It was the first modern Corvette to challenge the world’s best sports cars on truly level ground, the first Corvette to take a class victory at Le Mans, and the last Corvette to feature those oh-so-cool hidden headlamps. But the fifth-gen Vette (C5) came very close to not existing at all. According to Russ McLean, platform manager for the model, General Motors management made the decision to “sunset” America’s most iconic sports car in the Nineties. McLean and a group of rebels ignored the decision and continued development of the Corvette, much of it off the books and on their own time.
Eventually, the big wigs came back around to the idea of building the C5. Celebrated as world-class upon its debut, it would go on to win everywhere from the SCCA Solo Nationals in Topeka to the Mulsanne straight in France. Now caught in that uncomfortable middle ground between new-car smell and classic-car kudos, the C5 is arguably the greatest performance bargain on the market. It can still cut the mustard on a road course, at the drag strip, or at a Saturday night cruise-in.
If you’re looking for chrome trim, bronze-tinted T-tops, or ashy door handles that disappear into the horizontal surfaces, you won’t find them here, but much of the traditional Vette ownership experience persists, from the stubborn sag of the massive doors to the copious heat blasting from the transmission tunnel. At least there’s plenty of power. Fire up the V-8 and marvel at the lazy torque that can roll the car forward from a standstill in the (optional!) manual six-speed’s fourth gear.
The C5’s shoestring development shows through in the mismatched interior controls, the perishable nature of the interior trim, and the hilarious necessity of leaving a door open when you close the rear hatch, because there isn’t enough passive venting to let the air escape otherwise. But there’s plenty of smart engineering under the fiberglass skin. (Corvettes have always been known for having fiberglass body panels, but since 1973, General Motors has steadily increased the amount of plastic resin in what is now called sheet molding compound, or SMC, such that the h-generation Vette’s body panels used just 20 percent fiberglass.) Its hydroformed steel structure is four and a half times as stiff as the previous Corvette’s. Elsewhere, the use of aluminum, magnesium, and even balsa wood (in the door sections) cut weight. The aluminum LS1 V-8 was a clean-sheet design, sharing only bore spacing with earlier Chevy small-blocks. A few minutes at speed will dispel any doubts. Considering that some modern six-cylinders outpower a ’97 Corvette’s 345 hp, the C5 is no longer truly rapid by modern standards, but a well-driven example can still see off a challenge from today’s hot hatches, and a mint-condition Z06 is almost a match for a new Stingray.
The One You Want
For some people, the only proper Corvette is the 1953 template of a convertible with an automatic transmission. This is the easiest kind of C5 Corvette to find in concours condition. If, on the other hand, you want a Vette that can shine on a road course or at an autocross, you’ll want the targa-topped hatch or the fixed-roof coupe, known as “FRC” in Corvette circles.
Introduced in 1999 as an entry-level variant with a mandatory stick shift and a dearth of standard equipment, the FRC was unpopular with buyers and ran for just two years before undergoing a caterpillar-to-butterfly metamorphosis into the Z06. Boasting a 385-hp LS6 V-8, stiffer dampers, and an aggressive visual package, this fresh take on the fixed-roof coupe set a new standard for Corvette performance. A further suite of revisions in 2002 raised power all the way to 405 hp.
The most desirable performance Corvette is the 2004 Z06 with Z16 package, which has all the Z06 go-fast goodies and includes a real carbon-fiber hood that, for reasons known only to GM product planners, has a faux carbon-fiber decal on top of the paint. For a more affordable alternative, consider buying one of the 1999–2000 FRC cars or a plain six-speed coupe.
So, What Are They Worth?
We’ve most likely passed the bottom of the market for manual-transmission C5 Corvettes in good condition. Early coupes and convertibles with automatics can sometimes be had for 10 grand or even less, but expect to pay $15,000 and up for six-speed coupes and FRCs. The 405-hp Z06s sit at the top of the price spectrum, with transaction prices for clean 2004 Z06 variants often approaching $30,000. If you’re buying for the long term, don’t consider anything but a Z06. But if you’re looking for a daily driver, keep in mind that $5000 in upgrades to a coupe or convertible will enable it to leave a stock Z06 in the dust.
What To Avoid, and What To Do
The C5’s performance came as a surprise to many owners, so look carefully for crash damage and be sure that the car’s steel backbone is intact. Despite having plastic body panels, Corvettes can corrode underneath, which makes a full inspection worth your time. The first few years used fussy tire-pressure sensors and key fobs, so budget $500 or so to bring them up to 2001–2004 spec. If you aren’t sure about the condition of the clutch or transaxle, get it looked at before purchase, because they are labor-intensive to repair.
