As the most radical and technologically advanced Corvette ever, the C5 took the world by storm when it was launched in March of 1997. It ushered in a whole new way to look at American supercars in that it combined iconic styling, newfound quality, a comfortable interior, and drum-tight engineering. The fifth-generation Corvette was the only vehicle on the planet that offered us mere mortals the ability to sample world-beating supercar performance for the fraction of the cost. It's hard to believe that 12 years have passed, but even to this day, the C5 sets the benchmark for many sports cars to follow, despite having been replaced by the C6 in 2005. With LS1 power, a rear transaxle arrangement and the first use of staggered wheels with runflat tires, the 1997-2004 Corvette took the game to newfound heights for the bowtie boys, and the likes of Ferrari, Porsche, and other exotic brands took immediate notice.
It may seem like old news to the Motor Trend types and those other car-buff magazines, but the C5 still has great significance amongst the powershifter in all of us hardcore enthusiasts as the depreciation curve has finally swung into full effect and more importantly, in our favor. The C5, today, offers the best bang for the buck so here, we will look at significant points along the C5 timeline by model year, and then talk about buying and owning the finest example of late-model GM performance. One great resource for information is the Corvette Forum, located at www.corvetteforum.com. We were able to see what other Corvette owners were going through in their personal experiences and even got a few ideas for one of our in-house ZO6s.
Because of the low hoodline that was part of the C5's exterior design and the horsepower needed for the 1997 Corvette, an entirely new engine program was put into place to not only power this project, but a whole new era in V-8 engines. As Dean Guard, the Small Block Chief Engineer for GM related to us, "We launched the LS1 in the Corvette because of its relatively low volume. The low volume application provided the slow ramp-up rate, which allowed us to give meticulous attention to engineering and manufacturing on the entire upcoming Gen III program. The launch of the LS1 was more than the launch of a single engine, it was the advent of Gen III which the following year would power the Camaro and Firebird and after that our trucks with the 4.8L, 5.3L and 6.0L variants. It had to be right for our halo car and engine; we were not going to rush it by going high volume out of the gate. It was a good strategy and one I think benefits our customers because they received, and continue to receive, one of the most reliable, durable, and efficient engines in the world."
As you can see, the LS1 was not just pivotal for the C5 project, but it was instrumental in placing GM down a new path at a time when fuel economy, performance, and emissions output was going to be ever more important. Sharing nothing with its immediate LT1 forefather, the LS1 would feature innovative technologies throughout while maintaining the traditional V-8 attributes.
While the C5 was stunning in so many ways, several so-called automotive journalists quickly discounted the LS1 for being stuck with 1950s overhead valve technology. But if they had only taken the time to do more research, they'd quickly understand why The General chose this valvetrain arrangement. Aside from reducing overall engine height and significantly lowering costs, GM proved that when properly designed, an overhead valve engine can handily outperform an overhead cam engine. Take for example, Ford's super-technical SOHC and DOHC 4.6-liter "Modular" engines, which are nowhere as efficient and compact as the Gen III LSX engines. These Fords have also proven to be top-heavy and difficult to service when it comes time to perform any mods so let's thank GM for giving us the LS1.
Key notables for the LS1 include a switch to a more powerful PCM in 1999 which is more tuner-friendly for you computer hackers out there. In 2001, they then received the freer-breathing LS6 intake manifold and the LQ4 camshaft for a total of 350 horsepower. The 2001-2004 ZO6s all had great heads, cams, and engine/drivetrain packages, making them the most desirable and as expected, the most expensive. Over time the 5.7-liter LS1s and LS6s have proven to be incredibly reliable, efficient, and powerful. The main thing to look for is weak oil pressure on early LS1s and signs of abuse, which typically show up as oil leaks and odd engine noises. These cars hardly ever spew a drop of lubricant but dances with the rev limiter, missed shifts, and general lack of LSX respect will also result in piston slap on cold start and lifter noise. Documented maintenance records help, while frequent oil changes with quality synthetic lubes promote engine life.
Don't be scared of modifications such as long-tube headers, a mild cam and some tuning as these mods are pretty much considered bolt-ons and won't greatly affect the life of the car. Once you get into superchargers and nitrous, things change. We'd recommend asking a good technician to see the quality of the work that is on a prospective car that you're looking at. LSX engines can easily handle a moderate boost in power with a power adder but elevated power levels, no matter how sexy they may sound on paper, require a careful eye to catch potential problems.
