Review: 2011 Chevrolet Corvette GS Convertible

(Last paragraph has been changed to indicate that the Corvette won't be redesigned until 2014.)

Up Front

What's the hottest Corvette convertible ever made in the 'Vette's storied 58-year history? If we're talking production models, then it would be the 2011 Chevrolet Corvette Grand Sport Convertible. Why? Because the GS comes with both an optional dual-mode exhaust system, which raises the V8 engine's horsepower from 430 to 436, and magnetic ride control, a new feature on the GS Convertible for 2011. Sure, there are faster—and far more expensive—hardtop Corvettes (the Z06 and ZR1), but if you want a ragtop, this is as good as it gets.

The GS Convertible comes with a six-speed stick shift, and in that configuration it has yet another performance enhancement: standard Goodyear F1 Supercar tires. For shoppers who aren't hard-core driving enthusiasts, the GS Convertible also is available with a six-speed automatic transmission with steering-wheel-mounted paddle shifters for an extra $1,250 (the Z06 and ZR1 only come with manual shift).

For the price, General Motors (GM) has packed an incredible number of performance upgrades into the Grand Sport Convertible. The GS has the same V8 as the regular Corvette, but a sportier suspension, bulkier fenders, bigger wheels and brakes, wider tires, a wider track, and extra brake-cooling. There are also aerodynamic enhancements, such as a tall rear spoiler and a front air splitter like the one on the Z06.

All this makes the GS much more track-worthy than the base Corvette, yet the car remains relatively practical in day-to-day driving. Among other things, the GS is rated to get a respectable 25 miles per gallon on the highway, though fuel economy drops to 16 mpg in the city (15 with an automatic).

The average selling price of the Corvette GS Convertible is $64,601, compared with $59,107 for the GS Coupe, according to the Power Information Network (PIN). Starting prices are $59,995 for the GS Convertible and $55,995 for the Coupe.

Considering all the extra performance gear you get, the GS goes for a modest premium over the entry-level Corvette, which starts at $54,995 for the Convertible and $49,995 for the Coupe. On the other hand, there's a big jump in price if you want to step up to the more powerful (508-horsepower) Z06, which starts at $75,325, or the 638-horsepower ZR1, which starts at $112,500.

Bang for the buck is one reason the Grand Sport has been a hit since its debut last year. Despite gas-price jitters, Corvette sales were up 21.9 percent, to 4,293, in the first four months of this year. Convertibles account for 27 percent of Corvette sales this year, and coupes the rest. Within those numbers, the Grand Sport accounts for 70 percent of total convertible and about half of coupe sales, GM says.

Behind the Wheel

Chevy says the GS Convertible will do zero to 60 in a blazing 3.95 seconds and has a top speed of 185 miles per hour, which makes it close to supercar-fast (supercar-fast would be the ferocious ZR1, which does zero to 60 in just 3.4 seconds and has a top speed of 205 mph). If anything, the GS is a tiny bit faster than the regular Corvette.

Launch control, which allows the driver to rev the engine to near redline before taking off, is standard. I wasn't able to give this feature a decent workout because it rained most of the time I had my GS, but I've tried it before (on the 2010 Corvette GS Coupe and Porsche Panamera) and it's very cool. The Corvette's launch control modulates engine torque 100 times per second to maintain traction. I must say, though, that the Active Differential Control in Tata Motors' (TTM) 2011 Jaguar XKR, which I recently test-drove, seems to stick the rear wheels to wet pavement better than the Corvette's launch control.

I would definitely opt for magnetic ride control on a Corvette GS. On the GS this feature, a major bargain for $1,695, only has two settings—Touring and Sport—but that's all you really need. In Touring, the suspension constantly adjusts damping to smooth out potholes and reduce the harshness of the sport suspension during daily driving. In Sport, it gives the GS Convertible stickiness in skid-pad tests about equal to that of the Z06 and ZR1. If you go with the optional head-up display, you can even get a G-force reading when you push the car hard in the curves. Larger, cross-drilled brakes are included with the ride control option, so stopping power is improved, too.

The Corvette's interior has long been considered its weak point. The appointments in the 2011 GS are more upscale than in other Corvettes I've driven, but there are still problems. The seats become increasingly uncomfortable during highway trips, and aren't sufficiently bolstered to really hold you in place during hard cornering. The navigation system seems about five years out of date. I kept looking around for controls and functions that weren't there. GM should really study the handy combination of buttons and screen commands in an Audi and try to emulate it.

The ragtop in the GS Convertible, on the other hand, is very well done. The top folds down easily into a covered rear compartment. There were no air-leaks in my test car's top and the cabin was quiet at high speed. The main problem is that a power top is only available in option packages, the least costly of which starts at $3,190. Also, there's only 11 cu. ft. of luggage space, which drops to 7.5 cu. ft. with the top down (though that's par for the course in a convertible).

The other disadvantage of the Convertible is that you can only reach the trunk from the outside of the car. In the GS Coupe, there's a handy 22.-cu.-ft. open hauling space behind the rear seats that you can toss stuff into. The GS Coupe also is available with transparent, removable roof panels. This feature only costs an extra $750 and gives the Coupe an open-air feel similar to the Convertible's.

Buy It or Bag It?

At its $64,601 average price, the GS Convertible is a relative bargain. The Porsche Boxster and BMW's (BMWA:GR) Z4 convertible SDrive35i and 35is also sell for 60 grand-plus, on average, but can't match the raw speed of the GS. The Porsche 911 Carrera and the R8 Spyder from Volkswagen's (VOW:GR) Audi unit have the zip but cost far more. The only car I can think of with roughly comparable speed and a lower price is Ford's (F) Shelby GT500 convertible, which goes for an average of $57,174, according to PIN.

However, Corvette GT shoppers will have a hard time holding the line on options. I'd definitely opt for magnetic ride control and dual-mode exhaust ($2,890 combined) and I'd want either the Convertible Preferred Equipment Group ($6,200) or Premium Equipment Group ($9,700) because that's how you get the power top, head-up display, and upgraded interior and sound system. You have to go with the pricier package to get a full, leather-lined interior—pushing the total price well north of $70,000.

GM says the Corvette isn't due for a major redesign any sooner than the 2014 model year. At that point, it's widely rumored that Chevy will go with a smaller, more fuel-efficient base engine. There's no way of knowing what enhancements will be made between now and the redesign, but you have to wonder if the company will ever come out with a bigger, badder Corvette convertible than the 2011 GS.

Click here to see more of the 2011 Chevrolet Corvette GS Convertible.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.