Chevrolet C5 Corvette | Buyer's Guide

Staff
By Staff Writer
Sep 17, 2021 | Chevrolet, Corvette, c5, Buyer's Guide | Posted in Buyer's Guides | From the Feb. 2007 issue | Never miss an article

Photograph Courtesy Chevrolet

[Editor's Note: This article originally appeared in the February 2007 issue of Grassroots Motorsports.]

Story by Bill Cuttitta

A few years ago, Chevrolet ran a series of ads with a tag line that didn’t pull any punches: “They don’t write songs about Volvos.” 

Boastful, yes, but those ad men had a point. And out of all the Chevy products out there, America’s Sports Car—the Corvette—has probably inspired the muses the most. From the Beach Boys and Jan & Dean to Prince, Sir Mix-a-Lot and even MC Chris, musicians have been filling our headphones with songs about the Corvette for decades. 

So when Chevy unveiled its all-new Corvette in January of 1997, naturally there were some concerns. The biggie: Would the fifth-generation Corvette continue to uphold the family legacy?

The new car had several features that were hard to argue against, like a  rigid hydroformed chassis, nicely proportioned fiberglass body, all-new aluminum V8 engine, and increased interior space. Most enthusiasts saw these as good things. 

The car’s run-flat tires and lack of a spare did raise a few eyebrows, however. Some people also questioned the designers’ intentionally eccentric choice of continuing with the Vette’s traditional transverse leaf springs front and rear. 

The goal was to eliminate the reasons people had to not buy a Corvette while keeping all the reasons they did want a Corvette,” explains Harlan Charles, the product manager for Corvette at GM. “Stiffer structure to eliminate squeaks, easy entry/exit, more passenger and luggage space, and a more comfortable ride were accomplished while also increasing the car’s performance and reducing weight.”

To accomplish these goals, Chief Engineer Dave Hill and his merry band worked through a legendary host of obstacles—some management, some technical—to deliver a car they claimed was better than the C4 in every way.

Sensible Shoes

Right out of the box, the C5 delivered the goods, posting performance numbers that none but a few exotics could match. That performance came at a fraction of the cost, too, as the $37,495 Corvette was a bargain when compared to its peers.

The new Vette was more than just a straight-line performer—although after learning it could rip from zero to 60 in less than five seconds, you could be excused for thinking it was a one-note Johnny. It also had a chassis that was several times stiffer than the one it replaced, which allowed the engineers to build completely new front and rear suspensions that worked much better than the old ones.

The new chassis meant that softer springs could now be used for a smoother ride, while the rear suspension didn’t require the driveshafts to also serve as upper control arms. The front suspension featured good high- and low-speed steering feel courtesy of improved geometry and the Magnasteer II system. 

While the transverse leaf springs, a Corvette hallmark since the 1963 model year, were seen as truck-like by some people, Harlan Charles defends their use. “The transverse composite springs are more high-tech than metal coil springs,” he explains. “The composite spring is lighter, more compact, and allows for a lower center of gravity as the mass is low in the car. The only advantage of coil springs is that they are changed more easily and that is why racing cars need to stay with the older technology as springs are optimized for different race tracks.” 

The standard Vette went just fine, but the optional Z51 performance package turned things up a notch, adding larger anti-roll bars, stiffer springs and performance-oriented Sachs shock absorbers. The package also included a sportier 3.42:1 final drive.

Fett’s Vette

While the C5 started out strong, it only got better during its eight years of production. The changes to the spec sheet both expanded the car’s appeal and increased performance.

Soon after the model’s 1997 release, a convertible was unveiled for 1998. The convertible included—gasp—an actual trunk, something not seen on a Corvette in 36 years. In order to save weight and cost, the top stowed beneath a manually operated hard tonneau cover. 

Corvette was chosen to pace the 1998 Indianapolis 500, and a little more than 1000 replicas were built that year in a bold Radar Blue (a color that actually looked purple to us). These cars also featured yellow accents and a yellow, white and black graphics package that featured stylized checkered flags. 

