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

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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Sonari Glinton is a NPR Business Desk Correspondent based at our NPR West bureau. He covers the auto industry, consumer goods, and consumer behavior, as well as marketing and advertising for NPR and Planet Money.