Pop quiz time. Arrange the three models of the Corvette lineup in order from "softest" to "raciest." Easy: The 460-horse Stingray goes at the tame end, the supercharged Z06 with 190 additional ponies goes at the serious end, and the all-new Grand Sport—with the Z06's suspension, tires, and lurid bodywork, powered by the base-model Stingray engine—goes smack in the middle. Right?
Wrong. Sure, numerically, the Grand Sport stands halfway up the hill in the 'Vette lineup, in both performance and price. But going by the book, and by the history of the Grand Sport moniker, this thing is way closer to a true racing Corvette than even the mighty Z06.
I'm going to have to explain.
You may know the genesis of the Grand Sport name—how back in 1963, Corvette boss Zora Arkus-Duntov sought to build 125 lightweight, high-power homologation Sting Rays to qualify for the 24 Hours of Le Mans. GM quashed the plan after just five of the so-called Grand Sports were built, all of which were spirited into the hands of racers with names like Penske, Foyt, and Hall, and raced without factory support.
Chevrolet revived the Grand Sport badge twice, in 1996 and 2010. Both times, the badge denoted special editions with evocative bodywork, but no huge performance boost—the contemporary ZL1 and Z06 were still the most serious Corvettes of the day.
And of course, Chevy engineers created something revolutionary with the current Corvette Z06. A combination of forced-induction and fastidious algorithms makes the 650-horsepower super-'Vette fiendishly fast, yet astoundingly friendly. It's unlike anything else you can buy for the money.
It's also unlike the Corvette Racing C7.R that competes in the top echelon of sports car racing. The 'Vettes that swept this year's 24 Hours of Daytona actually make less horsepower than the Z06 you can buy. No supercharged 6.2-liter LT4 lurks under the hood of the racing-sanctioned C7—the pro drivers make due with a 5.5-liter V8 that sucks atmosphere through restrictors the diameter of a garden hose. With power thus cramped by the rule book, the Corvette Racing team uses grip and downforce to vie for victory.
So perversely, of the three Corvette models on sale today, it's the new mid-range Grand Sport—with its extreme tires, aggressive aero, and un-enhanced powerplant—that most accurately lives up to the old "street-legal race car" cliche. More importantly, it's just a hoot to drive.
The 2017 Corvette Grand Sport starts with the tires: Michelin Pilot Super Sports as standard, or ultra-sticky Pilot Sport Cup 2s with the Z07 high performance option pack, the same rolling stock available on the Z06. They're way wider than the standard Stingray tires ( 40mm up front, 50mm in back), necessitating the Z06's wider fenders to clear the 285/30ZR19 fronts and 335/25ZR20 rears.
GM's near-magical Magnetic Ride Control is standard, as is the advanced electronic limited-slip differential, and the Z06-derived chassis sports custom stabilizer bars and springs. The 460-hp, 465 lb.-ft., dry-sump LT1 V8 spins either a seven-speed manual or an eight-speed automatic, same as the Stingray. The Z07 package adds carbon ceramic brakes.
The bodywork is mostly Z06, with Grand Sport-specific front fender vent inserts and the Z06's wider track, open-mouth front grille, and large differential cooling vents atop the rear fenders. The Grand Sport wears Z06-spec front splitter, side sills, and wickerbill rear spoiler, finished in carbon fiber in Z07 trim and claimed to generate real downforce, though the Z06's clear plastic Gurney flap isn't available on the Grand Sport. A Heritage appearance package adds the traditional front fender hash marks, now connected in a horseshoe shape and affixed to both fenders, and a whole color wheel's worth of body, hash, and full-length racing stripe combinations can be specified.
Inside, badging depicting (the only roadster out of Zora's original five) appears on the floor mats, headrests, and on a dash plaque just ahead of the shifter. The brushed aluminum halo to the right of the center stack shows a subtle racing stripe, created by rotating the brushing pattern on the metal 90 degrees during polishing.
Thanks mostly to the optional Pilot Sport Cup 2 tires, Chevy says the Grand Sport accelerates slightly quicker than a Stingray Z51 with an identical engine and eight-speed auto—3.6 seconds to 60, 11.8 to the 1/4 mile, improvements of 0.1 and 0.2 seconds each.