The pace cars also saw the debut of the Active Handling system, which integrated the ABS and traction control with a stability control system. The system’s actions were based on dynamic and driver control inputs. In addition to the default “nanny mode,” the system also featured a competition mode that silenced all of the traction aids.

The next year brought a real hardtop coupe, which was developed from the convertible bodywork. These Fixed Roof Coupe models (called the FRC in C5 parlance) combined the chassis-stiffening reinforcements and trunk deck of the convertible with a solid roof structure. The end result was about 12 percent stiffer than the standard Corvette. 

Available only with the manual transmission, Z51 performance package and a notable lack of luxury extras, the FRC was more of what the performance enthusiasts were after, all with about a 50-pound weight savings. 

Inside, the C5 ’Vette is low, but surprisingly comfortable. Later models included a Head-Up Display that projects speed and a few other vitals on the windshield. Many owners bypass the solenoid that nudges the shift lever from first to fourth at low revs to save gas; our recent gas mileage test showed us that a C5’s massively overdriven sixth gear allows it to sip fuel when it’s not chirping the tires. Photography Credit: J.G. Pasterjak

The LS1 engine first came with 345 horsepower, but as the LS6 it was massaged to as much as 405 ponies in the Z06 models. Photography Credit: David S. Wallens

Little Red Corvette

The C5 Corvette was a fine car, but Chevy dropped a bomb for 2001, recalling an alphanumeric code right out of their lore: The Z06 was back.

Chevrolet had offered the original Z06 competition package for the 1963 Sting Ray at the urging of legendary Corvette impresario Zora Arkus-Duntov, who wanted to encourage sports car racers to run bow ties rather than choosing some Anglo-American concoction from a guy named Shelby. 

Chevy’s new iteration of the Z06 was a bit more civilized than the original, but packed a performance punch just the same. A heavily revised version of the 5.7-liter LS1 engine powered the Z06 to an impressive level of performance. Output from the new engine, which was dubbed the LS6, was a fairly stout 385 horsepower and 385 lb.-ft. of torque; redline was 6500 rpm, rather high for a production V8.

But the engineers didn’t leave it at that. As usual with Corvette, they also focused on handling, basing the Z06 on the lighter and more rigid Fixed Roof Coupe platform while developing a super-Z51 suspension setup called the FE4 High Performance. 

The FE4 included a larger front anti-roll bar, stiffer rear spring, increased rear wheel travel, revised shock valving, super-sticky Goodyear Eagle F1 SC tires, and aluminum wheels that were one inch wider than those used on the Z51 cars (wheel dimensions grew to 17x9.5 inches up front and 18x10.5 inches out back). A more competition-oriented alignment that included more negative camber was also part of the package.

The Z06 cars didn’t have run-flat tires, spares or even the pressure monitoring system, so they instead rolled out of Bowling Green with a compressor and some tire sealer. The advantage was five pounds of unsprung weight saved from each corner of the car. 

Active handling was still on the spec sheet, but the Z06’s AH2 setup maintained vehicle stability by means of manipulating the brakes (in particular the rear brakes) over cutting engine power; the car’s engineers understood the need to keep engine revs up under competition conditions.

Those engineers also installed functional front and rear brake ducts, thinner window glass and an exhaust system that featured a titanium rear section. The transmission featured stronger, wider gearing.

Few visual cues distinguished the Z06 model from its siblings; Corvette’s styling and marketing folks restrained themselves to only subtle badges on the fenders along with red faux valve covers and brake calipers. There were also some interesting options on the order form for leather interior appointments that featured Z06 stitching on the headrests. 

Was all the work worth it? Well, the Z06 pulled more than 1.0g on the skid pad in stock condition, and would go from zero to 60 in four seconds flat. It could cover the quarter mile in the mid-12s—not bad for a car featuring only one camshaft.

The GM crew didn’t rest on their laurels, as the Z06 got even more power the following year. The right mix of performance and price quickly made the model a staple at autocross and track events across the continent. 

