Chevrolet Corvette: 60 Years of an American Icon, Part 2

1984-2013: C4, C5, and C6

Drew Hardin Jan 13, 2013 0 Comment(s)
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C5: 1997-2004

All New

Chevrolet Corvettes At Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca 2/49

Financial trouble within GM and a shuffling of the major players high up the corporate ladder resulted in yet another delay for a redesigned Corvette. The car's fifth generation was originally scheduled to debut in 1993, to mark the Vette's 40th anniversary. When the dust finally settled, it would be another four years before the C5 was finally unveiled to the public at the 1997 North American International Auto Show in Detroit. A long wait, yes, but worth it by all accounts.

Everything Changes
Ad writers and marketing types love to tout any redesigned, refurbished, or even slightly modified car model as "all new." But that term truly applied to the '97 Corvette, perhaps more so than at any other period in the car's history. And that includes the very first models. Groundbreaking as they were, they relied on a lot of Chevy parts-bin components to get on the road in 1953.

Not so the '97 Vette. Except for the automatic transmission, everything about the car was new. From a styling standpoint the car was unmistakably a Corvette and yet far sleeker than the C4 models that came before it. It didn't just look more lithe, either; wind-tunnel tests confirmed the car's drag coefficient dropped substantially, from 0.34 to 0.29.

1997 Chevrolet Corvette Front 3/49

Beneath the slippery skin, the C5's foundation consisted of a hydroformed perimeter frame with a rigid center tunnel, far stiffer than the previous chassis, which helped solve some of the squeak and rattle problems that plagued earlier cars. Instead of a conventionally mounted transmission, the C5 made use of a rear-mounted transaxle, creating close to an ideal 50/50 front-rear weight balance. Double-wishbones were employed at all four corners, sprung by a composite transverse monoleaf spring at each end of the car.

Since 1955 small-block V-8 power had been a key component of each Corvette's personality, and in keeping with the "all new" theme of the C5, the '97 Vette was home to GM's brand-new Gen III V-8, a 5.7-liter engine that shared displacement with its LT1/LT4 predecessor but little else. Dubbed the LS1, this all-aluminum mill featured cross-bolted main bearing caps in its deep-skirt block, a smaller bore and a longer stroke, replicated (rather than siamesed) ports to make flow rates consistent cylinder-to-cylinder, sequential port fuel injection (with a new electronic throttle control), separate ignition coils for each spark plug, and tubular exhaust manifolds. The new engine weighed 44 pounds less than the LT4 and produced 345 hp, up from the LT4's 330.

LS1 V 8 Engine 4/49

Given all that innovation -- and glowing reviews from the automotive press -- it's surprising that the first C5 wasn't a bigger success at the showroom. Just 9,752 units were sold that year, less than half of what the '96 model sold. (The decline was due in part to an abbreviated '97 model year.) It didn't take long, though, for the public to warm up to the car. A year later sales more than tripled.

New Body Styles
Budget constraints kept the Corvette design team from developing a C5 convertible concurrent with the coupe, but the drop-top arrived just a year later, solid and shake-free thanks to the C5's rigid subframe. Chief Engineer David Hill mandated that the top mechanism be manual, not power-operated, to save two things: cost and space. Why space? With the new convertible came a trunk, a feature not found on a Corvette since 1962.

C5 Chevrolet Corvette Interior 5/49

Chevrolet followed up the convertible with something completely different for '99: a hardtop body style. Though it was at one time envisioned as a budget model of the Vette, the hardtop instead became a performance variant, as it weighed less than the sport coupe (by some 80 pounds) and was 12 percent stiffer. By limiting some equipment and options availability, the hardtop did wind up costing less than a coupe, but by just a few hundred dollars. Performance-wise the car was just a tick or two quicker than the coupe, though that would change in a couple of years.

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