Corvette Stingray: A harbinger of GM's turnaround?

August 20, 2013: 5:00 AM ET

In its seventh redesign of the storied sporty two-seater, GM has a chance to show off its engineering chops and its corporate revival.

By Doron Levin

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FORTUNE -- A week of 2014 Corvette Stingray test drives near Monterey, Calif. has generated a slew of glowing reviews, pointing to another positive development for General Motors Co.' s restructuring and revitalization.

The seventh-generation redesign of the 60-year-old sporty two-seater was a chance for GM (GM) to show off its engineering chops and create a vehicle that can run with Porsche, Ferrari, BMW, and other European exotics.

Don't laugh: The latest Corvette can compete with the big boys, and at a fraction of the price. It's too early to measure how Corvette will help the standing of GM or its main Chevrolet brand. But the automaker can look forward to a positive bump.

Last month, Consumer Reports gave its highest marks to the Chevrolet Impala, the first Detroit-made sedan to achieve the rating in 20 years. Sales of the model responded.

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"We took some of the best aspects of racing and integrated them into this car. We took the best ideas we could find," said Tadge Juechter, Corvette's chief engineer. "This car's body is stiffer than it's ever been, allowing the driver to feel confident."

I tested the car with a friend, Jorge Koechlin von Stein, a Peruvian former-racer-turned-journalist who competed in the British Formula One Series, to gauge the reaction of a professional. He was unreservedly ecstatic at the Stingray's performance over 150 miles of winding backcountry roads, some very poor.

Unlike some Corvette designs of the past, the car is head-turningly gorgeous and seems to hug the road at high speeds in tight turns, accelerating, and braking, over potholes and through gravel. Clocking in at 455 horsepower, a 6.2 liter V-8, all-new engine makes the C7 the most powerful Corvette. Its acceleration is impressive, moving from 0 to 60 mph in 3.8 seconds; but it can also stop from 60 within 107 feet.

"Watch out" was my friend's warning to builders of European sports cars like the Porsche 911, all of which sell for at least twice the price of the new Corvette. Pricing starts at about $52,000 and climbs to $73,000 with all options.

Why spend the money for beauty and performance if you don't have to? One reason is that Ferrari and Porsche have a lot more prestige, at least for now.

The 2014 Corvette recalls the introduction of the first-generation Lexus LS400, which shocked and transformed the luxury market in the U.S. Toyota (TM) proved with Lexus that it could match the top Euro sedans at a much lower price, while promoting its main brand.

GM isn't aiming to convince a few customers to buy a Corvette over of a more expensive European. Rather, Corvette is hoping to improve its credibility among sports car aficionados worldwide.

By showcasing its engineering expertise, GM's Corvette will confer brand prestige across Chevrolet's product lineup -- which now sells more vehicles overseas, in countries like Brazil and China, than in the U.S.

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Perhaps it's merely a coincidence that Warren Buffett recently disclosed that his public company, Berkshire Hathaway (BRKA), boosted its ownership of GM shares by 60%, or 15 million shares, to a total of 40 million shares. The U.S. Treasury remains the largest investor in GM, following its 2009 bankruptcy; but the Treasury is committed to selling all of its shares.

Buffett isn't always right, of course. The investor has an uncanny and enviable record for finding undervalued companies and buying them at a moment when their fortunes are on the upswing. He especially loves longtime American brands like Coca-Cola (KO) and Heinz.

If Buffett is right about GM, he'll probably acknowledge the 2014 Corvette as one among several small, positive steps in the turnaround of a familiar American corporation.

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