Automakers don’t pick their first drive locations by accident. This all takes months of planning with many site visits and much scouring of drive routes. The entire world knows that Atlanta turns into a bubbling bowl of stew during the summer, and Chevrolet knows that all of you are paying close attention to how the all-new 2017 Corvette Grand Sport performs when the heat is quite literally on. I’m not sure if you’ve heard, but the Z06 has a few issues pertaining to the heat when it’s being pushed hard.

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The good news for the Grand Sport is that it doesn’t have to worry about feeding all of the air and precious cooling fluids required by its bigger, badder brother. Instead of a 6.2-liter supercharged LT4 V8 pushing out 650 horsepower and 650 lb-ft of torque, we’re dealing with the naturally aspirated 6.2-liter LT1 V8. This mighty mill is cranking out 460 horsepower and 465 lb-ft of torque, and you can pair it with either a seven-speed manual gearbox or the eight-speed paddle-shift automatic.

You wouldn’t be crazy for initially believing that the Grand Sport slots rather neatly in the Corvette lineup between the base and then Z51 at the bottom and the King Kong Z06 at the top of the tower. That makes sense on paper. Those dead trees are lying to you though, because the Grand Sport is actually the choice for purists who want the real deal near-race car experience.

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No, it’s not as fast off the line and through the quarter-mile compared to the supercharged screamer. But the run from 0-60 miles per hour happens in a scant 3.6 seconds when you check the box for the Z07 package. You’ll rip the quarter mile in just 11.8 seconds, and you’ll hit 118 miles per hour at the end of that straight. This isn’t a straight-line bruiser though, as this Corvette absolutely shines when the road turns twisty.

Even better? When you put it on the race track… which is what I did.

(Full Disclosure: Chevrolet wanted me to sample its latest Grand Sport so they put me on a Delta flight to the ATL. My hotel was paid for, and I’m thankful the hotel had a great air conditioning system. There was food and booze involved as well, after the day of driving was done.)

Heritage, Evolved

The Grand Sport is not new. This Grand Sport is new, in that it evolves the historical narrative of the family. It all started back in 1962 and 1963 when Zora Arkus-Duntov wanted to take a Corvette racing. At the time there was GM ban on factory-supported motorsports, yet Duntov managed to create five Grand Sports, and he snuck them out to folks he knew would take them to the track.

His goal was actually to produce more than 100 of these beastly machines, but that never came to be. Still, a legendary race car was created, and an original Grand Sport is pretty much the rarest Corvette on the planet.

In 1996, Chevy created a Grand Sport version for its 4th generation ‘Vette. Just 1,000 examples were built. Fourteen years later with the C6 Grand Sport, the goal wasn’t to create a collector’s car but more a special version that also had mass appeal amongst the Corvette faithful. This game plan worked and Chevrolet sold around 28,000 Grand Sports.

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Now we’re here in 2016, staring down the 2017 Grand Sport. That’s quite a legacy to live up to.

A Dash of Stingray + Bits of Z06 = Damn Good Looks

Because there’s no supercharged LT4 under the hood, the Grand Sport has the low hood line from the Stingray. On the nose you’ll find a satin black version of the Z06 grille. Those rear fenders receive similar high quarter ducts like the Z06, but they’re finished in body color matching paint here.

Black or gray calipers finish off the brakes behind the wheels while the wide rear end is lifted right from the Z06. Cars with Z07 bits will get the optional aero package but the rear spoiler doesn’t get the clear removable plastic bridge and tall end caps that you’d find on the Z06.

Inside the cabin you’ll find a seating space that is world class. I know it’s easy to joke about a Corvette interior, but that joke died the moment the C7 was born.

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The seats are excellent, the layout is driver-centric, and it’s the sort of place you could spend either a full day on the track or hours on a highway and emerge still smiling on the other end.

Chevy is offering Grand Sport shoppers a choice between seven colors between the doors. If you are one of the lucky few that plunks down extra coin for the Grand Sport Collector’s Edition, you can also get the Smurf Massacre Blue (It’s actually called Unique Tension Blue, similar to the Tension Blue hash marks on the front fenders, but I like mine better.)

