First Drive: 2017 Chevrolet Corvette Grand Sport

Break the rules, and you might get caught. Never take a chance, and you'll stay safe, but at the cost of what might have been. Fortunately for sports car enthusiasts, Zora Arkus-Dunkov, the Chevrolet Corvette's original chief engineer, never had much interest in coloring inside the lines (or double-wide racing stripes, as it were). Arkus-Dunkov's willingness to play fast and loose with GM's strict corporate policies banning factory-backed racing allows for a straight line to be drawn from the 2017 Chevrolet Corvette Grand Sport and the five original, so-rare-you've-probably-never-seen-one first-generation Grand Sports of the 1960s.

As with most things Corvette, the difference lies in the details.

There's nothing in the current Chevrolet playbook that keeps Corvettes from competing in, and in most cases, dominating, sports car racing, with an impressive streak of GT victories solidifying the C6.R and C7.R as legitimate contenders on the global scene. It's a tired cliché, but it's true: the same technology that has lead to such great success on the track has trickled down to the Corvette Stingray street car or perhaps more accurately the Corvette Z06, what with its supercharged exotic-smashing 650 hp engine and phenomenal handling capability.

Whither the weekend racer, then? Forget the Z06's starting price, which now hovers near the six-figure mark – not every enthusiast is willing to go all-out in a monstrously powerful automobile with a top speed of over 320 km/h in the name of weekend fun. It's a scary car with an equally frightening performance ceiling, and that leaves the vast majority of Corvette fans on the outside looking in when it comes to a factory-equipped formula for fun on the track.

I know what you're thinking. Why not just snag the Corvette Stingray with the Z51 package? When I initially heard that the Grand Sport model was being revived for 2017, I had the same initial reaction. After all, the Z51 edition of Chevy's coupe brings its own better-than-stock upgrades to the table, including more aggressive gearing and the availability of GM's vaunted magnetic ride control suspension system, which is in a class by itself when it comes to active chassis control.

As with most things Corvette, the difference lies in the details. Walking out of the hotel lobby in Atlanta, Georgia, to scoop up the 'Vette I would drive for the roughly 80 km that separated the city from Atlanta Motorsports Park, I was struck by how much more aggressive a first impression is made by the Grand Sport. It's not so much the dual-slash graphics on the car's front fenders, or the numerous striping and color combos made available with the special model: the GS also features a wider track that is accommodated at the rear by swollen fenders that would have attracted even Sir Mix-a-Lot's admiring attentions. Throw in the front splitter and rear wickerbill spoiler, as well as the rocker panel extensions that all work together to enhance the car's high speed stability, and it's clear that this is no run-of-the-mill Chevrolet.

Once behind the wheel, I was much harder pressed to identify the 2017 Chevrolet Corvette Grand Sport as belonging to a higher caste than its Stingray sibling. On the street the Corvette is such an easy car to drive that there are times when you forget that you're just a foot-stomp away from hitting 100 km/h in less than four seconds, thanks to the 460 horsepower and 465 lb-ft of torque offered up by its 6.2L V8. In fact, aside from the smooth ministrations of its (standard) magnetically adaptive suspension system, the Grand Sport's on-road demeanour did little to distinguish itself from its thoroughly excellent Stingray starting point.

This is all by design, of course. The Corvette Grand Sport is intended to deftly walk the line between comfortable daily driver and FOTD track weapon, which means to take advantage of what really makes it special you've got to leave traffic lights and crosswalks behind and instead park yourself on the starting grid of the closest road course. Preferably, you'll do this with the Z07 package installed, which transitions the Grand Sport from its already-upgraded brakes to carbon ceramic-matrix units, and swaps in Michelin Pilot Sport Cup 2 rubber in place of the standard Pilot Super Sport tires. You won't have either of those options if you stick with the Stingray, as even the Z51 is locked out of adding Z07 hardware to the mix.

Once the green flag dropped at AMP, the Corvette Grand Sport revealed itself to be an entirely different animal, going from pussycat to sabre-toothed tiger before I'd reach the first straightaway. Outfitted with the Z07 package, the Grand Sport's ability to both accumulate and dispense with momentum bordered on outrageous, as the carbon ceramic brakes dealt with the heat generated by scrubbing down from triple- to single-digit speeds with the same casual aplomb as the car's cooling system handled the 40 °C Atlanta temperatures. The seven-speed manual gearbox offered the best control over corner entry speeds, but the eight-speed automatic felt significantly faster in almost every situation, a suspicion that was backed up by the additional second it granted per lap.

Chevrolet has positioned the Grand Sport as being in the "sweet spot" of the Corvette line-up, taking a stand between the seriously expensive Z06 and the $66k Stingray. It's a bit of a stretch to label the GS as an "affordable" track car, but it's certainly no lie to call it the most capable Corvette on a road course with a naturally aspirated engine under the hood.

Not so much Z06-lite as Stingray-plus, the Grand Sport makes a lot of sense for privateers seeking to sneak into the pits on the weekends and then roll home on Sunday night with the A/C blasting, the suspension set to "Tour", and the Pilot Sport Cup 2's keeping you just on this side of the law.

Z51-Plus, not Z06-Lite