Lifestyle - 5 For $25K

In a buyer’s market, we pick five great Corvettes to drive, enjoy, and collect

Barry Kluczyk Sep 21, 2011 0 Comment(s)
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We're willing to bet that, even if you paid cash for a brand-new Z06, you regard $25,000 as a serious chunk of pocket change-and for the rest of us, it certainly is. But with the average cost of a brand-new family car at right around $28,500, it's not exactly the money that can buy anything these days.

When it comes to purchasing a used Corvette, however, the $25,000 threshold offers a surprisingly deep field of options. We're talking about desirable cars that will likely have an upside to their resale values in a few years, or at the very least break even if the mileage is kept reasonably low. Although C2s and early, big-block C3s don't register at this spending level, we've come up with five candidates that generally offer more than the standard base models, a fact that should support their future value. They include:

  • C5 Z06
  • C4 ZR-1
  • '70-'72 small-block models
  • C6 LS2 models
  • '96 Grand Sport

While all of the cars on our list have strong merits, the C4 ZR-1 and Grand Sport models offer the greatest opportunity for near-term value growth-all while delivering great driveability qualities that encourage active participation in the Corvette hobby. In other words, they aren't trailer queens.

"The C5 and C6 cars continue to follow the same parameters relative to new cars when it comes to prices; in other words, they're still depreciating-even Z06 and ZR-1 models, which hold a higher overall value than a standard Corvette," says Dana Mecum, founder and president of Mecum Auctions (www.mecumauctions.com). "On the other hand, C4 depreciation has just hit the low end, and with the economy finally on the rise again, these cars could soon begin to appreciate in value."

That sentiment is echoed by Joe Verrillo, co-owner of Prestige Motor Car Company (www.prestigemotorcar.com), a dealership and restoration facility near Albany, New York, that specializes in Corvettes.

"C4s are great deals right now, and I really like the '96 Grand Sport. I think it's poised to really grow in value," he says. "The C4 ZR-1s are sleepers right now, too. They're going for about a quarter of what they cost new, and in a few years, I think people will really be snapping them up."

And even though it may be still depreciating, Verrillo says the C5 Z06 is hard to beat.

"The entire C5 generation delivers the best bang for your buck, when it comes to used Corvettes, but the Z06 model delivers unbeatable performance for the money," he says. "It's an incredible car that's very affordable right now, especially compared with the C6 models."

We should clarify that our $25,000 price is a target, with some of our picks costing a bit more and some a bit less. But even with those priced a little higher, some savvy negotiating should bring the price down. It's a buyer's market right now, so make the most of it. Find the best car with the lowest mileage and don't settle for one that doesn't have the color or transmission you want. With that said, let's take a closer look at the cars on our list and why we selected them.

Top Pick: '01-'04 Z06

After more than five years of the C6 Z06 and a couple of years of the world-beating ZR1, it's easy to forget what an impact the C5 Z06 made on the performance world. It debuted for the '01 model year with 385 horsepower. Again, in the shadow of the 505hp C6 model and the 638-horse ZR1-heck, even the "base" Vette delivers 430 horsepower-its output seems comparatively tame, but make no mistake: The C5 Z06 was-and remains-one of the most capable high-performance cars on the market.

The original 385hp version could launch from 0 to 60 in about 4 seconds flat and run the quarter-mile in the mid-12-second range. The 405-horse version, which came along in 2002, lopped about a tenth off the 0-60 time and two or three tenths off the 1,320. The C6 Z06 is quicker, no doubt about it, but only John Force would think a four-second 0-60 time is sluggish. Of course, modifying the stock LS6 engine is a comparatively easy option that alleviates any nagging feeling of horsepower envy.

As everyone knows, the C5 Z06 was built into that generation's unique "hardtop" body, which was stiffer and lighter than the standard "fastback" coupe, with its heavier glass rear window. But the Z06 took the lightweight theme even further, with thinner window glass, lighter aluminum wheels, titanium exhaust components, less sound-deadening material, a fixed radio antenna (instead of the heavy motor of a retractable unit) and even a lighter battery. It weighed in at only 3,115 pounds, or about 40 pounds lighter than the already lightweight, "standard" hardtop model. And by the way, that's also 60 pounds lighter than an '11 Z06.

