Chevy finds the perfect balance between base Stingray and street-terror Z06
Chevy knows its customers. When they asked for an inexpensive sports car that could take on the best in Europe, it delivered with the Corvette Stingray. When they wanted the big Z06 engine, with the automatic transmission AND the convertible top, it acquiesced. And when customers wanted a middle model, something that sat firmly between the Stingray and the Z06, it brought us the Grand Sport. The name goes back a bit, though:
The Grand Sport idea came to be in 1960 when Corvette Godfather Zora Arkus-Duntov and legendary driver Briggs Cunningham entered three “mostly stock” Corvettes in the 24 Hours of Le Mans. It won its class and placed eighth overall. A few years later, Arkus-Duntov and Chevy planned to create 125 Grand Sport Corvettes for homologation -- that is, the necessary production number which allowed it to race -- but the plan was cut short when General Motors killed its factory racing support. Still, a few Grand Sports slipped out to customers.
The legend grew, and in 1984 Chevy introduced the Z51 package, a hi-po set of handling options that was the precursor to the true Grand Sport. In 1996, Chevy took the final step. It built 1,000 Corvettes labeled Grand Sport, all with an admiral blue exterior, an arctic white stripe and red hash marks on the left-front fender.
Twenty years later -- by the end of this summer -- the latest Grand Sport will debut. It occupies the space between the Stingray and Z06, stacked with bigger wheels (19s and 20s instead of 18s and 19s), Michelin Pilot Super Sport tires, Z06-style Brembo brakes, wider rear fenders, special grille inserts, stiffer spring rates and an electronic limited-slip differential. The LT1 V8 rated at 460 hp and 460 lb-ft of torque gets a dry-sump oiling system and is offered with the seven-speed manual or eight-speed auto transmission option. GM’s fantastic Magnetic Ride Control is standard.
We tested the 2017 Grand Sport in the hills outside Atlanta and at the Atlanta Motorsport Park, a two-mile, 16-turn country club racetrack about an hour north of the downtown area.
Trying to beat the triple-digit heat in the South, we roared out of the hotel by 7 a.m. in a black, eight-speed hardtop with yellow hash marks over the front left wheel. That would have been our favorite color combo, if it weren’t for the classic, red, white and blue scheme, which is coming back for 2017.
On the street, the adjustable suspension kicked into action early, about 7:12 a.m., absorbing all but the harshest road imperfections -- even in the track setting, where we left the mode selector most of the time. The dark, cold-patched two-lanes didn’t upset the chassis and didn’t seem to shake anything in the cabin. The sound was limited to some gentle rumbling underneath the car.
The Vette uses an electric-boosted rack-and-pinion steering setup, which felt quick on the curvy wooded roads. The wheel never seemed to turn more than a few degrees on the sweepers, and the slanted, roundabout curbs were stuck to like the Karussell at the Nurburgring.
The seating position was a little higher than expected, but the adjustable-bolstered perches offer a decent view of the front wheel haunches, making it easy to hit marks on the road. Rear visibility isn’t great, but it`s acceptable, considering most things will be disappearing that way in a hurry. The rest of the cabin is well put together with the smooth leather dash meeting the suede of the front pillars. This tester, in particular, had the new quilted suede removable top, which adds just a touch of faux luxury to the purpose-built cabin. There’s a nice dead pedal to rest your left foot on when not shifting and plenty of room down there to spread your dogs out.
The LT1 sounds spectacular anywhere in the rev range, though it gets even better above 4,000 rpm. Shifting at the redline lets out a giant pop from the center-mounted tailpipes, but letting off and listening to the engine wind down is nearly as good. Surprisingly, there isn’t really any annoying drone at a steady 70 or 80 mph. Seventh gear (and eighth in the automatics) does wonders to tone that down.
On the track, we drove a selection of Grand Sport coupes, all with the Z07 package, which adds even stiffer suspension settings, carbon-ceramic Brembo brakes, 19-inch front and 20-inch rear Michelin Pilot Super Sport Cup 2 tires, the front splitter and carbon-fiber ground effects, to the tune of $7,995.
We found that version of the Corvette to be a weekend track warrior’s dream. Where the Z06 sometimes feels overpowered and overwhelming, even to a semi-competent driver, the GS with the Z07 has mind-bending amounts of stick but doesn’t feel like it might take off into outer space with the flick of an ankle. Powering out of corners in track mode with the traction control in “sport 2” -- one setting before “off” -- we felt the nannies kill power just a smidge exiting the two hairpins. Otherwise, it never intervened.
At speed, the smallish, flat-bottomed steering wheel has a good amount of heft to it, enough that when we were cooled off after the heat on the track, we could feel a little fatigue in the bicep area. We won’t say that we could gauge exactly what the front tires were doing through the steering wheel, but the chassis, combined with the Cup 2 tires, sent enough feel into the butt dyno that we never really feared going off. That’s good for several reasons, since most of the corners at AMP don’t have a ton of runoff area.
Chevy says the Grand Sport will sprint to 60 mph in 3.6 seconds, as opposed to 4.0 in the base Stingray. It’ll do the quarter in 11.8 and pull 1.2 gs on the skidpad, equal to the insanely fast and grippy Z06. We felt all of those gs, and maybe more, on AMP’s large and small sweepers. Both were lefts. One was a max second gear, the other a higher-speed 2-3-4 that lead into the front straight. The front wheels never pushed, and as long our hands were in the right position, a little mid-corner correction was easy.
The brakes, at least with the Z07 carbon ceramics, were He-Man strong and fade free over the course of five hours on the scalding-hot track. The hairpins, both approached at speed, were no match. Just press the pedal 2 inches, and if you need more, one last shove will get you to 0. Chevy made a point to tell us that with the Z07 package, the Grand Sport can go from 60-0 mph in less than 100 feet. The Porsche 918 Spyder does it 94 feet, in case you were wondering ... and it’s nearly a million dollars.
Like we said, Chevy knows its customers, and its customers like throwbacks. A Grand Sport Collector’s Edition will be available -- they will have special VINs, a Watkins Glen gray metallic overcoat with tension blue hash marks over the fender and the carbon flash badge package, black Cup wheels and wild-looking blue and black leather seats. We expect NASCAR team owner Rick Hendrick to have one by the end of this sentence.
The GS is an even 10 grand over the $56,445 base price of the Stingray. The wider rear fenders and dry-sump system alone are probably worth the price of admission. Now, adding the $8,000 Z07 package puts you dangerously close to the $80,445 price of the full-blown Z06. The ultimate Corvette, as Chevy calls it, is an uncaged animal, more in the vein of the Dodge Viper. If you want to be scared every time you drive, or win every street race you find, get the Z06. If you want to improve your driving skills in a piece of machinery made for sticking to corners, the Grand Sport is the way to go.