The real difference hits you in the very first curve. The Z07-package Grand Sport I drove at Chevy's debut event outside Atlanta, Georgia turned in with a ferociousness I've never felt in any Stingray. With the drive mode selector in Sport or Track, body roll does not exist, and on the smooth, winding back roads near Atlanta Motorsports Park, those astoundingly wide tires had grip far beyond my courage.
Cresting a hill outside of Talking Rock, Georgia (population 65), I saw a wisp of smoke coming from a cigarette butt in the center of my lane. It couldn't have been 30 feet ahead of me when I caught sight of it. A wrists-only left-right flick of the wheel left the thing squashed in my rear view mirror. Could you do that in a Stingray? Sure. But it feels like slaloming a speedboat in comparison to the Grand Sport. It's that much sharper.
At 3252 lbs., the Grand Sport is 98 lbs. lighter than the Z06. With no supercharger to conceal, the hood is lower, offering a clearer view of apexes (or discarded Kools). All that grip, balance and refinement makes it frightfully easy to drive at speeds that would be harrowing in other cars. It's a perverse take on the "momentum car"—you avoid touching the brakes not for lack of power, but because you can trust the front tires to scythe through any corner, no matter how much steering angle you throw at it. With the windows up, the A/C blasting, and the engine loafing along at 1500 rpm in one of the Vette's many overdrive gears, both car and driver can exceed 1 g on the head-up display without a single drop of sweat.
It takes a race track to approach the Grand Sport's limits, and even that takes work. On the Hermann Tilke-designed elevation changes and technical switchbacks of Atlanta Motorsports Park's two-mile circuit, the new 'Vette generates knee-bruising grip, the Brembo carbon ceramic brakes (part of the Z07 package) never showing a hint of fade. And with five-time 24 Hours of Le Mans-winner Oliver Gavin at the wheel, AMP's interminably long Turn 14-15 left-hand sweeper will rearrange your organs against the starboard side of your rib cage.
How much for all of this grip, sharpness, and Corvette historical homage? The Grand Sport coupe starts at a hair under $66,500, a $5000 premium over a Stingray Z51, $14,000 cheaper than a Z06. (Optioning a drop-top adds $4000 to every trim.) The Grand Sport's Z07 performance package adds $8000.
Put in those terms, the jump up to Grand Sport is absolutely worth it. The suspension and chassis upgrades redefine the car's handling, turning the 'Vette from a sharp grand tourer to a track rat you wouldn't mind freeway cruising all afternoon.
As for the Z06? It's great, but it's a totally different experience. The ultra-'Vette is powerful in a way that you'll rarely be able to fully enjoy. On track, it invites you to probe its absurdly high limits, filling in with brilliant chassis tuning and driver aides when you overshoot your talents. But to do the same on public roads, you'll need a top lawyer, fantastic health insurance, and a glovebox full of bribe money.
The Grand Sport does something amazing. It's stellar on both the road and the track. It's got enough juice to keep you fully engaged on the circuit, obsessively chasing the edge, without ever feeling like a waste of horsepower out on the street. Grip, balance and power work in concert, the way they do in our favorite low-power sports cars, but with every capability tripled. It's as if Zora Arkus-Duntov, up there in Horsepower Heaven, paid off a higher power to turn down the effect of gravity on your Miata.
But what if you bolted those optional Z06-spec Pilot Sport Cup 2s to your base-model Stingray? I asked Corvette Chief Engineer Tadge Juechter if a budget-minded Z51 owner could get 90 percent of the Grand Sport experience at a fraction of the price with a judicious tire upgrade.
"Obviously great tires are key to a great handling car," Juechter said. "However they don't work their best unless all the rest of the suspension and chassis controls are working in harmony." He said even if you found some way to fit the extra-wide tires under a stock Stingray's bodywork (recall that the Z06 is three inches wider out back to clear that rubber), you still wouldn't get there.
"Without the right ABS calibration, the brakes would be compromised pretty seriously," he said. "Stability intervention would be more abrupt and slow you down a lot because the Z51 calibration would apply more brake than necessary with such grippy tires. The eLSD would not perform as well as we would like. Springs and bars would be undersized relative to the loads generated by the big tires and so the car would feel a bit sloppy."
So the Grand Sport, then, is more than just a badge job, more than a cut-price Z06 knockoff, more than a throwback homage to the Ghost of Zora. It's the total package—grip, power, and poise, all balanced and tuned to complement each other and work in harmony with the person behind the wheel. A performance car you can thoroughly enjoy on a closed course or out in the wild. A race car for the . . . oh never mind.