Chevrolet’s soon-to-be-revealed mid-engine Corvette has nearly 70 years of Corvette history to contend with and learn from, but there’s another history lesson hiding in the halls of General Motors. Thrity-five years ago, Pontiac introduced the Fiero, America’s first and only mass-production mid-engine car (until the mid-engine Corvette gets here).
The Fiero’s story is long and complicated, but it contains a number of important lessons for the mid-engine Corvette. Here are the three biggest, straight from a former owner.
Build the Right Car the First Time
When the Fiero debuted in 1984, it was a cheery little economy car with a 92-hp four-cylinder engine and Chevy Citation and Chevette suspension parts. It wasn’t the car Pontiac wanted to build, but it was the car GM’s management would approve. It took years of work and untold millions to make it a proper sports car. By the time that happened, sales had plummeted and the car was canceled.
Chevrolet, thankfully, has never had to lie about what kind of car the Corvette is, but there’s still a lesson here, and it’s a classic: You only get one chance at a first impression. The car that debuts on July 18 needs to be awesome. It can’t be the cheap one or the one with the wimpy engine. It doesn’t have to be the almighty ZR1, but whatever model it is needs to impress and set the stage for future higher-performance cars. There are a ton of expectations for this car, and Chevrolet can’t afford to blow the intro, or the better cars coming later will never get the chance.
Get the Story Straight
John Z. DeLorean proposed a mid-engine Pontiac back in the ’60s, but it took two decades to make it to the road. Along the way, smog laws and the oil embargo happened, vaporizing any support for new sports cars among GM’s board. Pontiac had to pitch the car as a cheap, fuel-efficient runabout to get it approved, and first-year marketing reflected that. A sporty GT model was quickly introduced in the second model year, but by then the public knew it as an economy car, not a sports car, a reputation it would never fully shake.
Here, again, you’d think this one’s a no-brainer, but given how badly GM flubbed the CT4-V and CT5-V announcement recently, it bears repeating: Get the story straight before you reveal the car. Cadillac tried to get cute and introduce lower-performance V models first with a wink and a nod about higher-performance cars that might be coming later, and it completely backfired. Worse, it changed the V naming scheme without explaining it, leading everyone to conclude incorrectly that the V Series had been watered down. The mid-engine Corvette is a radical change after nearly 70 years of building Corvettes, and it’s probably going to cost a lot more. Chevrolet needs to be crystal clear about the mid-engine Corvette’s performance targets, its competitors, its pricing, and what’s coming next.
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Don’t Get Hung-Up on Sales Figures
The Fiero was an instant hit when it launched, but a small number of engine fires in the first-year cars and the unfortunate similarity between the words “Fiero” (which means “very proud” in Italian and “fierce” or “ferocious” in Spanish) and “fire” ruined the car’s reputation and its sales momentum. Sales dropped from nearly 137,000 in 1984 to less than 27,000 in 1988, leading to its cancellation. Never mind it was still outselling a number of other GM vehicles (including the Corvette, which had seen its sales drop by half in the same time period), the numbers were dropping too fast and GM’s board got nervous. Its death helped contribute to the axiom that GM kills cars as soon as it gets them right.
The mid-engine Corvette will alienate some Corvette fans. If it costs significantly more than the current car, it’s going to price some people out of the market. Chevrolet is used to selling tens of thousands of Corvettes in a good year, way more than any other sports car on the market. It’ll sell fewer mid-engine cars, and the board needs to keep its nerve when the sales figures drop. GM isn’t going to cancel the Corvette, of course, but nervous bean-counters might try to scale back future plans to save money, putting upcoming variants at risk and hurting the Corvette’s reputation.
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