Is the C5 Corvette today's best bargain supercar? | Buyer's Guide

By Robert Bowen
Oct 28, 2022 | Chevrolet, Corvette, c5, Chevrolet Corvette, Buyer's Guide, Data File, C5 Corvette | Posted in Buyer's Guides | From the Nov. 2011 issue | Never miss an article

Photography Credit: Rupert Berrington

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The launch of an all-new Corvette is a rare automotive event, heralding a new epoch of posters plastered on teenagers’ bedroom walls and raising the bar for nearly every other domestic production car. No other vehicle, with the possible exception of the late and lamented Viper, defines the American sports car the way the Corvette does. 

Usually, “bad” Corvettes only appear in hindsight. As is often the case, even the best Corvette of every generation is eclipsed when its successor is announced.

Gimme Five

By 1996, the fourth-generation Corvette—known as the C4 in Vette speak—had been around for a dozen long years. While the last of the breed was a vastly better car than the one introduced for 1984, it was still the same old chassis under lightly updated fiberglass. If you looked even closer, traces of the C3 Corvette could still be found—in the suspension, for example. It was time for a new Corvette, and Chevrolet was ready to deliver. 

The C5 Vette was launched in March of that 1997. It was a clean-slate rethink of the Corvette formula: two seats, composite body, pushrod V8 and independent suspension. The C5 shared very few parts with the earlier Corvettes—or with any other GM products, for that matter. The engineers took this opportunity to push the envelope when it came to technology and manufacturing processes, and the result was a vastly better car than before.

Photography Credit: J.G. Pasterjak

In place of the venerable cast-iron, small-block Chevy V8 was an all-new engine, dubbed the LS1. The block and heads were aluminum, and although the valves were still actuated by “archaic” pushrods, the 5.7-liter engine was considerably more efficient. At 345 horsepower, it was also more powerful than any previous small-block Chevrolet. Only the 4-inch bore centers and bell housing bolt pattern remained recognizable as features of a Chevy small block.

The transmission wasn’t left alone, either, as it moved around in the redesign. Instead of being bolted to the back of the engine—as in all previous Corvettes—it became a transaxle and was relocated between the rear wheels a la the Porsche 944 and Alfa Romeo Milano. The result was better weight distribution and, ultimately, improved handling.

 The LS-series V8 engine is a world-class powerplant. Photography Credit: Courtesy GM

The front and rear suspensions were both true short-long arm designs, and while they retained the transverse leaf springs used since 1963, no part was interchangeable with the C4 suspension. The geometry was all-new, and according to contemporary reviews it worked as well as the engineers had hoped. The wheelbase grew by a massive 8 inches—the C5 measured 104.5 inches from hub to hub—although the car’s overall length crept up only a little more than an inch, to 179.7.

[An engineer weighs in on Corvette leaf springs: Deep talk on a seemingly simple subject.]

The chassis was a complete departure from the previous car, discarding the multipiece welded perimeter frame for one-piece hydroformed chassis rails. A composite balsa-core floor as well as a massive, cast aluminum windshield frame added to the structural rigidity of the chassis. The combination of parts tied the tub together nicely, making it stiff enough that no additional reinforcements were added for the debut of the convertible.

The C5 was quite a leap ahead for GM in most ways, and the company used the low-volume model to test out technology that would later show up on nearly every car in the lineup. The brake system, for example, featured standard ABS and traction control, two features that weren’t often standard in the mid-1990s. Variable-effort power steering and the optional Active Handling System stability control were other premium options that have since become common.

Vetted for Performance

The C5 styling was almost as revolutionary as its chassis. The body was curvier than that of the C4, with more sensuous lines and taut, fluid surfaces. Large intakes in the front bumper and scalloped sides left no question that this was a serious performance car.

A slippery 0.29 coefficient of drag gave the car an edge in the fuel economy battle. Much of the aggression that was lost in the C4 Corvette had returned with the 1997 car.

Inside, the shuffled transmission location gave drivers something sorely missed in the C4: extra space in the footwell. There was even room for a dead pedal. The cockpit was new, but not shockingly different from what had come before. For example, a grab bar on the passenger side echoed the original as well as the C2 Corvettes. The new chassis eliminated the deep sills of the previous car, lowering them nearly 4 inches and thus making entry and exit much easier.

