The phrase “bargain Corvette” might seem as much an oxymoron as “jumbo shrimp” or “(insert branch of armed services here) intelligence.”
And yet that phrase has crossed my online reading twice recently. First, in manufacturing chronological order, Scott Oldham:
Chevrolet had the stones to call it the most advanced production car on the planet. The TV commercial said the all-new 1984 Corvette was superb in its engineering and technology and defiant in its performance. Sure, the advertising was lame, but the car was extraordinary.
The C4 Corvette was among the fastest cars you could buy during President Ronald Reagan’s first term, and its handling and braking redefined street performance at the time. The media swooned, and sales erupted. Chevy sold more than 51,000 units the first year, making 1984 the Corvette’s second-highest-volume model year ever.
It was a car we were all waiting for. Yearning for. The C3 had been around since 1968, and its chassis dated to the split-window Sting Ray of 1963. Design sketches for the fourth generation of the “plastic fantastic” were drawn as early as 1978, and its first clay models were produced in ’79.
Despite rumors of a mid-engine design, Chevy stuck with the front-engine layout that had served America’s sports car well since 1953. Chevy also kept the transverse leaf spring suspension that debuted with the C2 in 1963. But there was an all-new structure, aluminum A-arms, and 16-inch 50-series Goodyear Gatorback tires so massive we couldn’t believe our eyes. A targa-style, removable roof panel was standard, as was the busy, ahead-of-its-time digital instrument panel.
The C4 debuted with the anemic 205-hp L83 V-8 carried over from 1982, complete with Cross-Fire injection. (There was no 1983 Corvette.) A retuned suspension and real power arrived in 1985, when the Corvette got the 230-hp L98 that shared its tuned port injection with the Camaro and Firebird. Now the Corvette could top 150 mph.
In 1986, after an 11-year hiatus, Chevy reintroduced a Corvette convertible. A year later, the L98’s output climbed to 240 horsepower, but the transmission options remained the odd Doug Nash “4+3” four-speed manual (with three overdrives) or the four-speed automatic. Quarter-mile times dipped into the high 13s.
In 1989, Chevy added 17-inch wheels and tires and replaced the Doug Nash 4+3 with a ZF six-speed manual. The following year, the C4 got a new cockpit-style interior with airbags and plenty of gray, hard plastic. Most of the digital gauges were gone, too. New exterior styling with more-rounded lines came in 1991, and in ’92 the L98 was replaced with the second-generation small-block, the LT1. That engine made 300 horsepower, and although its Optispark ignition proved delicate, aftermarket solutions are readily available.
This engine family peaked in 1996 with the 330-hp LT4, optional on all Corvettes equipped with the six-speed. It also powered the Collector Edition and Grand Sport models, both of which exceed the $15,000 mandate of this page. We haven’t even mentioned the 1990–95 ZR-1 or the twin-turbo Callaway models.
They’re spendy, too. But other C4s remain cheap. Of note are the 1985–89 cars that feature the L98 paired with the retro charm of the harder-edged exterior lines and original interior design. They offer heady performance for little money, and they’re old enough to be retro cool. C4 Corvette prices are flat, but they’re starting to tick up as Gen Xers begin to seek out the cars they wanted in high school. As always, buy the absolute best one your budget can afford.
Road & Track adds an owner interview:
I’ve always liked the compact look of the C4 Corvette. I finally bought one—a 1988 convertible—in 2009 and have put about 4000 miles on it since. It shares the garage with an ’87 Camaro I bought new and a trio of ’57 Chevys. The C4 had 62,000 miles on it, and the body and the interior were perfect. But it had been neglected mechanically, so I replaced the clutch and the radiator and rebuilt the pop-up headlight buckets. Now that it isn’t nickel-and-diming me anymore, it’s the perfect car to go out and cruise in on a nice day. I love the Doug Nash 4+3 transmission, with overdrive in second, third, and fourth gears. It’s like having a seven-speed. Compared to my Camaro, the Corvette is a whole different animal and outperforms it in every way.
I have a few problems with the C4. Two would be right in front of me if I owned one:
The first photo is of the 1984–1990 C4 instrument cluster, known derisively as the “Star Wars” dashboard. That would bug me no end if I owned an early C4. The other problem is that, to no surprise, that cluster is known to die without warning. Chevy replaced it with the instrument cluster in the second photo, which for some reason still included a digital speedometer.
Since the second cluster was part of an interior redesign, no, you can’t swap one into the other. There are other alternatives …
… for a price, of course.
