'97-'04 C5 Corvette Buyer's Guide

What to watch for when purchasing a Corvette C5.

Meggan Bailey May 29, 2007 0 Comment(s)
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Any '97-'04 Corvette can make you happy if it works correctly. But picking the right one takes careful inspection.

You've decided to buy a '97-'04 C5 Corvette. Could there be a better time to do so? Making sure the car you buy doesn't turn out to be a horrible mistake is always a challenge. Have no fear - Corvette Fever is here.

To help guide us through the fiberglass maze, we enlisted the help of brothers Tom and Martel Souter of Classic Motorcars in Lubbock, Texas. They're great fans of Corvettes of all generations, and have owned and sold thousands. The result: a lot of personal experience that can help you make key decisions when sizing up your next purchase.

Where Do I Start?

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The steering-wheel lockout system has been a problem for many C5 Corvettes. Make sure the proper recall fix has been done on your car.

First decide what role the car will play in your life. You might want a six-speed, but if you're planning to use it as a commuter, an automatic might be more practical. Do you want a weekend show car to haul around the country or a dual-purpose race car for autocross or hot-performance driving fun? Deciding the ultimate purpose of your C5 is the place to start.

Budget is the second-most important factor to consider before making a purchase. The amount you can spend dictates the year, color, options, and mileage. According to the Souters, "The best bang for the buck right now is an '00 C5. You could probably get one in the low $20,000s with decent miles, which would be quite a good buy. In addition, nice '99-'01s are pretty cheap right now because the new car (C6) hurts the values of these cars."

On the other side of the coin, a rare and more collectible Corvette usually requires a slightly higher budget. The Souters feel there are three cars that fit this market: the '03 Anniversary Edition, the '04 collector Z06, and the '98 Indy pace car. According to Martel, "The main thing with Corvettes is performance. Goofy paint jobs don't bring more money down the road. Performance is key. A '78 L82 four-speed pace car will bring more money than any other pace car. So when looking for your new C5, pay attention to performance options."

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The condition of the seat bolsters indicates how well the car was maintained.

Color is usually the first consideration for buyers. With any Corvette, there are the most popular colors, trendy colors, and not-so-hot colors. According to the Souters, Magnetic Red and black are the hottest. Tom said, "Red and black are always popular colors. Silver, yellow, and blue are next. Purple, green, and white are a lot less popular. You'll pay more for the top colors, obviously, than for the less desirable colors."

Deciding which options you want is difficult, and we asked the Souters what they would choose. Both said they would want a rear CD changer, dual power seats, sport seats, heads-up display, polished wheels, and climate control. Both could do without ride control. "Unless you live in a mountainous state, the majority of people don't need that [ride control]," said Tom. Martel added, "It will just be an expensive option once you have to start replacing parts."

The Walk-Around

Let's say you've found the C5 of your dreams. It's the right color and price, and has all the options you're looking for. This is the time to get serious. Inspecting every inch of the car can be the difference between a terrific purchase and Corvette hell. Tom Souter took us through a walk-around of a typical '97-'04 C5.

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Low-hanging spoilers are a constant source of damage.

1. Pay attention to panel-edge seams and paint lines to see if any panels have been replaced. Raise the hood and check for worn or replaced screws, which indicate a panel has been replaced. Open the rear hatch, side doors, and gas cover; look for overspray or paint ridges that indicate paintwork.

2. Look for seat wear. Worn side bolsters indicate how the car was maintained.

3. Operate door handles and window switches, turn lights on and off, and turn the climate-control system on and off. Make sure all gauges and gadgets work. GM has the best air conditioning in the world, but the LED dash sometimes goes out, usually where you can't see the temperatures. It costs about $300 to replace the module. Of course, make sure no warning lights are illuminated.

4. Check the tires. No one wants to buy a car that needs new ones. Make sure it has run-flat tires - remember, these cars do not have a spare tire or jack. Some sellers may say they replaced the tires with regular ones so the car runs better, but they probably won't tell you they cost half as much. Make sure a Z06 has the flat-tire kit with a tire pump and fix-a-flat (a $500 option). Keep in mind - if the car needs tires for a set of run-flats, you'll spend another $1,200 to $1,800. Turn the wheel all the way right and left, and check the inside edge of the tire for wear.

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Inspect the engine as best you can. Most engine parts are hard to see; start it up and listen. Always have the car inspected by a third party before purchase.

5. Check the brakes and pay special attention to the rotors, which have a tendency to warp. It usually doesn't mean the rotors have to be replaced, but just need to be turned. Cracks in the rotors indicate they've been super-heated, which can't be fixed by turning them down. They'll have to be replaced.

6. Look under the front of the car to make sure the spoiler and air dam are still intact. Sometimes drivers run over a curb or a cement parking-lot stop and damage these undercar parts that help cool the car. Their condition will indicate if the car was loved or abused.

7. Check the wheels for scuffs or other external damage.

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Paint color affects price. Black or red costs more than white or green.

8. Under the hood, check for oil leaks or antifreeze smell and inspect belt condition. Much of the engine is hard to reach, so drive it if possible and listen carefully for things that don't sound right.

9. If the car has a transparent top, inspect it for crazing (small hairline cracks in the glass).

10. Ask an unbiased third party to evaluate the car.

As any fan knows, the Corvette driving experience is the best in the world. But taking the time to buy the right car is key to getting the most for your money.

Lockout: Steering Column Problems

The Souters made many comments about the terrific reliability of C5s, but there are things you should know. First and foremost: steering-wheel lock.

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Run-flat tires are twice as expensive as normal tires.

"The biggest problem is with the steering lock," said Tom. "It's a theft deterrent. But if you put your key in the ignition a little bit wrong, it misreads it and locks down the steering column."

The fix? "It took many recalls to straighten this out," said Martel Souter. "Make sure the [steering lockout] recalls have been completed on your car. You don't want to get stranded somewhere. It isn't cheapI've had to fix a few myself."

Who Ya Gonna Call?

Companies that offer Corvette purchasing guidance:
Classic Motor Cars: www.texascorvette.net
Corvette Specialties: www.corvettespecialties.com
Corvette Mike: www.corvettemike.com
ProTeam Corvette: www.proteam-corvette.com
VetteFinders: www.vettefinders.com

Fax Please

Check the car's paperwork. We recommend CarFax, which helps uncover as much as possible about your car's history. CarFax can provide legal ownership liens on the vehicle and information about any accidents. Corvettes handle accidents poorly, so this information provides more than poor tire-wear characteristics as the result of bad repair work. Spend the few dollars for the CarFax service. If the car comes up clean, it will set your mind at ease. Visit CarFax at www.carfax.com.

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