Outside, Chevy is embracing the Porsche philosophy a little bit. There will be 10 exterior color choices but you can further customize your Corvette by choosing different stripes and fender hash marks to pair or contrast with the body color.

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Thankfully they’re not embracing the Porsche pricing policy here, wherein the Germans are probably researching new lightweight composite materials for valve caps just to add in something new for buyers to drool over, and pay for.

On The Track

Atlanta Motorsports Park appears, at first glance, to be another in an increasing string of country-club style racing circuits. That’s not a bad thing, mind you, as the more race tracks on this planet the better. Occasionally though, some of those feature course layouts designed to appeal to rich guys that want to feel good about themselves and go fast. This means far more sweeping turns, less technical tight stuff, and not much of a challenge to be had. Mash foot, turn off brain, go fast Rich-y Bobby. This isn’t the case at AMP.

Created by a former karting champ, the facilities at AMP are top notch. The actual racing surface was designed by Hermann Tilke, who’s created a few bits of tarmac you’ve probably heard about. Atlanta Motorsports Park is 16 great corners spread out over 1.83 miles of road course that winds up and down through the North Georgia Mountains. It’s easy to get a number of the corners wrong, and it’s god damned rewarding when you nail a section that’s been laughing at you all day long. In short, it’s a hell of a place to put a new Corvette to work.

I’d driven to the track in a Grand Sport packing that GM eight-speed. This is a gearbox I’ve also sampled in the Camaro, ATS-V, CTS-V, and the standard Corvette. It’s also a gearbox I don’t much care for, because it seems to get confused easily or takes far too much time to kick down out of eighth and into something more useful. If you’re reading Jalopnik, I’m going to assume you would care to hear more about the seven-speed manual. You’re in luck because that’s the transmission Chevy reserved for the track.

Right now, some of you are also wondering if I used the rev-matching feature. My shoes are size 12 and I’m not the greatest heel-toe hero in the world. I can do it, but if a given car has a computer system that can do it better, I’ll yield. If you’re more Senna than Glucker, feel free to turn the system off. You have a choice here, which is far better than having none at all.

The gearbox itself is 99 percent wonderful. It slots into nearly every gear effortlessly and you can bang shifts around like you’re Miles Teller trying to find the right tempo to keep JK Simmons from taking your head off. For most shifts, that is. On a number of my two-three upshifts, I missed 3rd and wound up in 5th. On the road that’s not the worst thing out there as all of those delicious torques will keep your passenger from realizing that you’re an idiot.

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Out on the track it’s a different story, as your lap time, the corner approach, and your mood start to fall to shit. This didn’t happen every time, but it happened more than once. I asked a few other journalists if they experienced this, and they said they had. I reached out to even more journalists who drove on a prior wave, and the response was split. Some commented that every shift was bolt-action crisp, while others also missed that two-three gear change. This means there’s a pretty damn good chance it was my overly aggressive attempts at cramming two into three, or perhaps some gentle care is actually required here.

Additionally, all other gear changes were excellent. Especially during the tighter sections of track where I needed to haul down speed with some heavy braking, go three to two, and let the rev matching make me feel like Oliver Gavin for just a second.

Speaking of the brakes, the Grand Sport comes packing some serious stopping hardware. The standard brakes come from Brembo, and they’re nearly 14.5-inch rotors front and rear, with six-piston front and four-piston rear calipers. For the first time ever on the Grand Sport model, you can step up to the Z07 Package that is similar to the one you can get on the Z06.

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This nets you overkill in the form of massive 15-inch carbon ceramic stopping gear. The steel units never faded in a day spent with auto journalists fisting ham behind the wheels, while the carbon ceramics laughed at the very concept of “heat.”

Stomp on the less-fun pedal and you’ll lean into your seatbelt as the Grand Sport can haul you down from 60-0 in less than 100 feet. Amazingly, if you need to brake quickly and go from 25-0, this ‘Vette can stop in a distance shorter than its own nose to tail length.