Besides the weight-saving components and the LS6 engine, the C5 Z06 also included other specific features, including the FE4 suspension, wheels, tires, gearing, and brake-cooling ducts.

Buying Tips: Like all C5s, the Z06 models are very robust, without too many common maladies to worry about. The seats, however, aren't bright spots in either comfort or quality. Check them for wear. You'll also want to check the operation of all the electrically operated features, such as the locks, windows, and so on. Clutch, brake, and tire replacements are expensive endeavors and are items owners typically avoid when they plan to sell their cars. They're also likely to be worn on these high-performance models. Avoid candidates with these needs or negotiate the selling price accordingly. You'll also pay less for a higher-mileage car, which isn't a bad choice if you plan to modify it with serious engine or chassis upgrades.

Runner-Up Pick: C4 ZR-1

If you're of a certain age-mid-30s to late-40s, mostly-the C4 ZR-1 likely holds mythical status in your mind. Back when Ferraris rocked the world with less horsepower than you'd find in many family cars these days, the simple rumor of the ZR-1 was enough to have enthusiasts salivating. Tracking the car took on mythical aspects, too, with grainy spy shots of Corvettes sporting wider rear rubber splashed all over the magazines. Then the moniker "King of the Hill" was bandied about, backed by partial descriptions of a high-tech, multi-valve engine that would make the Europeans take notice.

When the ZR-1 finally hit the street in 1990, it was the rare instance of a car totally living up to its hype. The distinguishing squared taillights and convex rear fascia simply added to the exotic aura. And with 375 horsepower, it delivered straight-line performance that hadn't been offered from the factory in 20 years-all with sophistication and comparative civility. The Lotus-engineered/Mercury Marineûbuilt LT5 engine was a technological milestone and remains one of the best engines ever installed in a Corvette.

Sales were initially brisk, but the high price of the ZR-1 was hard to overcome for many enthusiasts. The car also lost some of its magic in 1991, when all Corvettes received the convex tail and squared rear lamps (although the ZR-1 could always be spotted by the hatch-mounted center rear brake lamp). More than 3,000 were sold in 1990, and more than 2,000 in 1991, but after that sales tumbled to 502 in 1992, and then to a measly 448 in each of the remaining three model years. It bowed out after 1995.

Low production numbers bode well for the C4 ZR-1's future collectability, while the initially high prices have plummeted to a third or less of the original MSRP. That makes these cars screaming deals these days. And mark our words: One day in the near future, you'll wake up and notice the prices for these cars rising, and you'll kick yourself for not buying one when they were at the bottom of the depreciation cycle.

For those of us who still remember when we saw our first ZR-1 in the flesh, we'll be grabbing one as soon as all the spare change has been scrounged from the couch. The lower-mileage cars are in the sweet spot of our $25,000 target, while high-mileage cars are much cheaper. Keep your eventual resale in mind and grab a lightly driven example.

Buying Tips: The LT5 has proved robust and durable, although maintenance and repair parts are understandably more expensive than for a traditional small-block. What you'll really need to look out for are the wear-and-tear items common to all C4s, namely cracked leather upholstery on the driver seat's left-hand bolster and other worn trim pieces. The more miles the car has, the worse these conditions will be. Originality will always be worth more, so if the car you're looking at has aftermarket parts (Borla cat-back exhaust systems are popular modifications), make sure the original parts come with it.

No. 3 Pick: '70-'72 Small-Block Models

Classic "shark" styling at an affordable price is just what you get with a small-block '70-'72 Corvette. What we really like about these cars is that they have all the head-turning good looks of '60s-era cars, they're reasonably comfortable cruisers, and you can drive them to your favorite events without the worry of drastically affecting their value. In fact, these cars may not have made this list if we'd done the story a few years ago, but the market correction of the last few years has made them eminently more affordable.