The rest of the C5's mechanicals are equally unique in design and engineering. The transmission, mounted directly to the rear transaxle, sits behind the driver to offer near-perfect weight distribution and thanks to a close-ratio T56 with two overdrive ratios and a 3.42 ring and pinion, taking advantage of the LS1's broad powerband is just a slick shift away. Automatic versions received a four-speed automatic with a single overdrive gear and either 2.73 or 3.15 final drive ratios.
T56 transmissions can become rough shifting over time, but it does not mean the car was abused. Because the C5 uses such a long input shaft within its torque tube, the synchronizers are asked to do a lot more than a regular car as it has to match the heavy input shaft speed to the selected gear's speed. Some cars have been completely cured by the use of GM's Synchromesh fluid while other cars with over 75,000 miles may need a transmission rebuild.
Automatic models with the 4L60E generally last until 100,000 miles without a problem so long as it is serviced with fresh fluids over its life. Be cautious of cars that have been fitted with aftermarket torque converters and/or have been programmed via the PCM to remove the torque management feature, which normally limits power in between shifts. Generally, transmission life can be cut in half (or more) if these modifications have been made together.
Rear differentials can sustain 500 horsepower all day long and failure is relatively low, even when modified. Gear swaps are not exactly cheap, so make sure a gear change is what's best for your engine combination before making the commitment. Generally, the 3.42s work best for mild application but 3.90s and 4.10s love high-revving naturally-aspirated engines in front. When you approach the 600-rwhp level, consider a hardened shaft upgrade and even a transaxle brace kit.
All C5s continued with the Corvette's trademark fiberglass tub construction. Bumper covers and lower rocker panels are made of urethane and don't always fit the best so don't suspect a car of having been in an accident as even unmolested cars will have panel fitment issues over time. Paint quality was good, but not great, so don't let the factory finish be misconstrued as an imperfection from body damage. More often than not, a minor blemish is nothing to fear. Because the paint is a bit on the soft side, and all C5s sit pretty low to the ground, the entire front of the car is incredibly prone to rock chips so we highly recommend a clear bra to protect your investment.
The lower rocker panels are often damaged when a C5 is raised for service, so make sure you get a set of lifting pads to precisely lift the C5 by the frame. These pads simply interface your jack or lift to the car. Because these cars never came with a spare tire, it's important to bear this in mind as the car will be lifted on several occasions within its lifetime.
Truth be told, the interior is nicely designed and offers plenty in the way on interior space and ergonomics. It's just too bad that it's also been the Achilles' heel of the entire car as the interior's fit and finish and material choice is rightfully looked down upon. Because GM chose the same less-than-spectacular supplier to provide the interior panels for the C5, it is a shame to see the same problems here as "lesser" GM models such as the Oldsmobile Achieva. But let's face it-in order for GM to offer a supercar of sorts for the price it did, a compromise had to be made and we are glad they skimped here instead of under the hood.
Some enthusiasts duplicate the factory two-tone color-coordinated schemes while others have used genuine leather to add a premium feel to the dash and other interior surfaces. If the car is kept garaged and clean, the interior will serve many years with good looks and comfort. Add an aftermarket cupholder and you're good for the long haul.
Year by year, the C5 progressed with new options, equipment, and special editions being thrown into the mix. But in brief, this is how it played out:
1997 - Launch year for the all-new C5. The lone version was a 345-horsepower coupe that came to market in March of 1997. It set the performance car world on its axis with a slippery 0.29 Cd, radical styling, and incredible build quality and performance. The automatic transmission is a very popular choice at start of production and winds up making six-speed versions a little rarer to come by. Seven colors are made available, including Black, Torch Red, Arctic White, and the metallic colors of Nassau Blue, Fairway Green, Sebring Silver, and Light Carmine Red. Not too many are built in its inaugural year so finding one may be a bit difficult. The plant in Bowling Green, Kentucky, maintains its honor as the only birthplace in the world for all Corvettes and finally receives accolades for building quality cars.
