If you’ve read this year’s Performance Car of the Year Test, or if you’ve gone through our breakdown of how the fastest contenders performed on track, you know that this was an exceptionally rapid group of vehicles. It was also an exceptionally expensive group, every single one of them exceeding the average transaction price of new cars in this country and a few exceeding the average transaction price of a new American house. Which raises an obvious question: If you were born with a plastic spoon in your mouth instead of a silver one, is there any way to stay within shouting distance of the PCOTY pack on a budget?
Last year, I told you that the C5-generation Corvette Z06 is the best choice for an enthusiast on a budget. Then I put my money where my mouth was and bought a 1998 Corvette Coupe with a few aftermarket modifications. My wife and I won this year’s SCCA Targa Southland with the big red 'Vette, so it seemed like a reasonable idea to bring it to PCOTY testing so I could see how it compared with this year’s cream of the performance crop.
There was just one problem with that idea: During Targa, the 37,000-mile coupe had displayed a variety of quirks ranging from annoying to absolutely terrifying. It was time to send the Vette back to the gym so it could get fit—and then we’d let it go heads-up with the PCOTY crowd.
For years now, I’ve been using Albany Autoworks in southeastern Ohio as my prep shop for our Neon and MX-5 Cup race cars. We’ve had podiums in NASA, SCCA, and AER together, so it was the obvious choice for the 'Vette’s rehab. The first step was boring but necessary: Drain all the fluids and replace them with better-suited options.
I was particularly worried about oil because C5 Corvettes are notorious for sky-high oil temperatures on-track. After a discussion with some engineers at Mobil 1, I ended up with their 15w-50 full synthetic. It’s worth noting that many modern cars are factory-filled with extremely light oil for purposes of fuel economy; if you’re going to track them, it pays to look into other viscosities. Although the plural of “anecdote” is definitely not “data,” I have always believed that my consistent use of a heavyweight Mobil 1 kept my Boxster from lunching its notoriously fragile IMS bearing even after more than 10,000 racetrack miles.
The next step was wheels. I’d bought the car with massive HRE FlowForm wheels, 19-inchers up front and 20s in back. I wanted to drop to a slightly more sensible 18/19 combination. I also didn’t want to fuss with wheel spacers or any of the other compromises that make aftermarket wheels a hassle. Last but not least, I had to clear the massive Stoptech brakes that the previous owner had installed. So I called TSW and inquired about their Cray wheels, which are specifically made for the Corvette and which are designed for so-called big-brake kits. After browsing the styles, I settled on the Mako and promptly bought a set in gloss black.
They arrived just three days after I ordered them—but to my horror, the tires that I’d intended to go with them were back-ordered. So I made a last-minute call to Michelin: “Uh, do you happen to have a set of track-ready tires in the highly unusual combo of 275/30-19 and 305/30-20?” Turns out that they did: The new Pilot S4S comes in a wide variety of wacky sizes for all the dubbed-out performance sedans and SUVs out there.
NCM Motorsports Park, where we do our PCOTY track testing, has a 103dB noise limit. So we pitched the aftermarket no-baffle exhausts and installed the factory Z06 system, which saved 20 pounds or so because it’s made of titanium. If you have a plain-jane C5, the Z06 exhaust is the cheapest way to wake the car up.
Last but not least was braking. I bought Carbotech pads in two highly-aggressive formulas, XP12 up front and XP10 in back, then filled the system with Motul 660 fluid. Everything was delivered to Albany Autoworks, which re-aligned the car, removed and reinstalled the half-cage with sturdier hardware, corner-balanced the PDAFT coilover suspension, and did a complete nut-and-bolt systems check underneath. Then it was off to NCM, where this two-decade-old Corvette would face everything from a Civic Type R to a McLaren 720S.
How’d it do? Well, time constraints kept us from using our Vbox hardware to get full data. However, I did get some lap times on the car. Let’s just say that it wouldn’t have finished last. It also wouldn’t have troubled the sharp end of the field. If you had my Corvette and your identical twin had a new Camaro ZL1 1LE, your twin would pull beyond eyeshot after the second lap, though it'd take a half hour at full tilt before the Camaro lapped you.
As we always say, however, PCOTY isn’t just about lap times. It’s also about the experience of driving at speed, the feedback you get from the car, and the involvement you feel in the process. By those measures, the slightly-modified C5 is a winner. To begin with, it’s an old-school six-speed manual with a heavy throw courtesy of an aftermarket short shifter. Forget about fingertip gear changes. This is more like closing the safe at a bank.
With a 30-mm “stagger” between front and rear tire widths, the Vette proved absolutely tossable at speed. You could slide the back end at will with the power, but in the very fast Turn Five it stayed balanced just on the safe side of neutral. The Pilot S4S comes in for some special commendation here—although it’s not a “track special” tire like the Michelin Pilot Sport Cup, it’s extremely grippy and, more importantly, you are always fully aware of how much traction you have left in reserve.
Down the front straight, the 'Vette sounded wicked, although it was easily dropped by most of the contenders—including, surprisingly, the Lexus LC500. My Chevy had to make money in the turns, which it absolutely did. Contemporaneous reviews of the C5 slammed the steering feel and feedback, but that was before anybody got a taste of today’s electric-assist racks. By modern standards, this thing is a Lotus Seven.
Brake fade wasn’t an issue, which was a relief because a few of our PCOTY cars definitely suffered from that problem in spades. The ABS system, however, was designed during the Cretaceous Period, so you’d better work on your threshold braking. The minute the calipers start cycling, you’re going to take a long trip towards the nearest gravel trap as your deceleration rate drops from “dragster parachute” to “Flintstones feet.”
With temperatures in the 90s during our testing, I expected the 'Vette to cook its oil. Sure enough, I regularly saw oil temperatures in the 290s. But the Mobil 1 was clear after a full day’s worth of driving, with no signs of burning or breakdown.
At the end of the day, I drove the C5 another 400 miles home with no trouble, pleased as punch at the way it had held its own against some of the world’s greatest performance cars. If we’d let it formally compete in PCOTY, there’s no way it could have beaten the top finishers. And the Camaro ZL1 1LE shows just how far General Motors has come in the two decades since my 'Vette was built. If you have a rich uncle who offers you a choice of an old 'Vette or a rocketship 1LE, I think you know which one to pick.
Those of us without rich uncles, however, would be very well served with a C5 or C6 Corvette. You could duplicate my car for under 30 grand, even including the coilovers and brakes. For half of that, you could get a C5 with refurbished stock brakes and suspension, which would be 95 percent of the fun. When you’re ready to spend more money, it’s possible to take the LS1 into the 500-horsepower zone with readily available, field-tested upgrades.
I think I’m going to shoot for a 500-horse dyno result myself in the next year or so. Then we’ll set the cat among the pigeons again for PCOTY 2018 and see what happens. You might want to try doing the same thing at your local trackday. Be prepared to hear a few jokes about gold chains and midlife crises and whatnot. The laughter won’t last long. Twenty years after it was built, this is still a first-rate performance car, period.