Last week, one of the leading auto paparazzi aces scored and caught a pair of heavily disguised Corvette prototypes -- likely to be officially unveiled in a year or so, as 2013 models -- undergoing cold-weather testing in the hands of General Motors (GM) engineers.
Somewhat surprisingly, the new Vettes look quite a bit like the current car. At the very least, what is pretty clear from the photos is that the all-new Corvette will reprise the tried-and-true formula one more time -- a powerful front-mounted V8 engine driving the rear wheels.
But will it be the last time?
The Draw of Old-School Cool
Corvette sales are tiny compared to what they once were -- just 13,596 produced in 2011, down from a peak of almost 54,000 in 1979. While Corvettes don't add big bucks to the General's bottom line, the car still draws traffic from casual fans and serious sports-car drivers to showrooms after all of these years.
This is, after all, "America's Sports Car." For car enthusiasts, any all-new Corvette is a big deal. The new-generation model will be just the seventh all-new Corvette in the car's nearly 60-year history. Guys -- and it is mostly guys -- will come in to see the new Vette -- and after looking at the rest of the Chevy lineup, they (or their spouses) will end up leaving with a new Tahoe or Malibu.
At least, that's how it's supposed to work.
While GM is clearly determined to keep the Corvette and its fire-breathing V8 engine going in an era of high gas prices and ever-tightening environmental regulations, one has to wonder how much longer this horsepower party is going to last.
Too Much Power for the Fuel-Efficient Future
Enthusiasts have to ask if the C7, as the upcoming seventh-generation Vette is known, will be GM's last, or at least the last to feature that old-school formula -- rear-wheel-drive, a conventional manual transmission, and a powerful gas-fueled V8 engine.
New federal rules that will require automakers to average 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025 would seem to relegate those big V8 engines to the history books. How can cars like the Vette, Ford's (F) brawny Mustang, and Chrysler's Hemi-powered Charger and Challenger possibly exist in a world full of hybrids? Will Tesla Motors' (TSLA) sleek new Model S emerge as the new standard for high performance?
The answer might be to make the sports cars into hybrids, too. Believe it or not, it's already happening.
A Thundering, High-Performance... Hybrid?
Horsepower fans might cringe at the thought of their beloved muscle cars being turned into Toyota (TM) Prius clones, but if you think about it, this might not be a bad thing. I own a car with a big high-performance V8, and it's a blast. But when I'm just commuting on the highway, or driving to the grocery store, the 17 miles per gallon it gets is a lot less fun.
The Porsche can be yours for a mere $845,000, but the basic idea -- a car that runs on electricity until you stomp the gas pedal, at which point the big V8 takes over -- is a solid one that seems likely to be widely copied.
From that perspective, it's easy to imagine the next new Corvette as a plug-in hybrid, with a thundering V8 that shuts itself off when it isn't needed. Will that be where GM takes its iconic sports car? We'll have to wait for the paparazzi to find out for sure.
At the time of publication, Motley Fool contributor John Rosevear owned shares of Ford and General Motors. The Motley Fool owns shares of Ford Motor. Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended buying shares of Tesla Motors, General Motors, and Ford Motor. Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended creating a synthetic long position in Ford Motor.