1998 - The biggest news is the introduction of the Convertible. Also, a limited production Indy Pace Car edition (with 1,158 replicas minted) is available to the public. Less than subtle, the car featured a luminescent Radar Blue paintjob with yellow and white graphics and matching alloys in a bright yellow finish. The interior was no less conspicuous with a complementing yellow and black interior. Manual T56 transmission supply is ramped up and more are made available. Aztec Gold, Navy Blue, Light Pewter, and Medium Purple Pearl (all metallic) are introduced. Magnesium wheels are made available to help customers outfit their Corvettes with more personalized options, while the new Active Handling System comes on board partway through the production run.
1999 - The Fixed Roof Coupe (FRC) debuts as a decontented and more "hardcore" model for autocrossers and open-track enthusiasts. Borrowing some bracing and body panels from the convertible, the rugged look of the FRC draws inspiration mostly from racers as it is only available with the manual transmission and 3.42 gears. For all models (Coupe, Convertible and FRC), a new PCM arrives with enhanced features and greater processor power while the fuel system goes to a returnless type. Heads Up Display comes to the party while a new power telescoping steering column tags along. Magnetic Red is new while Aztec Gold and Medium Purple Pearl are out. Our suggestion? Get an FRC and keep the wheels on it so everyone knows it a '99.
2000 - New forged wheels in a five-spoke design retain the same dimensions as the previous 1997-1999 "wagon" wheels (17x8.5 front, 18x9.5 rear.) To celebrate the defeat of the Y2K bug, Chevy releases Millennium Yellow and all models are now LEV (low emissions vehicle) compliant. New tailpipe finishers and Dark Bowling Green Metallic, and the aforementioned Millennium Yellow, debut. A two-tone Torch Red interior option adds some much-needed flair to the otherwise stark black interior. An FRC is the hot ticket for any enthusiast and this model year incorporates most of the goodies you'd want for the best price.
2001 - The highly anticipated ZO6 arrives with 385 horsepower. The engine is dubbed the LS6 with new 243 cylinder heads, an engine block modified for high-rpm efficiency, and a revised intake manifold for more power. A T56 with a wider gear ratio is used specifically for the new top model, as are thinner front and rear windows, lighter base seats, and other weight-saving measures for this special model. Available only in manual transmission, ZO6s get wider wheels, tires, FE4 suspension, and a new second-generation Active Handling system. The base C5 benefits from the ZO6's technology and horsepower goes up to an even 350 thanks to the LS6 intake manifold. The new Active Handling system is standard on all C5s, allowing users to enter a Competition mode, which allows for more slip before the stability system intervenes. Speedway White comes on board as Arctic White takes a bow while Quicksilver makes its debut, replacing Sebring Silver. A Speedway White ZO6 tickles our rev limiter the most.
2002 - Electron Blue replaces Navy and a CD player is now standard on all models while the Magnesium wheels are no longer offered. ZO6s get a larger front anti-sway bar, new rear dampers, and a stiffened rear leaf spring for its FE4 suspension, a revised camshaft profile, and other subtle changes inside the LS6 help it make 405 horsepower in the ZO6 for its sophomore year. Fender badges are adjusted accordingly and HUD is standard on the baddest C5 yet. Production was still strong and without any special editions, more ZO6s are cranked out to meet demand.
2003 - A 50th Anniversary Special Edition debuts with Anniversary Red paint, badging, and Champagne wheels to celebrate the Corvette's 50th anniversary. All non-ZO6 Corvettes can be had with Magnetic Ride Control, which is an innovative damper system that features Magneto-Rheological fluid in the shocks that can instantly alter viscosity thanks to a coil located within each piston head. New standard equipment include foglamps, sport seats, a power passenger seat, dual zone HVAC, and a parcel net in Coupe and Convertible models. Pewter is dropped and Spiral Gray Metallic's arrival round out the changes as rumors of the C6 linger. If we were to buy a convertible, the Anniversary Edition with MRC and an Auto is the way to go.
2004 - The C5 enters its final year as news of the C6 takes over the airwaves. To celebrate its success, a Commemorative Edition is released with LeMans Blue paint and is available on all body styles. On the CE ZO6s, polished wheels, a carbon-fiber hood, and C5-R-style stripes were added. In total, over 248,000 C5s from 1997-2004 were produced, making the odds very favorable for first-time Corvette buyers to sample supercar performance made in motoring heaven.