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What Could Possibly Go Wrong? - 2009 C4

Barry Kluczyk Mar 7, 2013
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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.

Day Two
The second day of the trip started mostly like the first: lots of rain, but in a different state. The gray, sodden clouds didn’t completely dampen the scenery, however, as the mountainous terrain and wide vistas in Western Montana were still breathtaking. In this part of the country, the varied scenery and largeness of the landscape is a marvel to a native Midwesterner who’s used to rusty, abandoned industrial sites or flat, rural monotony.

It was all too easy to draw comparisons between the people who make up this country and the stereotypes we affix to them. To a small-town Montana rancher, the burned-out crack houses in post-industrial Detroit must seem like the real-life embodiment of a RoboCop movie, while the snow-capped peaks and wide-open spaces of the Treasure State must seem pure and unspoiled to a Detroiter. But that Montana rancher likely hasn’t had the opportunity to discover the beauty beneath that Motor City blight, and the Detroiter may be surprised—as I was—at all the signs posted in those seemingly idyllic mountain towns, imploring residents not to get swept up in meth. It’s the scourge of small-town America, particularly out west.

Vemp 1303 07 Z What Could Possibly Go Wrong 1990 C4 Ford 7/15

I made another gas stop in Montana, and this time I thought the C4’s electrical system was giving me a new problem to deal with. After about 450 miles, there was no way the digital readout for the fuel level should have been so high. I was pleasantly surprised, however, when the pump clicked off, yielding an average mileage of 27.8 miles per gallon for that leg of the trip.

It took several more hours to drive the length of Montana, along I-90 and I-94—nearly 700 miles altogether, or approximately the distance from my Michigan home to Boston. And this was just one state. I ended the day in Bismarck, North Dakota, making about 800 miles for the day. I filled up and checked the mileage again, which had increased to more than 29 mpg since the last stop. Wow. That 3.07 axle was a performance ratio, all right, albeit for fuel economy.

No problems popped up with the car in the first couple of days. I kept that to myself when I checked in with others along the road. I’m not superstitious, but it was sort of like not uttering anything about a no-hitter for fear of jinxing it.

Day Three
Bismarck, North Dakota is a boomtown these days. The oil-and-gas industry has more stakes in the ground there than Starbucks has coffee shops in Seattle. The traffic is heavy, and finding a room the night before was difficult. As I headed east out of the city, I was thinking how clean and well-kept the highway appeared—especially compared with the neglected condition of most Detroit-area highways.

The balance to that myopic opinion came with the local news on the radio, which described how North Dakota’s towns were struggling to deal with the immense amount of trash that had come with the truckers of the burgeoning oil and gas businesses. Besides the burger wrappers and cigarette butts, the most contentious problem was the plastic bottles of urine that truckers were leaving on roadsides throughout the state.

Vemp 1303 11 Z What Could Possibly Go Wrong 1990 C4 Curbside Glendive 11/15

Day three was a short one on the road, as I stopped in the Minneapolis area by the early afternoon to catch up with an old friend and colleague, Anh Le, who served as the art director at Corvette Fever back in the early ’90s. At the same company, I was the managing editor of Musclecar Review. 

By the way: That more-or-less-flat leg of the trip between Bismarck and Minneapolis returned 30.3 mpg from the Corvette. I was beyond impressed. I also hadn’t experienced any problems with the car, apart from those already known at purchase, including the airbag light and a low-coolant lamp that flickered on from time to time, despite the system being full. I was heading into my final day of the drive having avoided a roadside help call to Editor Heath. 

06| The west is still filled with well-preserved old cars, and there are more than few on the outskirts of Billings, Montana. The Ford wagon in the foreground seems like the perfect candidate for an LS7 engine and Corvette-suspension swap. 07| Yes, the speedometer works into the three-digit range. We tested it in rural Montana, just to make sure. 08| Interstates 90 and 94 in Montana offer a bounty of scenic photo ops. 09| A decision was made to not test the reasoning behind this road’s ominous name. 10| Curbside in Glendive, Montana. We were unable to locate the $1.50 hotel rooms, sadly.

Day Four
Detroit was a little more than 700 miles from Minneapolis. I had done 800 miles on day two, so I figured that hitting the road before the crack of dawn would get me home by around dinnertime. The X factors would be the morass of the Chicago area and hitting Detroit at rush hour. The morning’s drive, however, was scenic and enjoyable, as the Corvette soaked up a Wisconsin countryside that presented postcard-perfect dairy farms nestled in green valleys around every bend. You couldn’t have asked for a better stretch to drive in a Corvette.