Although interiors aren’t really GM's strong suit, the fifth-generation Corvette gets the job done well enough. Photography Credit: David S. Wallens

Initially, the new Corvette was available only in what Chevy called a coupe— technically, though, it was a glass hatchback with a removable targa top. The new hatch was an improvement, as it provided access to the cargo area. The top could be ordered either painted the body color or with tinted glass, although most cars shipped with the glass. A two-piece roof was also available.

When it came to the transmission, there were two options. First came the automatic, a variant of the C4’s 4L60-E four-speed unit. The enthusiast’s choice, however, was a new BorgWarner T-56 six-speed manual. A host of comfort and convenience options—including a sports suspension package and a variable-damping system with a user-adjustable switch—made the C5 highly customizable.

At the time, this was the fastest, best-handling and most developed Corvette. Zero-to-60 times were in the sub-5-second range, and skidpad handling approached 1g—excellent numbers even for today. 

It was also the most fuel-efficient Corvette ever. The EPA gave the C5 an mpg rating of 19 city and 28 highway under the old system (18/25 with the automatic). In comparison, the manual transmission C4 could only achieve a dismal 15/24.

Photography Credit: David S. Wallens

Reviewers at the time loved the car, especially in comparison to its predecessors. Adjectives like “refined,” “world-class” and “solid” appeared so often that readers might have thought they were reading a review of the latest M3 or 911. But no, this was a car designed in Detroit and assembled in Bowling Green, Kentucky.

In model year 1998, GM introduced a convertible featuring a trunk that was truly accessible from the exterior, a near-first for the car. GM press materials made much of the fact that the convertible shared the coupe’s unmodified chassis. One year later, the final C5 body style appeared: a hardtop with the convertible’s trunk. The Vette community calls this the fixed-roof coupe (FRC), but GM’s official term was Hardtop.

Eye It, Try It, Buy It

The biggest news for the C5 line came for the 2001 model year, when Chevy unleashed the awesome Z06. The hottest Corvette to date became even hotter.

[Project Car: 2004 Chevrolet Corvette Z06]

The new car was available only in the FRC body style—which was no longer available in non-Z06 trim—and thrust came from a 385-horsepower variant of the LS1 known as the LS6. Many other changes separated the Z06 from lesser Vettes, including lightweight glass, a titanium exhaust, wider forged aluminum wheels and unique suspension tuning. The gearing was revised for better acceleration, too.

Chevrolet gave enthusiasts what they really wanted with the high-performance Z06 model. It features the most powerful engine in the C5 lineup as well as braking and handling enhancements that make it popular among track enthusiasts and autocrossers. Photography Credit: Finish Line Productions

What was the driving experience like? Take the normal C5 Corvette—already a great machine—and turn up the knobs a few clicks. And if that wasn’t enough, the Z06 gained 20 more horsepower for the following model year thanks to revised valve timing and a freer-flowing exhaust.

History has caught up with these cars, and that tips things in our favor. Remember how we said that new Vettes often eclipse the previous models? The latest base-model Corvette delivers more horsepower than the C5 Z06, and as a result prices have dropped accordingly. If you missed a C5 Corvette back when they were new—Z06 or otherwise—right now may be the time to start shopping.

Things to Know

The market for used Corvettes is somewhat unusual, as these cars seem to change hands quite a bit. As a result, there’s usually a good supply of available examples.

When looking at the C5 cars, the convertibles and Z06 models are the most desirable, with earlier Z06s selling for a little less than later ones. The low end of the market, on the other hand, is the territory of the early fixed-roof coupes. 

Photography Credit: David S. Wallens

Engine and Drivetrain

While the Z06 gets much of the attention, Danny says that the standard LS1 engine is plenty fast—look for a car equipped with the Z51 sport suspension option, but don’t pay more for it. “These cars are really easy to update and backdate with parts from any ’97 to ’04,” says Danny Popp, longtime Corvette racer and Corvette technician at McCluskey Chevrolet in Cincinnati, Ohio. “You can swap just about anything you want. The original motors are not available from the General anymore, but you can drop in any of the current production LS2/LS7 V8s or even the ZR1’s supercharged engine.”

