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With Redesigned Corvette, GM Ushers In New Era Of American Sports Car

The newly redesigned Corvette Stingray is unveiled by General Motors on Sunday. The Corvette's status as a cultural icon presents challenges for GM as it attempts to the bring the beloved brand into the 21st century. (AP)

This week, the sleek, speedy Chevy Corvette turns 60 years old. In the increasingly competitive auto business, where few cars make it past their teens, that makes it nearly ancient.

General Motors, however, is not retiring one of America's oldest sports cars just yet, and is embarking on the perilous path of updating the beloved brand. The auto company unveiled the new 2014 Corvette at the Detroit Auto Show on Sunday, a model that also revives the long-dormant Stingray name.

The Corvette is iconic not just in the car industry but also in culture. Tadge Juechter, the chief engineer at Corvette, says the hardest part is bringing the car into the 21st century while making it look like a Corvette.

"We don't want to do retro," Juechter says, who has spent 20 years on the Corvette and almost 40 at GM. "We don't want to go back and do like some manufacturers [and] go relive the glory days."

What's new about this car, and almost every car at the Detroit Auto Show, is the push to make it more fuel efficient. The new Corvette uses aluminum and carbon fiber to keep it lighter and faster.

"It has a low roof and big wheels and a low hood. ... It [just] looks really fast," Juechter says.

It is very different, but you'll still recognize it as a Corvette.

Meanwhile, the current Corvette is in the basement as far as sales go. Chevy barely sold 12,000 last year.

Brian Moody of AutoTrader says that despite its price tag and impracticality, the Corvette's importance goes far beyond a sales number.

"It's almost like a rolling billboard for the company, for the attitude of the company [and] the spirit of the company," he says.

Moody says you don't necessarily build a high-performance sports car to sell a lot of high-performance sports cars; he says more people will probably end up buying Chevy Impalas and Malibus as a result of the Corvette than will actually buy Corvettes.

Eric Gustafson, the editor of Corvette Magazine, loves Corvettes as much as anyone, but he says he's part of a devoted but aging and dwindling crowd.

"The big challenge is to find new customers," Gustafson says, "and not only new customers now, but new customers that are going to buy the car in 10 years."

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Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Once they get just a little bit older, kids dream of having a car and generations of kids have dreamed that that car would be a Corvette. General Motors, which produces the Corvette, is now updating this beloved brand. And that's the subject of today's Business Bottom-line.

NPR's Sonari Glinton is at the Detroit Auto Show.

SONARI GLINTON, BYLINE: Let's play a game of name that tune.

(Singing) I guess I should have known by the way you parked your car sideways that it wouldn't last.

No guesses? Well, you're in excellent company. Tadge Juechter is chief engineer at Corvette.

TADGE JUECHTER: I don't know what the heck you're talking about.

(LAUGHTER)

JUECHTER: Is that a lyric?

GLINTON: Come on, man. Really?

JUECHTER: Really.

(LAUGHTER)

GLINTON: It's the one lyric that the head designer of Corvette should know.

JUECHTER: Oh, Prince?

GLINTON: Yeah

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LITTLE RED CORVETTE")

PRINCE: (Singing) Little red Corvette, baby you're much too fast. Little red Corvette...

GLINTON: Tadge Juechter is a car guy, not a music guy. He's spent 20 years on Corvette and almost 40 at GM. The Corvette is iconic not just in the car industry but the culture. And Juechter says the hardest part about that is to bring the car into 21st century and make it look like a Corvette.

JUECHTER: We don't want to do retro. You know, we don't want to go back and do like some manufacturers - go relive the glory days. Hey, lets go - I hear it from customers actually - Oh, just do the '63 over again, that thing was awesome. Bring that back

GLINTON: What's new about this car and almost every car at the Detroit Auto Show is the push to make it more fuel efficient. It uses aluminum and carbon fiber to keep it lighter and, well, fast. Juechter describes the car, which was designed just after the worst of GM bankruptcy

JUECHTER: It has a low roof and big wheels, and a low hood, and it's certainly pointy in the front. It's really chopped in the back like a race car is. They tend to be really flat and chopped and shortened in the back. Well, it's really fast.

GLINTON: It's very, very different, but you'll still recognize it as a Corvette. Meanwhile, the current Corvette is in the basement sales-wise; Chevy barely sold 12,000 last year.

Brian Moody with AutoTrader.com, and he says Corvette's importance go far beyond sales number.

BRIAN MOODY: Well, the Corvette is, by its nature, somewhat impractical. It's a super high-performance car. It's not super inexpensive but it's almost like a rolling billboard for the company, for the attitude of the company, the spirit of the company.

GLINTON: Moody says, if you're GM, you don't necessarily build a high-performance sports car, just to sell high-performance sports cars.

MOODY: Well, the point of the Corvette is that probably more people will end up buying Impalas and Malibus as a result of the Corvette, than will actually buy a Corvette.

ERIC GUTAFSON: My name is Eric Gutafson. I'm editor of Corvette magazine.

GLINTON: So you mean to tell me there's a whole magazine devoted to Corvette.

GUTAFSON: Believe it or not, that's true.

GLINTON: Gustafson loves Corvettes as much as anyone. But he says he part of a devoted but aging and dwindling crowd.

GUTAFSON: So the big challenge is to find new customers. And not only new customers now, but new customers that are going to buy the car in 10 years. So, people in their - teenagers that are going to see this car and that will be their dream car in the future. Right now, the Corvette is not a dream car for young kids.

GLINTON: Gustafson says he likes the new car so far, but nobody's singing about it yet.

Sonari Glinton, NPR News, Detroit.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LITTLE RED CORVETTE")

INSKEEP: (Singing) This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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