Review: 2010 Chevrolet Corvette Grand Sport

Up Front

My Rule No. 1 when it comes to car reviewing: Any excuse to drive a Corvette.

Following that rule put me behind the wheel of a 2010 Corvette Grand Sport just as the first days of spring arrived in hilly northeast Pennsylvania. I wasn't disappointed. Most of the time I was totally exhilarated.

The Grand Sport, a new version of the iconic two-seater Chevy sports car, splits the difference between the regular Corvette and the powerful, much more expensive Z06. Basically, the GS replaces the Z51 performance package that used to be an option on the base-model Corvette.

The GS has the same 6.2-liter, 430-hp V8 found in the regular Corvette, and is offered as either a coupe or a convertible. Either way, it includes a number of Z06-style upgrades, among them bigger brakes, a sport-tuned suspension, wider front and rear fenders, and a front splitter and tall rear spoiler, as well as fender stripes and vents and unique alloy wheels. These aren't all cosmetic enhancements. Many of them improve the car's aerodynamics and handling so that it hugs the road even more tenaciously than a regular Corvette.

Unlike the Z06, which only comes with a stick shift and a fixed hardtop, the GS can be had with a convertible top, or a removable roof panel that comes standard in the coupe. It's also available with a six-speed automatic transmission with optional steering-wheel-mounted paddle shifters ($1,250).

However, there are compelling reasons to go with the six-speed manual transmission, which comes with additional Z06 performance upgrades, such as a dry sump oil system and a differential cooler. These enhancements require the engine in the stick-shift GS (like the bigger engines in the Z06 and ZR1) to be built by hand. Also standard with the stick is a "launch control" feature that uses the car's electronic systems to help keep the tires from spinning and the rear end from fishtailing during rapid acceleration.

In effect, you're getting an exclusive performance vehicle at a much lower price than the Z06. The GS starts at $55,720 with a hardtop and $59,530 with a convertible top. That's more than the regular Corvette, which starts at $49,800, or $54,530 with a convertible top. But it's 20 grand less than a Z06, which only comes with a fixed hardtop and starts at $75,235. It's also half the price of a super-fast Corvette ZR1, which starts at around $108,000.

Like other Corvettes, the GS has excellent fuel economy on the highway: It's rated to get 16 mpg in the city and 26 on the highway with a stick shift, 15/25 with an automatic. However, you're unlikely to match those figures if you exercise the car's engine on a regular basis. In a stretch of 400 miles of mixed, hard driving, I only got about 14 mpg in my manual GS test car.

With the economy still iffy and consumers jittery about gasoline prices, the Corvette continues to sell poorly, despite its appeal to driving enthusiasts. Sales fell 20.3%, to 2,433, in the first quarter of 2010 compared with a year earlier. A General Motors spokesman says the regular Corvette, the GS, and the Z06/ZR1 each account for about one-third of sales.

Behind the Wheel

If you haven't driven a Corvette in recent years, you may be shocked by how well the Grand Sport performs. The Corvette has evolved to the point where it's a genuine rival to far more expensive vehicles, such as the Porsche 911. Among other things, the GS has nearly perfect (51%/49%) front/rear weight distribution and handles curves nearly as well as a Porsche. The massive brakes (14-in. front rotors with six-piston calipers and 13.4-in. rear rotors with four-piston calipers) provide Z06-style stopping power.

Unless you spend a lot of time on a racetrack, you really don't need to pay extra for the huge 505-hp V8 that comes in the Z06 (I'm not sure the 638-hp power plant in the ZR1 should even be street-legal). Both the regular Corvette and the GS are screamingly fast: They'll accelerate from zero to 60 in a little over four seconds.

However, it's tough to match the GS's rated time—though it's a lot of fun trying—without a track to drive on. The launch control feature is great, but in my tests on an isolated back road, there was some tire spin and fishtailing even with the system engaged. As a result, I couldn't get my zero-to-60 times under 4.6 seconds or so. With more practice, I'm sure the GS could do better, but I didn't want to get arrested so I stopped trying.

The optional dual-mode performance exhaust is pricey ($1,195), but well worth considering. It adds six horsepower and gives the exhaust a marvelous throaty growl. I also heartily recommend the heads-up display, which comes within a couple of premium equipment packages ($4,205 and $7,205) and can be programmed to show different combinations of readouts, including g-force. It's fun, and having the speedometer reading projected out in front of your nose may keep you from getting speeding tickets.

One advantage of the GS Coupe over the Z06 is the removable roof panel. The panel is so light that one person can easily remove it and stow it in the trunk, where brackets hold it in place and keep it from rattling. You can do the whole operation in a minute or so. For an extra $750, you can replace the body-color panel with a transparent one, and you can have both for an extra $1,400.

The disadvantage of stowing the roof panel in back is that it eats up much of the GS Coupe's voluminous 22 cu. ft. of cargo space. There's still some space under the stowed roof for, say, briefcases or thin luggage—but not much. On the other hand, the ragtop GS only has 11 cu. ft. of cargo space with the roof up and 7.5 cu. ft. with the top down.

The main negative about the Corvette: Some elements of its interior look cheesy. In particular, the housing around the center console is an outrage in such an otherwise fine vehicle. In my test car, the section on the passenger side was so flimsy that it flexed with a light poke of the finger. It's meant to resemble carbon-fiber material but it looks like plastic to me.

Buy It or Bag It?

Of Corvette Grand Sport buyers, 86.6% are male, the average age is 56, and 54% pay cash, says the Power Information Network. Accordingly, the Grand Sport seems to be a gift that a man offers himself relatively late in life when he has achieved a certain degree of success.

It's also a terrific compromise between the basic Corvette and the Z06. Personally, I'd go with the GS Coupe with a stick shift and handy removable roof panel. You don't get the huge engine, but to me a tiny bit of extra speed isn't worth an extra 20 grand. If I wanted a ragtop or automatic transmission, I'd save even more money and stick with the basic Corvette, which is a great car in its own right.

Dollar for dollar, there's nothing else quite like the Corvette on the market. The GS sells for an average of $62,483, according to PIN. Other two-seater sports cars, including the BMW (BMW:GR) Z4 ($56,081) and the Porsche Boxster ($58,140), sell for less but don't have the GS's raw speed. Ford's (F) Mustang Shelby GT 500, which starts at $48,575, will match the GS's speed—but it's more of a classic muscle car than a sports car. Otherwise, you have to pay up for something like the Nissan (NSANY) GT-R ($82,464).

If you're considering any of those rival models, test-drive the Corvette GS before buying. It's a marvelous machine.

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