DETROIT, March 14 (Reuters) - General Motors Co is planning to build an entry-level Chevrolet Corvette that would cost less than $50,000 and widen the iconic sports car brand's appeal, people familiar with the plans said.
The No. 1 U.S. automaker is looking at bringing out the less expensive model in mid- to late- 2015, according to the people, who asked not to be identified discussing future product strategy.
"Clearly, there's a lot of opportunity with Corvette," one of the people said. "It's good for General Motors to be thinking out of the box a little bit."
In January, GM showed the 2014 Corvette Stingray, the first new Corvette in nine years, ahead of the Detroit auto show. Called the C7 by fans, it is the seventh generation of the American-made sports car and will go on sale in late summer.
An entry-level Corvette would have a less powerful 5.3-liter V8 engine, and lack a number of features found in the Stingray such as automatic climate control, the sources said. It would be offered only as a coupe and cost less than the current Corvette, which starts at just over $50,000 and runs up to $112,600.
GM denied there were such plans. "We haven't even announced pricing for the Stingray yet, so it's a little premature to talk about what's coming next," GM spokesman Monte Doran said. "At this moment, we don't have any plans to offer something below where the Stingray is."
Officials with suppliers for the Corvette, who asked not to be identified, said they had not heard of plans for a less expensive, entry-level model. One added suppliers would need to know at least two years ahead of time in order to ensure they could provide the necessary parts in volume.
Even as sales have dwindled from a peak of 42,571 in 1977 to 14,132 last year, Corvette has maintained its cachet and exclusivity as the only legitimate, U.S.-built competitor to such exotic European sports-car brands as Ferrari and Lamborghini. Corvette is built in Bowling Green, Kentucky.
GM Chief Executive Dan Akerson called the new Corvette at its January introduction a "halo car" that would draw buyers to the Chevrolet brand, which accounted for 71 percent of the U.S. automaker's sales last year. He said the Stingray was indicative of the risks GM was willing to take.
Since it debuted 60 years ago as a GM Motorama concept car show in New York, the Corvette has earned the nickname "America's sports car" - embodying Detroit muscle and engineering know-how. It has inspired songs and been featured in television shows. To date, GM has built and sold more than 1.5 million of the cars.
GM has gradually expanded its Corvette offerings over the last nine years, adding increasingly more powerful and expensive versions, and an entry-level model would simply be the next step. It's something company officials have considered and dismissed before.
"It's something we discussed from time to time," said one former GM executive, who asked not to be identified. "It would be a 'nice to have.' There will always be more pressing uses for capital and resources. Besides, there's Camaro. How many sports cars does one division need?"
A lower priced offering by Corvette could expand the brand's reach, said Jerry Burton, associate creative director at Campbell-Ewald and the publisher of the Corvette Quarterly factory magazine during its 20-year run that ended in 2008.
"If they're talking about doing a Corvette that has a lower price point, that could possibly expand the market," said Burton, who has written two books about the Corvette.
"You look at the number of people under 40 who would even seriously consider a Corvette and it's off the radar screen. It's just too expensive," he added. "The Corvette has become really much more of an empty nester's car, a reward to yourself for getting your kids through college."
GM weighed a similar approach with the fifth generation of the Corvette in the late 1990s, but ended up abandoning plans to use cloth seats, manual locks, and smaller tires and wheels, Burton said.
Peter DeLorenzo, editor-in-chief of the Autoextremist.com web site, has previously called on GM to expand the Corvette lineup and believes the brand could succeed as its own division.
"Corvette has been an underutilized brand for a long time," he said. "GM has never quite understood what they had."
Cathy Gardner, an accountant in Memphis, Tennessee who owns a jetstream blue 2010 Corvette Z06 and is a member of the local Corvette fan club, is less than enthused by the idea.
"I don't know if an entry-level Corvette would be the way," she said. "That's the function that Camaro performs. I would just really hate to dilute the reputation of the Corvette."