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HOW TO AVOID LAME-DUCK DOLDRUMS

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What do you do when 99 percent of your market knows you're coming out with an all-new version of your car next year - something you've done only five times in the last 40 years - but you still have more than a handful of the lame-duck model to sell this year?

Simple: You produce a couple of "limited edition" versions. That'll get the market's attention.For 1996, then, we have the Corvette Collector Edition Coupe and the Corvette Grand Sport. They supplement the Bowling Green, Ky., plant's normal run of standard Corvette coupes and convertibles.

Of the two, the Collector Edition is the best looking. Silver with five-spoke aluminum rims, it's cool and clean looking.

It's also the one of the two that'll get the least attention.

The Grand Sport will get the heads to spin, the faces to gawk and the mouths to ask how much it costs, how fast it will go and, in a few cases, what is it.

There were only five original Grand Sports, three coupes and two open roadsters, built for the 1963 racing season. Each maxed out at about 2,000 curb pounds and was powered by a free-breathing, heavens-shaking, 377-cubic-inch V8 of heaven-knows-but-it-was-a-lot horsepower - probably well above 400.

Those original Grand Sports were driven by guys who were legends in their time, such as Dr. Dick Thompson, whose other life involved drilling teeth, Texans Jim Hall and A.J. Foyt, and the world's shrewdest Chevrolet dealer who used to live in Newtown Square, Pa., Roger Penske.

Today's Grand Sport can beat the older one in tire size. But that aside, it shares mostly cosmetics with the old racer. For instance, Chevrolet calls that striking royal-blue color Admiral Blue. The centered white stripe is so wide it seems to take up about a third of the car's width.

Also super wide are the tires - huge Goodyear Eagle GS-C 275/-40ZR17 front and 315/-35ZR17 at the rear - on the coupe. (The convertible Grand Sport, about 62 pounds heavier than the 3,298-curb-pound coupe, rides on slightly narrower rubber and steel). You could probably mount those things on anything smaller than a SEPTA bus and get cornering-on-rails results, too.

But here's the laugher: Guess what the spare size is? One of those el cheapo T155/70D-17 space-savers! Can you imagine how super-wimped you'd look with one of those Romper Room jobs rolling along inside one of those whale-flared wheel wells?

While the blue-and-white paint is a striking, pretty combo, those black aluminum wheels are kinda ugly. And the two mini-red stripes on the driver's fender might be a great idea to evoke memories of a Grand Sport that bucked the 5.2-mile airport track for the 12-hour Sebring race in the mid-1960s, but they sure look pretty tacky.

Although you can never say enough about any Corvette's looks - looks are much of the marque's raison d'etre. - we have to draw the line somewhere.

Now - about the rest of the Grand Sport: You do get a bit of a horsepower bonus. A few street-rodder tricks, such as stepping up the compression ratio and the action of the centrally located camshaft, give you an extra 30 above the stock 'Vette's 300 horsepower.

OK, so it's not the 405 of the dear departed ZR-1 King of the Hill Corvette. But, mated to the six-speed German ZF manual gear box, it's enough to rocket you up to 60 in the close side of five seconds.

Another teller is the fuel mileage. Under most real-world conditions, you'll probably get somewhere in the midteens. But if you have a long, uninterrupted cruise ahead of you, mileage in the low 20s isn't impossible.

Since Chevy is dazzling us from the outside with the paint job and the tires, it seems only fitting that they dazzle us under the hood, too. So, a quick check finds the Grand Sport's LT4 engine with a bright red-painted inlet manifold, red spark plug and coil wires, red "Corvette" lettering on the manifold covers and red "Grand Sport" lettering on the throttle-body cover.