I’m not enamored with the original wheels either, which to me look like the wheel covers of my former 1975 Chevy Caprice.
They do look appropriate somehow for those interested in the last-generation Caprice. (These are actually the next wheel design, which looks better.)
Poor wheel aesthetics can be fixed, too, for a price.
The C4 lasted from the spring of 1983 (as a 1984 model) to 1996, when it was replaced by the C5. Which leads us to Jack Baruth:
It was the first modern Corvette to challenge the world’s best sports cars on truly level ground, the first Corvette to take a class victory at Le Mans, and the last Corvette to feature those oh-so-cool hidden headlamps. But the fifth-gen Vette (C5) came very close to not existing at all. According to Russ McLean, platform manager for the model, General Motors management made the decision to “sunset” America’s most iconic sports car in the Nineties. McLean and a group of rebels ignored the decision and continued development of the Corvette, much of it off the books and on their own time.
Eventually, the big wigs came back around to the idea of building the C5. Celebrated as world-class upon its debut, it would go on to win everywhere from the SCCA Solo Nationals in Topeka to the Mulsanne straight in France. Now caught in that uncomfortable middle ground between new-car smell and classic-car kudos, the C5 is arguably the greatest performance bargain on the market. It can still cut the mustard on a road course, at the drag strip, or at a Saturday night cruise-in.
If you’re looking for chrome trim, bronze-tinted T-tops, or ashy door handles that disappear into the horizontal surfaces, you won’t find them here, but much of the traditional Vette ownership experience persists, from the stubborn sag of the massive doors to the copious heat blasting from the transmission tunnel. At least there’s plenty of power. Fire up the V-8 and marvel at the lazy torque that can roll the car forward from a standstill in the (optional!) manual six-speed’s fourth gear.
The C5’s shoestring development shows through in the mismatched interior controls, the perishable nature of the interior trim, and the hilarious necessity of leaving a door open when you close the rear hatch, because there isn’t enough passive venting to let the air escape otherwise. But there’s plenty of smart engineering under the fiberglass skin. (Corvettes have always been known for having fiberglass body panels, but since 1973, General Motors has steadily increased the amount of plastic resin in what is now called sheet molding compound, or SMC, such that the h-generation Vette’s body panels used just 20 percent fiberglass.) Its hydroformed steel structure is four and a half times as stiff as the previous Corvette’s. Elsewhere, the use of aluminum, magnesium, and even balsa wood (in the door sections) cut weight. The aluminum LS1 V-8 was a clean-sheet design, sharing only bore spacing with earlier Chevy small-blocks. A few minutes at speed will dispel any doubts. Considering that some modern six-cylinders outpower a ’97 Corvette’s 345 hp, the C5 is no longer truly rapid by modern standards, but a well-driven example can still see off a challenge from today’s hot hatches, and a mint-condition Z06 is almost a match for a new Stingray.
We’ve most likely passed the bottom of the market for manual-transmission C5 Corvettes in good condition. Early coupes and convertibles with automatics can sometimes be had for 10 grand or even less, but expect to pay $15,000 and up for six-speed coupes and FRCs. The 405-hp Z06s sit at the top of the price spectrum, with transaction prices for clean 2004 Z06 variants often approaching $30,000. If you’re buying for the long term, don’t consider anything but a Z06. But if you’re looking for a daily driver, keep in mind that $5000 in upgrades to a coupe or convertible will enable it to leave a stock Z06 in the dust. …
The C5’s performance came as a surprise to many owners, so look carefully for crash damage and be sure that the car’s steel backbone is intact. Despite having plastic body panels, Corvettes can corrode underneath, which makes a full inspection worth your time. The first few years used fussy tire-pressure sensors and key fobs, so budget $500 or so to bring them up to 2001–2004 spec. If you aren’t sure about the condition of the clutch or transaxle, get it looked at before purchase, because they are labor-intensive to repair.
The LS1 and LS6 engines are renowned for durability and ease of tuning. Swapping the heads, cam, and intake can yield as much as 500 hp at the crank. There are also well-tested supercharger upgrades.
The C5 was raced extensively in the SCCA T1 class and elsewhere, so there are virtually limitless options for firming up the handling. If you’d rather improve the street usability of your Corvette, there are aftermarket solutions, from upgraded seats to complete interior swaps. For about $1000, you can replace a tired targa top with a tinted aftermarket variant that recalls the spirit of 1970s Vettes.