What Could Possibly Go Wrong? - 2009 C4

Barry Kluczyk Mar 7, 2013 0 Comment(s)
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Our recent C4 buyer’s guide described why ’84-’96 Corvette are excellent bargains these days, provided you’re prepared for the maintenance and common problems that come with ownership. The story also illustrated the differences between a couple of similarly priced vehicles and why, upon inspection, a Competition Yellow ’90 coupe represented a superior buy at only $6,000.

This story is a follow-up. We’ve put our money where our editorial mouth is and bought that yellow ’90. Well, the editorial “we” is, in reality, just “me”—the humble keyboard jockey who was out to prove a point. (Or, at least, that he hadn’t thrown away good money.) I would demonstrate that insight, too, by driving the car 2,400 miles from Seattle back to my home in Michigan.

It was an inspired plan, and one I was sure Editor Jay Heath would embrace like a cold beer on a hot Saturday afternoon. He embraced it, all right, but not like grabbing an ice-cold Rolling Rock out of the fridge. It was more like someone handed him a warm bottle of fermented goat’s milk. As a self-described “recovering C4 owner,” he found that the idea triggered a number of frustrating memories. I, on the other hand, had never owned a C4 before, and although I was aware of the numerous issues that typically plague them, I was blissfully (naively?) unaware of how it was to live with them every day.

With a measured tone that suggested I might be crazy to fly across the country to pick up and drive back in a 21-year-old car I had no experience with, he nonetheless told me to go for it, closing with a terse qualifier: “Just don’t call in the middle of the night when something goes wrong.”

The Car
As mentioned earlier, it was a Competition Yellow ’90 coupe—one of only 171 coupes (and 278 Corvettes overall) sprayed the color that year before a problem caused Chevrolet to pull the plug on it. The car was also somewhat rare, with the ZF six-speed manual transmission and Z51 suspension, as well as the G92 Performance Axle Ratio with 3.07 gears. It had about 117,000 miles on the clock—not low, but not crazy-high, either.

Vemp 1303 05 Z What Could Possibly Go Wrong 1990 C4 Z51 Suspension Stiff For 5/15

I spotted the car on Craigslist’s Tacoma, Washington, site and had another auto-writer friend from the Seattle area, Bruce Caldwell, inspect it for me. I live in suburban Detroit, so I couldn’t check it out in person, but I had already planned out the road trip from Seattle back to the Motor City in my mind. That was before the C4 pessimists started in on me. And to be honest, the car had (and still has) a few issues to work out, including the common problems of an air-bag warning light that won’t turn off and a tachometer that reads too high.

A few minutes on a couple of popular Corvette forums had me sufficiently spooked about the car’s quality to give me pause about the trip, but I’d done similar drives in far more marginal cars. These included an overheating ’75 BMW and a four-cylinder Ford that broke a piston ring 50 miles out of Seattle and sucked down 40 quarts of oil on the drive back to Michigan. Nevertheless, I stuffed a couple of ACDelco fuel-pump relays in my suitcase, just in case. Militating in the car’s favor were essentially new tires, a new clutch, and fresh brakes.

Road Trip—Day One
After crashing on the couch of an ex- college roommate just outside of Seattle, I hit the road on a soggy, characteristically Northwest Monday morning. In fact, it was pouring. I had a passenger for the first 250 miles or so, as another friend, John, tagged along until Spokane. He was not a car guy.

“So, this is a Corvette, huh?” he said. “I’ve never ridden in one. Pretty cool.”
“Yes,” I replied. “Thanks.”

“Do they still make Corvettes?”

“Um, yes, John. As a matter of fact, they do.”

“Does it have a V-8 engine?” he asked.

I almost changed the conversation to politics, but then he asked a relevant question: “How’s the gas mileage?”

\Good question. I didn’t know. We filled up before we left, and I wouldn’t check again until after I’d dropped him off in Spokane. But at a gas station in Missoula, Montana, I ran the numbers and was pleasantly surprised at the 24.8-mpg average that included several high-elevation mountain passes, non-stop rain, and a few wet, heavy snowflakes. Not bad at all.

Vemp 1303 06 Z What Could Possibly Go Wrong 1990 C4 6/15

I was also happy to make nearly 400 miles without a problem. The L98 small-block pulled the car along I-90 with effortless aplomb, although the Z51 suspension’s stiffness didn’t make for the smoothest ride, and clambering over those mile-wide sills to drop into or climb out of the C4 cabin wasn’t the most comfortable or dignified of exercises. In fact, as we noted in a recent tech story, C4 drivers pulling themselves up by the steering wheel can prematurely wear out the tilt-steering knuckle, causing a loose feeling in the wheel and the tendency for it to “drop” down and to the left.

01| Mile zero, in suburban Seattle. The ’90 Competition Yellow coupe was equipped for track-day fun, with the Z51 Performance Handling Package, the G92 Performance Axle Ratio, and the ZF six-speed manual transmission. The purchase price was $6,000, which included essentially new tires, clutch, and brakes. Mileage was about 117,000. 02| The clouds give Seattle its characteristic moodiness. Cue the Pearl Jam tunes. 03| The weather at the outset of the trip wasn’t ideal, with heavy rain and snow up in the mountain passes. The Vette soaked up the wet roads effortlessly, averaging just about 25 mpg on the first leg. 04| Driving the C4 hundreds and hundreds of miles every day was comfortable when the pavement was smooth, but the very-stiff Z51 suspension could be jarring on broken pavement. Nevertheless, fatigue wasn’t an issue. 05| Healthy eaters, avert your eyes. This trip was made a couple of weeks after Easter, so all the stores had leftover candy at giveaway prices. The white-chocolate bunny was supposed to be a gift for the author’s wife, but it didn’t make it out of North Dakota.

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