Detroit — Can General Motors turn the Chevrolet Corvette into the ``king of the hill'' among the world's most exotic sports cars? That's the automaker's goal for the next generation of the ``Vette,'' set for a debut in either the 1991 or '92 model year. Since its debut more than 30 years ago, the Corvette has maintained its lofty role as the performance leader among American sportsters. But it has never been able to mount a significant challenge to the likes of Ferrari Testarossa, Lamborghini Countach, or Porsche 959. But those are precisely the nameplates GM hopes to go up against with the LT-5, a low-volume, high-tech, mid-engine road monster.
``Chevrolet has a mission,'' boasts Fred Schaafsma, Chevy's chief engineer. ``We want Porsche and the other Europeans to be worried ... about the next Corvette.''
While Mr. Schaafsma and other Chevy executives decline to go into great detail about the new Corvette - at least on the record - bits and pieces from a variety of sources provide a picture of the muscle machine the division hopes to turn out.
At first glance, the sheet metal of the LT-5 will strike a familiar chord among Corvette's legion of loyal fans - even down to the signature circular taillights.
But from the door handles up, the latest plans for the LT-5 call for a shape that is far more futuristic than anything the normally conservative GM hierarchy has authorized before. Based roughly on the Corvette Indy show car making the rounds for more than a year, the low, sloping, bubblelike windows and roof of the LT-5 extend from directly over the leading edge of the front wheels to just over the trailing edge of the rear tires.
The car's interior would look more at home in a military aircraft than a traditional passenger car.
Since the early 1980s, GM officials have been boasting about the technological developments that would come from their move into robotics and electronics (with such acquisitions as Electronic Data Systems Corporation and Hughes Aircraft). From top to bottom, the LT-5 will serve as General Motors's technology showplace, boasting such gadgetry as a heads-up dashboard display - where essential instrumentation, such as the speedometer and tachometer, can be read directly off a semi-mirrored windshield, just as on a modern fighter jet - and an on-board navigation system.
As the original Corvette was the first production car to use a fiberglass body, so the LT-5 is expected to use some of the latest space age materials, such as the Kevlar and carbon fiber materials.
But what will really move the next-generation Vette into the supercar class will be found underneath its skin. First, there is the Lotus-developed 400/400 V-8 engine, which insiders promise will deliver a minimum of 400 horsepower and 400 foot-pounds of torque. Power will be channeled through a new, 6-speed manual gearbox. Though a firm decision has not yet been made, the chassis has been designed for four-wheel drive.
GM's Lotus subsidiary is also expected to provide a new, active suspension system, which relies on an on-board computer that can help the car absorb road bumps and maintain control in sharp turns.
Performance isn't the only thing the LT-5 is going to have in common with the Countach, Testarossa, and 959.
Sources say its price tag should be ``astronomical'' by traditional American standards: somewhere in the $100,000-to-$150,000 range, (four times the price of today's more mundane Vette), depending on just how well GM can control tricky production expenses.
But those with enough money are going to find themselves in an exclusive club. Production volumes could be as little as 100 a year, at least in the early run. (When the Vette made its debut in 1953, production was limited to 300 cars.)
For those who don't want to wait until the '90s for a taste of the exotic LT-5, GM will be offering a high-power upgrade of the current-generation Corvette, the ZR-1, during the mid-1989 model year.
This car will share some key drive-train components with the LT-5, including the Lotus V-8 and the 6-speed manual transmission. Basically, the ZR-1 will be a modified version of today's Vette, with its rear fenders each spread an inch wider to make room for the huge tires needed to ground the enormous power of the Lotus motor.