To understand the Z06, we need to go back to the beginning—1953. The Corvette started out as a show car and quickly turned into a tough guy by 1957 with the 283 fuelie option. From 1957 to 1974, the last year for the 454, there was always a serious “performance” option. From 1975 to 1980 the only performance option was the “just OK” L82. Hey, it was better than nothing. Performance didn’t start to come back until 1985 with the fuel-injected L98. The big splash happened in 1990 when the awesome ZR-1 arrived with its all-aluminum, 375hp LT5 DOHC engine that surpassed the old “big-block” glory days. The LT1 replaced the L98 in 1992 and topped out in 1996 with the 330hp LT4. But it was the arrival of the LS1 that took performance to new heights.
The C5 Z06 was born thanks to two special efforts: the new C5-R factory racer and the 1999 hardtop model. The hardtop was supposed to be the stripped “performance” model fans lusted after for decades. But after manufacturing considerations and the strong demand of the luxury-oriented ’98 Corvette, the hardtop model only cost $394 less than the base coupe, plus there was minimal trunk space, and no rear hatch. Sales of the hardtop in 1999 were slow, only reaching 4,031 units (12.1% of total Corvette sales) and, 2,090 units (6.5%) in 2000. The good part was that because the hardtop roof was bolted and bonded to the body, the overall structure was stiffer than the coupe! Ahh, a potential performance version!
Product planners reached back to the Z06 racer-kit option from 1963 for the new performance model moniker. To start, the Z06’s LS6 engine shared the LS1’s block. Then the air cleaner, intake, and exhaust manifolds had their ports smoothed out and higher-capacity fuel injectors were added, along with a new PCV system that reduced crankcase pressure. Compression was 10.5:1, up from 10.1:1 in the LS1, thanks to new pistons and redesigned pent-roof combustion chamber heads. Power was up to 385 hp at 6,000 rpm and 385 lb-ft of torque at 4,800 rpm. The clutch and driveshaft were beefed up to accommodate the extra grunt. The transaxle was left stock except for the more aggressive ratios and a 3.42:1 axle. The FE4 suspension received revised shocks, larger stabilizer bars, and a stiffer rear spring, and front and rear camber was adjusted for improved stability. New wheels and Eagle F1 SC tires were larger too, 17x9.5 with 265/40ZR17s up front and 17x10.5 with 295/35ZR17s at the rear. The Z06 was light too, weighing just 3,126 pounds, 117 pounds less than the coupe. Savings came from lighter wheels, no spare tire, thinner glass, and titanium mufflers.
The interior was available in all-black or black-and-red leather, with extra side bolsters, Z06 embroidery on the headrests, and a 6,500-rpm tachometer. The shifter feel was improved by eliminating the rubber bushings and a transmission-temperature sensor was added. Electronic dual-zone air conditioning was included. The exterior featured rear side brake scoops, mesh inserts in the front grilles, and special “Z06” fender badges.
Did the new Z06 deliver? Yes! For 2001 5,773 Z06s were sold, just 348 units less than the ’99 and ’00 hardtop total. How did the C5 “performance” Z06 compare to the C4 “performance” ZR-1? Very well. For performance/dollar value, the ’01 Z06 cost $47,500, that’s $19,943 less than the $67,443 ’94 ZR-1. Zero-to-sixty was identical at 4.3-seconds, and quarter-mile for the ZR-1 was 12.9 and 12.7 for the Z06. The C5 Z06 was the clear winner.
The Z06 is here to stay, with each generation taking a quantum leap. The C5 Z06 maxed out at 405 hp, the C6 Z06 came with 505 hp, and the new C7 Z06 delivers an astonishing 650 hp, outdistancing the previous Corvette flagship, the ZR1, by 12 hp. Can it get any better? Sure, but the C7 ZR1 isn’t out yet!