Lifestyles - The Definitive C4 Buyer’s Guide

What you need to know about buying a C4

Barry Kluczyk Oct 2, 2012 0 Comment(s)
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There comes a point when an older car transcends looking dated and starts looking more classically attractive. Not necessarily vintage, mind you, but appreciated for its original design elements and performance. The C4 Corvette is entering that phase in its history. It was ubiquitous in the '80s and '90s, but it was soon overshadowed by the C5, which represented tremendous leaps in performance, ergonomics, and build quality. The C6 simply amplified those traits, leaving the C4 as the proverbial red-headed stepchild of the Corvette family.

That's a shame, because despite some undeniable shortcomings, the C4 is a wonderfully competent car, both on the street and at the track. And while it may never measure up dynamically to the C5 and C6, the fourth-generation Vette more than holds its own--just ask any of the countless road racers who continue to employ them effectively. But to compensate for a body structure that was less than rock solid, the suspension was dialed in with very high spring rates and stiff shocks. That gave the C4 admirable cornering capabilities, but anything other than perfectly smooth pavement could make the ride teeth-shatteringly uncomfortable, especially if the car was equipped with the Z51 suspension. Chevrolet softened the ride throughout the C4's lifespan, but the early models are as unyielding as week-old pizza crust.

Sure, those wide sills don't allow for easy or graceful entry/egress (ladies, these aren't cars for short skirts), and some of the electrical and mechanical gremlins that have plagued the C4 for a couple of decades now are beyond frustrating. Also, there's just no beating the performance capability of the LS engines that have defined the C5/C6 cars. Still, at a time when even the lowliest of anemic, mid- and late-'70s C3s are commanding more than better-performing C4s, we've got to say that when it comes to bang for the buck, you just can't beat a good fourth-gen Corvette.

Good is definitely the operative word here, because there are scores of lousy, run-for-your-life beaters on the market that look great in an online ad--or even at a glance when viewed in person--but represent tremendous wastes of money. And frankly, there are better Corvettes than others, with some C4 buyers caught up in a web of seemingly endless repairs, while others enjoy a relatively easy ownership experience. But make no mistake: Owning a C4 takes a commitment to maintenance and an expectation that some things will go wrong. This story may not influence your inclination towards purchasing a C4, but it should help if you've been looking for one--or if you've been burned in the past.

The basics

In very general terms--and we're talking about basic C4s here, not rare or specialty models like Callaways, ZR1s, or even Grand Sports and Indy Pace Car replicas--pre-LT1 C4s (1984-1991) range in price from about $4,500 for cars with a tire or two in the grave to the low- to mid-$20,000s for show-worthy examples with less than 10,000 original miles. And while that may seem like a wide spread, the majority of "driver" cars--those with about 45,000-70,000 miles--are in the $9,500-$10,500 range these days.

The '92-'96 LT1 cars are holding slightly higher prices, but only within about $2,500 of L98 and Cross-Fire models. We did a quick search of Autotrader.com and found 860 examples of '84-'91 cars for sale, but a surprising 887 LT1 cars listed on the day of our research. Logic says attrition has simply taken more of the early C4s out of the game, but the bottom line is that there are just as many or more LT1 cars to choose from, which will suppress their values.

Whether you want an L98- or an LT1-powered car, you should have no trouble spending $10,000 or less on an excellent example with some "road seasoning." Of course, when examining any C4, all the basics of used-car searches apply, so keep in mind the following:

Photos lie At least, they deceive. The tiny photos on a Craigslist ad, or even the larger images you might find on an eBay listing or Autotrader ad, simply won't provide the detail you need to make a truly informed decision. Viewing the car in person is a must. And if you look for a car out of your immediate area, pick an area where a trusted friend or relative can inspect it for you.

Ask specific questions Asking whether the car runs well may get you a simple "yes" reply, but that doesn't cover the fact that it leaks oil. So, ask specific questions about any leaks, needs for mechanical work, life of the tires, brakes, and more. Many sellers spout off every little problem without prompting, and most will answer honestly when asked. Don't forget to ask about an accident and/or body-repair history.

Be wary of modifications If you're a regular reader, you know that modifications are as common among Corvettes as Bow Tie logos, but buying someone else's project can be problematic if you don't know everything about the parts and tuning. When it comes to body modifications, well, we all know that some products and painters are better than others. And unless you plan to be buried in your used C4, you'll probably sell it one day, at which time any deviations from stock can negatively affect its value.

Get a Carfax or AutoCheck report It's cheap insurance, plain and simple. You'll get the registration history of the vehicle, along with any accident or flood reports, mileage discrepancies, or other questionable items in the car's past. Regardless of whether the history comes back clean as a whistle or shows an accident the seller didn't tell you about, it's worth every penny.

C4 specifics

There are a number of quirks and common problems to check for when inspecting a C4 in person. And while discovering one, two, or more of them shouldn't necessarily dissuade you from purchasing the car (frankly, they're all likely to have an issue or two), they should paint an overall picture of its condition and whether it's the right vehicle for your money.

One of the most important considerations, however, isn't a Corvette-specific problem, but rather the treadwear of the tires. They're expensive to replace, and many owners put off doing so on a car they know they're going to sell. So, you really want to find a car with good tires, because otherwise you're looking at a minimum $600 investment for even bargain replacements, while a set of Goodyear Eagle F1s might run $1,300 or more.

The same goes for the clutch and brakes. If either of those items needs replacement, you're looking at a hefty service tab for a car with a comparatively low market value. Don't get yourself upside down on your investment with normal maintenance work. Find a car whose seller has already done the upkeep.

If you're satisfied with those items, turn your attention to:

The Engine

Although generally bulletproof, the old-school small-block has a few Corvette-specific quirks to check for. Worn valve guides are more of an issue on L98 cars, manifesting themselves as a puff of blue smoke during a cold start, while a failed intake-manifold gasket may show up in the form of an oil leak. For LT1 cars, a common problem area is the OptiSpark ignition system. Moisture (often from the water pump above it) is typically the culprit, resulting in rough engine idling, misfires, or even a no-start condition. Ask whether the OptiSpark unit has been replaced. It's an instance where you hope the answer is yes, because the replacements were generally better than the originals. (Note: Failures were most common on '92 and '93 models, whose OptiSpark units lacked the vented design used on the '94-'96 cars.) A failed fuel-pump relay may also be the reason any C4 doesn't start, although it's a more common problem on pre-1990 cars that had the relay mounted under the hood. Many experienced owners carry a spare in the car.

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