TUSTIN, Calif., July 18 (Reuters) - General Motors Co was set on Thursday to unveil its newly designed mid-engine 2020 Corvette in a splashy tribute to its emblematic sports car, even as the No. 1 U.S. automaker faces mounting pressures in a sluggish and uncertain global sales environment.
Revved up to take on high-performance European rivals with the all-new model dubbed the C8, top GM executives plan a glitzy evening presentation in Orange County outside Los Angeles of the long-awaited eighth generation of the 66-year-old "Vette" to enthusiasts, dealers and media.
The launch comes at a challenging time for GM, which along with other global carmakers faces slowing sales and new financial pressures related to global trade, electrification and unresolved emission standards.
Edmunds analyst Jessica Caldwell said the sports car gives the Detroit automaker a sorely needed shot in the arm after a difficult year.
"A Corvette is not going to help pad margins the way a Silverado would," Caldwell said. "But from an image and excitement standpoint ... that halo effect the Corvette fills is unique."
The Chevy Silverado full-size pickup truck, a perennial best-seller, ranks among GM's most profitable vehicles.
Since 2013, GM has sold over 100,000 C7-model Corvettes in the United States, according to Edmunds. The car ceased production this summer.
Bidding adieu to the front-engine configuration that has marked the famed two-seater since its appearance in 1953, GM has opted for a mid-engine architecture for better handling and weight distribution, the choice of many European sports carmakers.
Expected to cost far below the $113,000 starting price for the rear-engine Porsche 911, the Corvette's price could attract a younger buyer lured in recent years to high performance vehicles from Tesla Inc and others.
The hangar where the gasoline-fueled Corvette was set to take the stage is less than 40 miles (64 km) from Tesla's Southern California design center, where Chief Executive Elon Musk in 2017 unveiled a prototype of a new electric Roadster - dubbed "the quickest car in the world" by the automaker.
Whether the Corvette can generate enough excitement to attract even the loyal buyers of the pricier European brands from Ferrari, Porsche, Lamborghini, Aston Martin, McClaren and Lotus - remains to be seen.
GM has teased the launch for months. In April, Corvette Chief Engineer Tadge Juechter and Chief Executive Officer Mary Barra drove a camouflaged C8 Corvette through New York's Times Square during rush hour in a high-profile tease.
Almost mythic in the American imagination, the car has been immortalized in television and film from "Route 66" and "Hot Rods to Hell" in the 1960s to "Corvette Summer" in 1978. Even Elvis drove the Corvette Stingray Racer in the 1967 film "Clambake."
Ahead of the evening launch inside a vast hangar, Corvette owners planned to mingle at a "Corvette Corral." One enthusiast set to attend, John Elegant, 72, said he has been waiting since his teenage years for a mid-engine Corvette. Over four years ago, he put down a deposit with a dealer for the C8.
The co-founder of www.midenginecorvetteforum.com, Elegant purchased his first Corvette, a canary yellow C7, in 1998 after putting his daughters through college.
"My wife turned to me and said, 'You waited 35 years, go get your Corvette.'"
Explaining the Corvette's lasting appeal, Elegant described it as "an American sports car."
"There are other brands that make really good muscle cars, like Mustang, but a Mustang is not a sports car. Sorry, Mustang lovers." (Editing by Joe White and Tom Brown)