My mood and the scenery shifted as soon as I hit the Illinois border, as the first of countless toll booths appeared on the horizon, and the road morphed from a smooth ribbon of asphalt to craggy slabs of haphazardly placed concrete. It was annoying enough to stop every few miles to hand the state a few more bucks: I forked over more than $12 in tolls in the roughly 100 miles it took to reach the Indiana border. For that outlay, one would expect a modicum of quality. Illinois’ body-rattling stretch of I-90 was more like the Outback highway in The Road Warrior. I totally expected a truck full of leather-clad scavengers to spike the Corvette’s tires and siphon its precious juice.

Vemp 1303 12 Z What Could Possibly Go Wrong 1990 C4 Chevys Detroit 12/15

I made it around Chicago without being attacked by wasteland mutants, rolling briefly through Indiana on I-94 and back into Michigan. My home state’s roads aren’t anything to crow about, either, but they were nothing like that stretch in Illinois. And while we may not have quite the science-fiction roads of the Chicago area, if the world ever does go the way of the Road Warrior, Michiganders will easily be the best positioned for the roadway anarchy illustrated in the movie. We’re almost there now.

First of all, there’s the speed. Michiganders drive as if every mile is the final qualifying lap for the Daytona 500. We abhor gaps between vehicles, too, so it’s not enough to drive 25 mph over the speed limit; you must close the gap with the car on the horizon, too, with as much velocity as your rusty, 15-year-old Grand Prix can muster. Otherwise, you can’t tailgate that driver and muscle him over, allowing you to kick the throttle and rocket past in a show of self-perceived authority.

Vemp 1303 13 Z What Could Possibly Go Wrong 1990 C4 Riverfront Motor 13/15

In other cities, like Manhattan, aggressive driving is common, but done with mutual respect: He who gets his car’s nose into traffic first is rewarded. Not so in Michigan, where disdain for your fellow man is the norm. A friend who lived for years in New Jersey, and visited Detroit often, once commented, “I think people in Michigan would rather roll their car over in a ditch than let you in front of them.” Absolutely right. And don’t let anyone tell you it’s not personal. It is.

With my blood pressure rising with the water-temperature gauge in rush-hour traffic, I knifed through Detroit’s mean streets and arrived home by early evening. The bear hug from my four-year-old daughter capped the road trip, which went off without a hitch. The Corvette performed flawlessly, and that Chicago-to-Detroit leg, which included stop-and-go traffic in both cities, returned 29.9 miles per gallon.

When all was said and done, the Corvette averaged 29 miles per gallon with the cruise control set at 75 mph for most of the trip. Think about that for a moment: There are plenty of new compact cars today that could duplicate that mileage, but this was a 22-year-old sports car with almost 120,000 miles on the clock. U-S-A! U-S-A!

The L98 engine didn’t use a drop of oil, and no problems popped up with the rest of the car. It was literally the easiest, most uneventful cross-country drive I’ve ever done, and I’ve done more than my share of them. In the interest of full disclosure, however, since I’ve had the Vette back in my garage, it’s started to puke out some coolant after long drives. I’ll have to chase down that problem, but the system seemed overfilled when I bought the car, so I’m hoping it’s simply related to that.

With the benefit of a few months’ hindsight, I still believe the car represents an excellent value. The yellow paint generates a lot of positive comments, and the body feels tighter and quieter than I assumed a 120,000-mile C4 would.

And while this story would have been more dramatic with a tale of roadside mechanical calamity, it’s telling that nothing at all went wrong during the drive. I wouldn’t hesitate to jump back in the car and do the trip again. For the money, it’s a lot of fun—and a great, inexpensive way (so far) to enjoy the Corvette hobby every day.

11| Back in the “D”—and just a couple blocks from Chevy’s downtown-Detroit headquarters. 12| A riverfront view of the Motor City, with GM’s Renaissance Center visible at left. 13| In corn country, the public-service announcements leave no room for ambiquity 14| Just outside the city limits, the eight-story-tall Uniroyal tire has been a welcoming symbol of Detroit since its installation in 1965. The structure had served as a Ferris wheel at the World’s Fair a year earlier.



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