By Doron Levin, contributor
FORTUNE — Lots of Americans under the age of 50 may be scratching their heads, wondering why General Motors Co. has bothered to create the seventh generation of its iconic Corvette sports car.
In 2012 GM’s (GM) Chevrolet division sold exactly 14,132 Corvettes. That equates to about 1.7% of all the Chevrolet cars sold in the U.S. for the year, 0.5% of GM’s cars and trucks sold in the U.S. and less than 0.3% of the 4.95 million GM vehicles sold worldwide. Few parts will be shared with other GM models, other than the large engine block on future trucks.
In other words, how does an automaker not yet four years away from bankruptcy justify the enormous investment cost—not to mention the attention of so many engineers, designers and marketers—to create a car that occupies such a tiny niche?
“I’ll put this car against any in the world,” said Mark Reuss, president of GM’s crucial North America division, at the reveal of the car in Detroit on Sunday night. “Corvette is the sign of a new GM, a GM that is willing to take risks. This is the car that was my reason for joining the company as a young man.” (Reuss’s father, Lloyd Reuss, retired as president of GM.)
Truth is, the Corvette remains a meaningful symbol of GM’s identity, though perhaps less so than in the 1960s and 1970s. It is a symbol of what the company hopes to regain in the years ahead, as much as anything it might have once wanted to maintain when it was the world’s dominant automaker.
Introduced in 1953, the two-seater came to symbolize youth, speed and freedom. The TV series “Route 66” traced the travels of two pals, Tod Stiles and Buzz Murdock, as they search for the meaning of life along the American road in Tod’s Corvette, echoing the spirit of Jack Kerouac.
As those TV viewers aged, the Corvette became a symbol of middle-age (especially male) rebellion against the conventions of home, family, work. For tens of thousands the car became a hobby, a vehicle with which to tinker in their garages or to attend club meetings with other owners.
“[The] Corvette is an important brand for General Motors,” says Brandy Schaffels, Senior Editor for TrueCar.com. “With 60 years of performance provenance behind it, Corvette enthusiasts are anxiously waiting to see what the seventh generation design holds for the American favorite.”
The last Corvette was introduced nine years ago. A new version was delayed because of the company’s bankruptcy. The starting price of the current model is $54,000; it can cost well over $100,000 for high-performance derivations.
Beyond the number of Corvettes that Chevrolet can sell and the revenue they generate, the model’s importance to dealers is enormous. Chevrolet dealers expect that many people drawn to their showrooms to see the seventh generation of the car will ultimately buy a sedan or a pickup. Carmakers have long believed in the “halo” effect of such high-performance vehicles, though the practice of building and selling them has waned somewhat in an age of cost cuts.
“What keeps the Corvette relevant is the idea that this is a car that can do everything Ferrari can at half the price,” says Eddie Alterman, editor-in-chief of Car and Driver magazine. Though acknowledging that Corvette’s fan base is older, he called the styling of the latest generation “high edge and very modern, while remaining true to Corvette.” The new version will be called Stingray, a moniker last used from 1963 to 1982.
Inside GM, the team that builds Corvettes remains prestigious, with designers and engineers vying to be included. But if GM wishes to create vehicles that younger buyers will aspire to own, the automaker may first have to decipher the mindset of customers interested in texting and surfing on their iPhones than studying for their driver’s exam.