday's unveiling through the National Corvette Museum in Bowling Green, Ky.
He drove his 2002 C5 from Minerva, Ohio to Detroit for the unveiling. Years ago, he was tempted to upgrade to the C6, but was instead glad he waited for the oft-delayed C7 model.
"They needed to make it sexier and relate it to its heritage," Dunlap said. "And the interior is going to blow our minds. Hopefully, that's really up there, the quality of the materials. I'm a touchy-feeling kind of guy, and the interior, before, was something that everyone knocked on."
Critics had panned the no-frills interior on the C6 model. But that was the least of Corvette's problems in recent years. There were few brands that symbolized the auto industry's crisis better.
As General Motors teetered on the brink of bankruptcy, the sports-car market was ravaged by the economy, losing approximately 41 percent of its sales from its pre-recession high. Sales of the Corvette, which debuted in 1953, slumped to their lowest numbers in nearly a half-century, falling to 13,164 in 2011.
Worse yet perhaps, the Corvette's more muscular sibling, the Chevy Camaro, gained a ton of attention after a mid-decade redesign that drove sales as high as 88,248 in 2011. But even as General Motors discarded sacred brands and models in the midst of its government-backed rescue, the Corvette endured.
"The soul of our company is indeed in Corvette," Mark Reuss, GM's chairman of North America, said Sunday. "Since 1953, through good times and bad for this company, there was always the Corvette, demonstrating what it means to win."
If there are nods to the Corvette's heritage in the new design, there are also subtle nods to the present competition. Gone are the car's trademark rounded tail lights, replaced with more boxy lights that resemble those found on the Camaro. That's not an update that sits well with many long-time Corvette owners.
"Many individuals are concerned about the rear square lights," said Tommy DeLuca, who owns a 2005 Corvette. "My concern would be how to differentiate the tail lights from other GM cars. The tail lights should be different so that anyone looking at the car will know it is a Corvette."
The C7 is one of 13 new Chevrolet products that will hit U.S. show rooms this year. Like many of the others, it arrives lighter than past models. Engineers said Sunday they had trimmed 90 pounds from the car, and used carbon fiber on even the base trim level.
Pricing was not announced Sunday night, but it is expected the base model of the C7 will cost more than the $49,600 of the base C6 predecessor. Fuel economy is expected to reach 18 miles per gallon in the city and 29 mpg on the highway.
Combine the overhauled interior with the substantial exterior changes with the structural differences and drop in weight, and it's a dramatically different car.
"It's a bigger departure from the C6 to the C7 than I think it was from the C5 to the C6," Dunlap said. "It has a more exotic look, a more sexy look. They're trying to get a lot of young people involved, and I think this is the car to do it."
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