To be honest, you can land one of these sharks for far less than $25,000 if you settle for a modified or non-numbers-matching car, but we're talking about straight-up cars in unrestored or lightly restored original condition. Generally speaking, these are cars with original engines, but with refurbished exteriors and/or interiors. These Corvettes will have the greatest potential for an upside as the market continues to recover-and there are signs it's doing just that.

Truth be told, you could probably find some numbers-matching 454 big-block cars (non-LS5, mostly) from these model years for $25,000, or maybe a stretch of a few thousand dollars more. But the small-block cars are plentiful, great performers, and are easy to maintain.

Buying Tips: If the car you're looking at hasn't been repainted, there's a good chance it needs to be. That's because the original paintjobs simply didn't hold up with time, even on low-mileage, garaged cars. So, practically speaking, find a car that's had a good-quality repaint, because you'll save a ton of money in the long run. Ask the seller about current or previous engine-cooling issues, too. You don't want a car that overheats on the drive home or when you're pulling into the Saturday-night cruise spot.

No. 4 Pick: '05-'06 Corvette (LS2)

This is the car on our list for which you don't have to worry about keeping the miles down, maintaining all the original equipment for future collectors, or anything like that. It's the car you buy to drive the wheels off, throw on a supercharger, and install that rear wing that has always caught your eye.

For better or worse, these are simply used cars in today's market, and they're among the best performance values on the market. And don't worry about developing a case of LS3 envy, because with the money you save buying one of these bargain Vettes, you'll have plenty of spare change left for a head-and-cam package or even that aforementioned blower. Heck, you're saving so much with one of these cars that you can spring for the polished supercharger case, too.

You'll probably find these cars listed through dealers in the $27,000 range, so negotiating down to $25,000 or less shouldn't be a problem. Typically, they'll have mileage between 40,000 and 60,000 miles, and you shouldn't have to look very hard to find one on the lower end of that range.

Buying Tips: There aren't any major problems to speak of, so simply rely on basic used-car inspection and negotiation tactics. Make sure the tires are good or get the seller to whack off about a grand immediately. Same goes for the brakes and clutch. Take your time and find the cleanest, most well-kept example you can find. There's no reason to buy a neglected beater to save a few pennies.

No. 5 Pick: '96 Grand Sport

As a send-off for the C4 generation, the '96 Grand Sport was an in-your-face homage to the handbuilt race cars from 1963. The heart of the package was the LT4 engine, which was a hotter, 330hp version of the standard LT1 engine and was instantly identifiable by its red intake manifold. It was only offered with the six-speed manual transmission. The powertrain was good for mid-13-second quarter-miles and an honest 165-mph top speed.

On the outside, the Grand Sport wore Admiral Blue paint, accented by a white center stripe and those iconic red hash marks on the left front fender. A set of black-painted ZR-1 wheels were added, too, necessitating small rear-fender flares to cover the wide rear rims. Inside, the cabin was initially offered in a red-and-black combination that contrasted garishly with the blue-and-white exterior. A lukewarm reaction from prospective buyers prompted the quick addition of the more sedate all-black interior choice. Apparently the voice of the customer was correct, as 73 percent of the cars were ordered with the all-black cabin.

Vemp 1110 Lifestyle Five Great Corvettes 5 For 25k 001 2/17

Only 1,000 Grand Sports were built, split among 810 coupes and 190 convertibles. For you Canadian collectors, only 13 Grand Sports were exported there, and only one of them was a convertible. Every Grand Sport carried a unique, sequential vehicle identification number as well.

Although their production was limited, '96 Grand Sports are pretty easy to find, and their prices are very attractive right now. In fact, our unscientific scan of cars on the market at the time of publication showed many average- mileage examples well below the $25,000 threshold, with the low-mileage, show-condition cars right on our target price.

Buying Tips: As we mentioned with the C4 ZR-1, the biggest issue to deal with on a Grand Sport is seat wear, because everybody rubbed their legs across the side bolsters as they slid over the wide sills. Check for and ask the seller about intake-manifold or rear-main-seal oil leaks. Also, the OptiSpark crank-triggered distributor can be problematic, so ask whether it has been replaced.

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