While the Z06 got much of the attention, the regular Corvettes weren’t forgotten. The 2003 Corvette was available with something called Magnetic Selective Ride Control. This system used shock absorbers filled with a magneto-rheological fluid whose viscous properties could be controlled by managing the amount of electrical current passed through it, thus controlling the damping properties. Magnetic Selective Ride was optional on non-Z06 Corvettes from 2003 on. 

The C5 Corvette was part of the automotive landscape until it took its bows after the 2004 model year.

In My Car

Ultimately, what impresses enthusiasts about the C5 is the attention to engineering detail on such a mass-produced car, including neat features like the brake ducts, adjustable ride height, magnesium wheel options, the Z06’s lightweight titanium exhaust, and the chassis stiffening plate bolted to the bottom of the driveshaft tunnel. 

It all adds up to a car that can hang with the world’s best, yet at the same time has a distinctly American flair—and the unmistakable roar that only a small-block V8 can produce.

Okay, maybe there has been a song or two written about Volvos, but few cars have captured the world’s attention like the Corvette.

Things to Know

Photography Credit: David S. Wallens

Engine

The pre-2003 standard cars can have a problem with oil consumption. Cars built after 2002 have revised piston rings.

Last time we checked, SCCA Solo Champ Danny Popp was running a VaraRam ram-air intake, Katech knife-edged throttle butterfly, Tuned Port Induction Specialties retuned ECU, Melrose Smooth Flow headers and a Dr. Gas crossover pipe. His A Street Prepared Z06 produced 402 horsepower and 396 lb.-ft. of torque at the wheels.

The alternator pulleys and tensioners on 1997-2000 automatic transmission cars are prone to making excessive noise at low rpm. The later cars have improved pieces that eliminated the problem and can be retrofitted to older cars. 

Chassis

The run-flat tires are not known for stellar performance, so perhaps the biggest performance gains can be found with better rubber. The Tire Rack stocks the original Goodyear run-flats as well as many alternatives. (They also can supply new sensors for the tire pressure monitoring system; the batteries that power these sensors cannot be replaced and only have a finite life span.) 

Car pushing too much? GM Performance Parts offers a 27mm rear anti-roll bar that’s part of their SCCA Touring 1 suspension kit.

The stock Corvette suspension is very adjustable, allowing the chassis to be corner-weighted.

Koni’s nonadjustable FSD dampers will soon be available for the C5 Corvette. We have found this model line to offer excellent performance along with very reasonable prices. (These shocks are also legal for NCCC Group 1 autocrossing.)

If you’re having odd electrical problems—like the ECU throwing fault codes—check the underhood connectors and the chassis grounds for corrosion. In many cases, thoroughly cleaning and re-seating the connections will resolve these problems. While you’re doing that, GM recommends replacing any star washers used in ground connections with plain washers, as the star washers may allow corrosion to form in the gaps.

Finally: C5 Corvettes offer supercar performance in a user-friendly package at regular-guy prices. Please drive responsibly on public highways.

Drivetrain

Don’t call it a rear transaxle, as the C5’s rear-mounted transmission is separate from the differential. The same Getrag differential is used with all C5 Corvette transmissions, so swapping between the various ratios for a given model year is relatively easy.

Keep an eye on the differential’s left-side axle seal, as they are prone to leaking.

Body and Interior

The Z06 models are easily identified by the rear brake scoops.

GM Bulletin No. 04006C indicates that there has been a recall on C5 Corvettes regarding potential problems with the steering lock system. If you don’t know whether this service has been performed on a particular car, check with a Chevy dealer. 

If you’ve got power seats and notice excessive seat movement during hard acceleration or braking, you probably need to replace the adjuster assembly.

Corvettes are world-class cars comprised of a lot of different materials—plastic, aluminum, steel, silicone, iron, glass, rubber and, of course, fiberglass. All these materials have different physical characteristics, and where they join there’s potential for cracking and water leaks. Keep an eye out for small problems, and take care of them before they become big ones. 

2004 Chevrolet Corvette Z06 Project Car

How we made our own C5 Corvette even faster.

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