The C7 Stingray is a striking vehicle on its own, easily the most appealing entry-level Corvette in decades. You'd have to go back to the days of actual chrome bumpers to find its aesthetic rival. Still, park a Stingray next to its wide-bodied big brother, the Z06, and the Stingray seems practically practical in comparison. It's a universal fact that race cars look better than their production car counterparts. They're lower, wider, meaner. Up until now, the Z06 Corvette was the closest thing to the race version of the Corvette that the Average Joe could buy off the showroom floor. Sure the C7.R, the endurance racing version of the Corvette, has a big wing, side-exit exhaust, and an impressive rear splitter. The Z06 still brought enough racing cred to the table along with 650hp and its wide, flared stance, to challenge exotics and supercars alike.
For 2017, the Corvette team has bridged the gap so there's now a middle ground on the way up the C7 performance hierarchy. The 2017 Corvette Grand Sport combines the track grip, and wide body styling of the Z06 with the 460hp, dry-sump LT1 V8 from the Stingray. It also brings the 06's brake, transmission, and differential cooling for prolonged track sessions. It's a formula that's similar to the C6 Grand Sport, creating a naturally-aspirated track-focused machine at a price that's closer to the Stingray than the Z06. Available for the first time on Grand Sport is the maximum-effort Z07 package that adds carbon-ceramic brakes, improved aero, and even stickier Michelin Sport Cup 2 tires that team up to offer 1.2gs of road-holding capability.
Chevrolet invited us to Atlanta Motorsports Park (AMP) to try several Z07 Grand Sports on the 1.83-mile, 16-turn track. Even after two lead-follow laps we spent our first two solo laps at a leisurely pace. Luckily the AMP course is memorable, thanks in part to its several elevation changes, so after an introductory driving session each additional lap built confidence in ourselves and the Grand Sport. The TR6070's active rev-matching was a blessing, making complicated footwork one less thing to worry about while entering a corner at speed.
The long, high-speed corners were a workout for the Michelins, which only seemed to offer more and more grip. Lap after lap the brakes never faded, the fluid temperatures never climbed too high, despite Atlanta's muggy summer, and our corner entries got more and more bold. Pushing the Grand Sport as far as we dared we saw triple digits on the head-up display and we thought we'd done the car justice. Then we sat shotgun while multiple Le Mans GT class winner and C7.R pilot Oliver Gavin showed us, seemingly effortlessly, what a real lap time looked like. We synced our Performance Data Recorder video of one of our two-lap sessions to one of Gavin's and they looked similar for the better part of two corners, likely a concession on Oliver's part to spare our ego, before the Corvette Racing Team driver pulled away, carrying far more speed through corner after corner, charging in at seemingly impossible speeds and carrying.
As impressive as Oliver's uncanny ease was the car's smoothness. It combines tremendous mechanical and aero grip with a forgiving chassis that isn't upset when the suspension is loaded at the bottom of a hill or when the track's camber changes when cresting a ridge it just plain works.
We spent a few hours in both a 7-speed convertible and an 8-speed coupe Grand Sport on the highways and back roads outside Atlanta. Magnetic ride is standard on the Grand Sport and it continues to impress as it always has, especially since the introduction of the C7. There's such a marked difference between the compliant Tour setting and the communicative Track setting that it's difficult to imagine it's still the same springs, shocks, and sway bars providing the feedback. There's really no compromise. Also standard is the dual-mode exhaust that allows for quiet cruising, although even with the exhaust bypassing the mufflers the LT1 is quiet most of the time. We changed the default setting so that it remained open even in Tour mode. It's not until wide open throttle that it sounds as it should, with quick upshift, especially from the 8-speed, bringing staccato reports from the quad tips.
The convertible Grand Sport is, unsurprising, less practical than the targa-topped versions of the car. The top mechanism raises and lowers with the touch of a button at speeds up to 30mph, requiring no additional latching. Wind buffeting is surprising low even at highway speed, allowing for normal conversation, the same as the coupe with the windows down. Of course the reduced luggage space is expected, with the Corvette coupe's hallmark cargo capacity scrapped for top stowage. With no space behind the seats, the only storage area is the trunk, which is roughly the size of a large burrito.
One Corvette quirk that we always seem to forget about is that the passenger side footwell is noticeably smaller than the driver side. The driver side managed to fit a 6-foot, 3-inch driver comfortably, while the passenger side required more seat adjustment before the right position was discovered.
Opinions varied on whether or not the eight-speed automatic was a must-have for the Grand Sport. Its smaller steps between gears and reflex-fast shifts keep the LT1 revving as it loves to do, applying more power to the wheels. Yes, it will help you with lap times, and yes, it will rev-match each downshift. It's still a rewarding transmission to drive, a feat for a traditional automatic. It's just that the 7-speed manual is so much fun, especially with the active rev-matching turned on so that each downshift was as smooth as can be. For purists out there, remember that rev-matching must be turned on, the default is off, although we found that having one less thing to worry about, especially on a new track, was helpful. The choice between transmissions will boil down to whether the buyer values lap times more than keeping their left foot busy. Oddly enough, it might make the 8L90 automatic the choice for track fiends in search of consistency and a slight mechanical advantage, while the road tripping, grand touring crowd might be best suited with the manual. Yes, the Corvette makes a fine Grand Touring car. The comfortable seats, touring suspension setting, steep overdrive gears, and the targa's impressive luggage capacity make for a perfect candidate for a long road trip. However, any road trip in a Grand Sport should include plenty of side trips to road courses, which means you'll want an extra set of tires, which means you'll want a trailer, which might put the convertible back on the shopping list.
Corvettes have long been known as a performance bargain, setting lap times that embarrass cars that cost far more. The Grand Sport will only widen the gap. With a starting price of $66,445 for the coupe, the Grand Sport is only about $3,000 more than a Z51 Stingray with Magnetic Selective Ride Control. Add another $5,000 for the convertible. After the C6 Grand Sport was introduced it soon became the top selling Corvette model. There's no reason to expect that to change.