The LS1/LS6 has proved to be a tough, reliable engine when maintained, so don’t be scared of high mileage. Just make sure that any car you buy has maintenance records. Odd sounds, including piston slap and lifter noise, are an indication of abuse.

[How to bulletproof a Chevy C5 Corvette for track duty]

All 2001 and later Corvettes got the LS6 manifold, which improved torque throughout the rev range and resulted in the 5-horsepower bump in peak output.

”The 2001 cars have a reputation for burning oil,” Danny says, “but most of them have been fixed under warranty.“ 

The T56 transmission isn’t known for being the smoothest-shifting gearbox ever used in a sports car, so don’t assume it’s kicking the bucket if a car has a notchy shift feel. It’s a robust box. Change out the factory fill for synthetic fluid, Danny recommends. 

The automatic is just as tough. Rarely will you find one that shifts less than perfectly.

Body and Interior

The Corvette is built up from composite panels bonded together with a special adhesive. If a panel has been replaced, the aftermarket adhesive application will stick out like a sore thumb. However, the composite and urethane exterior panels probably haven’t shrunk and swelled at the same rate over the years; gaps and waves are the result.

The rubber seals found around the coupe’s targa top are notorious for leaking, especially at the ends. Window seals are also known to leak, but not as frequently. Listen for air leaks and rattles on your test drive. 

Many cars suffer from worn seat mounting brackets, Danny explains. It’s annoying but not harmful, and the fix is straightforward. Just plan to spend either time or money sorting it out. 

The steering column locks have a tendency to not unlock when prompted—in fact, GM issued a recall for the problem. One aftermarket solution is to simply bypass the electronically controlled lock, but the fix has to be made before the lock fails. If you wait until it gives you trouble, you’ll probably need to have it repaired at the dealer.

Suspension and Brakes

The expensive and harsh-riding run-flat tires are expensive to replace and typically less than ideal for performance driving. Any car still running the original tires is a garage queen, as the C5 is a heavy, powerful car that eats rubber for lunch. Replace them with regular tires and keep your auto club membership up to date. Instead of run-flats, the Z06 came with superior conventional tires as well as a repair and inflation kit in lieu of a spare.

The tire pressure transducers can fail, setting off a low-tire warning light. The batteries are not replaceable, which means you’ll be spending money on a new transducer when one fails.

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View comments on the GRM forums
A 401 CJ
A 401 CJ SuperDork
8/2/22 2:16 p.m.

I'll be the first to complain loudly about the interior, how I'm not old enough to drive one, New Balance, chest hair, gold chains, Corvette tax....

Now that that's out of the way continue on.

jfknupp New Reader
8/2/22 5:00 p.m.

I can't find the article.  What a nuisance!

AnthonyGS (Forum Supporter)
AnthonyGS (Forum Supporter) GRM+ Memberand UltraDork
8/2/22 8:27 p.m.

I think the optimum buying time for these is sadly passed.  I feel that way about so many cool cars today.

Purple Frog (Forum Supporter)
Purple Frog (Forum Supporter) GRM+ Memberand HalfDork
8/2/22 9:17 p.m.

I have a friend that just bought a C5 for autocross only.  Met his budget for go fast needs.

8/2/22 10:16 p.m.

This article was written in 2011. Why not re-write to update and show the C6 as a bargain supercar?


Here's mine at COTA in Austin, TX at an HPDE track day.

ThumperUSMC GRM+ Memberand New Reader
8/2/22 10:20 p.m.

My only complaint is that the 1998 Convertible came with the automatic transmission only. It's sorta kinda expensive to set the 4L60E to racing standards even when you have oversized clutches put in there...

SKJSS (formerly Klayfish)
SKJSS (formerly Klayfish) PowerDork
8/3/22 5:54 a.m.

In reply to ThumperUSMC :

Unfortunately, automatic transmission pretty well matches the ethos of the vast majority of Corvette convertible buyers.  

As for the C5 still being a bargain supercar today.  Absolutely, without question.  You can shag a nice driver for $15,000 or less and right out of the box it performs well.  Add a few mods and you've got a car that can hunt down a lot of modern cars costing many times more.

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