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Chevy's Detroit Balance: Green Cars and 620-Horsepower 'Vettes

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The auto industry had its best year of the last six in 2013, with 15.6 million cars and trucks sold, and 2014 is likely to be even better—16 million or better. “The economy has been getting just a bit better,” Ricky Beggs, editorial director of Black Book auto analysts, told me. “People who have been staying out of the market will have to get back in, based on the age of the car they own.”

A teaser glimpse of the new Corvette Z06, due on the market in 2015. (Chevrolet photo)It’s worth thinking about this on the eve of the big auto rollout that is the North American International Auto Show in Detroit, with press previews Monday and Tuesday. We’ll see all kinds of cool cars, including an aluminum-bodied Ford F-150 (as predicted here first), a budget-minded Mercedes C-Class, a brave midsized sedan from Chrysler, the 200, and the usual rip-roaring performance cars.

One of the new cars we’ll meet in Detroit is the Corvette Z06. I never really drank the Kool-Aid on Corvettes, but it’s worth noting that this will be a real supercar at bargain prices—at least compared to rivals from Ferrari, Bugatti and Lamborghini. But did you know that Chevrolet actually sells more green-minded Volts than it does pavement-ripping Corvettes? Yep, 23,000 Volts in 2013 versus 13,466 ‘Vettes.

The Volt doesn't get the car magazines all excited, but it sells better than the Corvette. (Jim Motavalli photo)James Bell, who heads consumer affairs at GM, says that both models “give you more than you expect at a price you can afford.” The Volt, he said, “pushes the Chevy brand into the future. It’s a lot more than a one-off science experiment for GM. In the near term, vehicles like the Spark EV and Volt are very important for us.”

Maybe the Z06, which according to a leak will have a massive 620 horsepower and 650 pound-feet of torque, has more in common with the milquetoast Volt than is immediately obvious. Bell tells me that the new ‘Vette will make even more use of ultra-lightweight carbon fiber than the Stingray Z51, which had a hood, roof and targa top made of the stuff. It’s just as important to keep weight down in a performance car as it is in battery vehicles.

Ironically, Bell says that carbon fiber and other composites, plus injection-molded plastics and aluminum, have more future in tomorrow’s cars than the similarly lightweight fiberglass that has been the building block of Corvettes since the inaugural year of 1953. Carbon fiber’s advantage is huge rigidity and strength, and that’s necessary for today’s (and tomorrow’s) weight and safety standards.

The Stingray has been selling "as it comes off the truck." (Jim Motavalli photo)Bell says that GM is hoping to attract more of the youth audience with the new Corvette. The car has something of an “older gentleman recapturing his youth” image now.

Still, Bell said enthusiasts are buying the new $51,000 Stingray "as it comes off the truck. Guys and gals are putting their deposits down.” Sure, but more of those same guys and gals are buying Volts. And I would submit that the Volt says more about where GM is going than that undoubtedly iconic ‘Vette soon to appear on the runway.

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