It takes more than brakes to turn good laps. Thankfully, the Grand Sport gets all of the goodness from the Z06 chassis tuning department, and then it’s tweaked further specifically for the car. Magnetic ride control comes standard, and Chevy engineers crafted specific stabilizer bars and unique springs for the Grand Sport. Out front, you’ll find 19x10 inch wheels and the rear end gets 20x12 inch units. That means the Grand Sport arrives to the party wearing 285 series tires near the nose and massive 335 rollers out back. The standard tires come courtesy of Michelin, which provides Pilot Sports.

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Wisely checking the Z07 box on the order form sees a jump to the toffee-sticky Pilot Sport Cup 2 tires. With ambient track temperatures hovering near 100 degrees, all you have to do to warm up the tires is press the starter button.

Out on the track, the steering feel on the C7 again proves excellent, even with the electronically assisted power steering setup. You can feel occasional understeer if you come through an off-corner wrong but it’s instantly corrected with your favorite foot. On the correct line, turn in happens at an expected pace and you stuff the nose of the car where you’d like it to be. I didn’t go full traction off because I don’t want to wind up in the grass or the wall in a car that doesn’t belong to me. That doesn’t matter though since Chevrolet has a buffet of driving modes. Keeping the Grand Sport just shy of “all things off” gives you a dash of oversteer, all of your power ready to go, and uncrumpled plastic body bits when you bring the car back into pit lane.

Push the Grand Sport as hard as you need to into a corner and it just sticks. Grimace all you want at the edge of what you perceive to be your own limits, and you’ll start to touch those of the car. Without the Z07 goodness, you’ll see 1.05g in the corner. If you were wise enough to spend the extra coin though, you’ll be rewarded with swear-inducing 1.2g. Seriously, wait for the First Drive video on the Hooniverse YouTube channel, I swear in it. I couldn’t help it.

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Also, I like swearing.

The Verdict

Right now, Chevrolet has a fairly amazing lineup of cars for people who love driving. Between the Camaro and the Corvette, there are vehicles with power outputs that range from 275 HP up to 650 HP. Cars with price tags that range from $27,000 to more than $120,000. This doesn’t even take into consideration the more luxuriously mental offerings from Cadillac. Just focusing on the Chevrolet lineup, it’s the Grand Sport that emerges as the purest sports car in the entire family.

If you opt for the Stingray Z51, you’ve made a good choice. It’s a car that manages to straddle the sports car/grand tourer line very well. If you’ve got the cash to spend on a Z06, you’ve also made a strong choice because the most powerful Corvette ever made is parked menacingly in your garage. For those of you that decide on the Grand Sport, what you’ve done is make the right choice.

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While the Z51 is more than acceptable out on the race track, it’s nowhere near as wonderful as the Grand Sport or the Z06 because it’s just not as fast or as sharp an instrument. Alternatively, the Grand Sport is more useful in a greater range of situations whereas the Z06 is always in “safety OFF” mode. You’re giving up some off-the-line speed, but you’re not losing as much as you think. In fact, Chevrolet test drivers managed to push a 2017 Grand Sport around the Milford Proving Ground and recorded times within one second of the 638-horsepower C6 ZR1.

The starting price of nearly $66,445 for the coupe ($70,445 for the convertible) has the Grand Sport sitting well below the $80,000 you’ll need to spend for a Z06. You’re only $5,000 more expensive than a Z51, and you’re getting far more car than the Z51 thanks to a wider rear track and chassis tweaks. Not to mention the tires, brakes, and aero bits.

The 2017 Chevrolet Corvette Grand Sport is the one you want. It’s naturally aspirated (like the C7R actually, though the 5.5-liter V8 in that is a bit different). It’s got the best non-engine bits taken from the Z06, and it’s an absolute blast both on the street and track. Especially when you have the active exhaust open and screaming its song to the world around it.

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While the Z06 is still great fun on a track, and a true beast between the stop lights, it’s the Grand Sport that offers what you seek from a dual-natured track and street machine. It’s the best current Corvette in the lineup, hands down.

Oh… and the temp gauge didn’t move from dead center the entire time. Try that in your Z06.

Jeff Glucker is the co-founder and executive editor of Hooniverse.com. He’s often seen blowing oil smoke in the faces of others as he drives his 1965 Ford F100 around Southern California.