The LS1 and LS6 engines are renowned for durability and ease of tuning. Swapping the heads, cam, and intake can yield as much as 500 hp at the crank. There are also well-tested supercharger upgrades.
The C5 was raced extensively in the SCCA T1 class and elsewhere, so there are virtually limitless options for firming up the handling. If you’d rather improve the street usability of your Corvette, there are aftermarket solutions, from upgraded seats to complete interior swaps. For about $1000, you can replace a tired targa top with a tinted aftermarket variant that recalls the spirit of 1970s Vettes.
From the Road & Track Archives
February 1997 | Corvette Coupe
Beleaguered bean counters delayed the fifth-generation Corvette, or C5, again. And again. And again. What originally was planned for the Corvette’s 40th anniversary year of 1993 is just appearing now. . . .
“The new Corvette easily outperforms the old one in launching, stopping, handling, and cornering. In fact, there is no car at its price that’s as quick in a straight line. The C5 displays this muscle with a newfound charm that should diminish, perhaps in time eliminate, the old dichotomy of views. The days of dismissing it as merely a brute for the tattoo set are over. . . . While the engine is happiest in the mid-rpm range, it’s completely tractable right up to redline.”
August 2000 | Corvette Z06
“Weight reduction is the result of high-tech tinkering. Glass is thinner. There is less insulation. . . . The exhaust system, including muffler, is titanium. . . .
“The sure throws of the shifter and the instant response of the engine give this Corvette the sense of immediacy and purpose of a pure sporting machine. . . . With 5000- on the market, you’re more likely to see the Z06 on the track, rather than in the clutches of some collector.”
March 2003 | Corvette Z06
“From the moment pricing was first announced, the Corvette Z06 has been the best performance buy in modern sports cars. . . . What’s more, after years of evolution and well-executed chassis tuning, this latest Corvette also offers refreshing levels of refinement to go with its searing performance. Drive a new Z06 on your favorite stretch of bad highway and the ride is light-years ahead of previous iterations. . . .
“While delivering a perfectly comfortable seating position and sound ergonomics, the Z06’s cockpit still lacks the higher-quality feel of its more expensive competition. . . . Despite these quibbles, there’s still no denying the Z06’s amazing bang-for-buck factor. It delivers the kind of performance expected from cars costing two to three times as much.”
2001 Chevrolet Corvette Z06
Base price: $47,500
Engine: pushrod 16-valve 5.7-liter v-8
Peak Output: 385 hp @ 6000 rpm, 385 lb-ft @ 4800 rpm
Transmission: 6-speed manual, rwd
L x W x H: 179.7x73.6x47.7in
Weight: 3115 lb
0–60 mph: 4.6 sec (august 2000)
0–1/4-mile: 13.0 sec @ 110.5 mph (august 2000)
Top speed: 171 mph
Construction: fiberglass body panels, steel frame
Suspension: (front and rear) control arms, transverse leaf spring, anti-roll bar
Brakes: 12.8-in discs (front), 12.0-in discs (rear)
Number Produced: 5773
2003–2008 Nissan 350z ($5000–$13,000)
Never as fast or ferocious as the Corvette, the 350z nevertheless has a fan base with import-car loyalists and the Tokyo Drift set. Expect heavy tire wear, fragile interior plastics, and a cavern-like interior. Also expect to have a lot of fun at track days, thanks to the z’s benign behavior and easily explorable limits. Brakes were the weak point on these cars, even with the Brembo upgrade.
1996 Corvette Grand Sport ($25,000–$30,000)
For the price of a solid 2004 z06, you can get a much older car that doesn’t go as fast or handle as well. So why would you? Well, just look at it! Everything came together for this very special variant of the final c4. A 330-hp LT4 engine and an iconic paint job
make it absolute catnip for Corvette collectors and cognoscenti.
2007–2009 Shelby GT500 ($25,000–$35,000)
A stock iron-block GT500 can’t hang with a c5 z06 at the drag strip unless all the stars align. And on a road course? Forget about it. But if you’re the kind of fellow who likes a Cars and Coffee burnout more than you like running heads-up around Road Atlanta, the GT500 offers massive style and prodigious torque in a nearly unburstable package.–JB