Last week, the General Motors company sent me one of their Corvette Stingrays. Only unlike every other Stingray I've driven so far, this one had two pedals instead of three. Normally, this outcome would plunge me into a deep existential crisis, like when I drove that automatic Mazda Miata over the summer. This time was different.
If I was filled with anything, it was journalistic curiosity, because for 2015 the Corvette gets a brand-spanking new eight-speed automatic gearbox.
It is the same gearbox that will be an option in the upcoming 2015 Corvette Z06, the first time that model has even had an automatic. In other words, this wasn't just a chance to see how good the new Corvette's automatic is, but also a test of whether it is worthy of being in the almighty 650 horsepower Z06.
(Full disclosure: Chevrolet needed me to drive the 2015 Corvette Stingray Convertible so badly they sent me one with a full tank of gas for a week. With their blessing, I even let my dad drive it too. He's a big fan.)
I have had the privilege of driving four or five Corvette Stingrays since the model launched last year. Every time I do, it's a fantastic experience, and I somehow learn to like the car even more each time I drive it.
But this was a very different Stingray than any of the ones I had experienced before. There was the aforementioned automatic, it was a convertible instead of a coupe, and it definitely fell more on the side of luxury features than performance specs.
This car didn't have the Z51 Performance Package, the more aggressive rear axle ratio, or the Magnetic Ride Suspension, but it did have fancy tan leather and suede seats and a nice Bose audio system. The price came out to $71,225, also making it the most expensive Stingray I've sampled, and yet somehow still a screaming bargain.
So at first — and let me stress that part, just at first — this Stingray seemed a little tame. It was happy to cruise along at normal-ish speeds, with its top down, shifting smoothly, its performance exhaust rumbling quietly. Ride quality was great, too. It was all pretty laid back compared to what I've driven before.
Then I got on it, indicating with my right foot that I wanted to have some fun. At the drop of a hat, the Stingray's personality changed. It instantly became full of the fury I had come to expect — all the speed, all the noise from the exhaust and the wonderful LT1 engine. All those 460 horses go to work turning into a land missile. Handling is effortless, instinctive and tail-happy.
Let the Stingray know you wanna get nuts, and it gets nuts. No messing with sport mode settings or fancy buttons and switches; you just go fast. Boom.
With any car, there's a difference between hype and reality. The hype behind the Corvette has long been that it could slay performance cars that cost two and three times as much. But the Stingray is so incredibly fast that you immediately accept that reality.
When you're in it, you're ready to give that guy in the Italian exotic a sideways look that says "Do it. I fucking dare you, do it. Do it and see what happens."
Interestingly, this was also probably the fastest Stingray I've driven so far. Equipped with this transmission, the car does zero to 60 mph in just 3.7 seconds, which makes it a little quicker than the manual cars.
As a plus, it's also more efficient than the 2014 car, pushing highway mileage up to an impressive 29 MPG. In eighth gear, and with its fancy cylinder deactivation system turning the motor into a V4 in highway cruising, I regularly got fuel economy in the 30 and even 40 MPG range at times.
But enough about how fast and high-tech and awesome the Stingray is — you know that already. How is the new automatic to drive? It's quite good. I never drove the old six-speed paddle shift gearbox it replaces, so I can't compare the two, but I have no reservations saying this is the best automatic that's ever been in a Corvette.
In normal drive mode, it's smooth and civilized around town. Like I said, it has a solid sense for how you want to drive, so it's eager to click up to higher gears in the interest of fuel economy when you aren't hooning. Shifts are nice and seamless, for the most part.
Engaging the manual shift mode is as simple as hitting one of the paddles (reserved for the rev match function on the manual car) or shifting below "D" into "M." Part of me kind of wishes there was a sport setting, one with more aggressive shift patterns in full automatic mode, like on some of the BMWs with the ZF8 or Audis with a dual clutch gearbox that I've driven. But this is easily achieved simply by switching the Drive Mode knob to Track.
Then again, why overcomplicate things? This keeps it simple, easy to work with. Just put it in "M." We Americans don't have time to waste messing with menus and settings; we're too busy driving fast.
In full manual mode, it's pretty impressive. As with any eight (or more) speed auto, there are times when you find yourself "fishing" for a lower gear with actual power on the highway, but that's normal when there are so many gears.
Paddle shifts come incredibly quickly, with no real hanging when you hit redline. It's a smart gearbox, too. No need to lift off the throttle when you change gears, and when you roll to a stop it defaults back to first gear so there's no awkward, jerky shift involved. That's nice.
The General benchmarked this transmission against the PDK dual-clutch gearbox that Porsche uses. They say upshifts happen up to eight-hundredths of a second quicker than on the 911.
The thing is, the shifts just don't quite feel quite that fast. I'm sure they really are, but in terms of the speed of a gearshift, it just doesn't seem to be as instant as a dual-clutch or even the ZF8, the reigning champion of torque converter-based automatics. Still, it's good enough that I'd place it third below those two gearboxes, based on my own experiences. It is far, far better than most.
Many have wondered why GM didn't use a dual-clutch for the Stingray or Z06. Corvette chief engineer Tadge Juechter told Motor Trend it had to do with packaging, durability, smoothness, and the need to be able to share it with other GM cars. A DCT wouldn't have checked all those boxes, so they went with this. And the result is extremely impressive.
Here's the most important thing I took away from the Stingray's new automatic: it doesn't suck. An automatic Corvette should suck, right? It's like a law of the universe. But this one doesn't.
It doesn't make the car boring, or too watered down, or slow, or disappointing in any way. Plenty of good cars are ruined by the presence of a slushbox; this is not one of them.
If it was my money on the line (And there have been moments where I've thought about how to include a Stingray in my budget) I'd get the seven-speed manual gearbox. It's still the more involving experience, and more appropriate for the sports car it's supposed to be. And, at the end of the day, just more fun.
But just as the Stingray is the Corvette you don't have to make excuses for, this is the automatic Corvette you don't have to make excuses for. We have good things to expect from the Z06, no matter which gearbox it has.