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Chevrolet Corvette C5

Chevrolet Corvette C5

By Jack Nerad

Chevrolet Corvette C5 Despite its claim to fame as "America's sports car," the road has never been easy for the Chevrolet Corvette. Despite a crowd-pleasingly scrumptious body, the car almost died in its infancy when its low-tech Chevy parts-bin underpinnings and high price/low performance ratio got it off to a dreary start. After all, what 50's sports car aficionado wanted a car equipped with a twenty-year-old six-banger and a two-speed automatic trans? And, at the same time, what bucks-up Eisenhower-era luxury car buyer wanted to spend twice the average American family income on a two-seater that didn't even have roll-up windows? Only the divine intervention of the fabled Chevy small-block V-8 saved the car from oblivion.

But trouble was not over for the pride of Chevrolet. With its considerable bulk, drum brakes, pushrod engine and live rear axle, the "plastic pachyderm" was routinely ridiculed by the cognoscenti who felt that European cars like the Jaguar E-Type, Porsche 911 and any number of Ferrari models were far superior to the car Chevrolet was foisting off on the public. Only raw horsepower kept the Corvette competitive in the marketplace during those years. Then, to add insult to injury, Carroll Shelby dropped a big Ford V-8 into an obscure British sports car called the AC Ace, and the Cobra was born. With its rudimentary body that made no pretense at providing creature comforts, the Cobra could walk all over Corvettes strictly on the basis of superior power to weight.

Even when the Corvette refined its act with an all-independent suspension introduced in the Stingray model of 1963, the car still took its knocks from the press. No one could deny its sheer bang for the buck, but there were always quibbles about the car's immense lack of sophistication. When this author was growing up in the late 60's, it seemed that four or five times a year Motor Trend would run a cover story about some new, mid-engine "Corvette prototype" that was predicted to reach production "soon." But none of those sophisticated concept cars ever hit the assembly line, and Chevrolet entered the 1980's with essentially the same Corvette that it had introduced in the 1968 model year.

The all-new fourth-generation Corvette introduced in 1984 was a huge improvement over the previous iteration, but again the critics were quick to lash out at its shortcomings and underplay its considerable good qualities. Particularly hated were the fourth generation's non-traditional gauges that someone once described as looking like "Tokyo at night." Never mind that the real Tokyo at night has an irresistible cosmopolitan charm, the lack of a proper round speedometer paired with a proper round tachometer was too much for the stringed-back glove set to tolerate. (Don't look now friends, but Formula One racecars use nothing but electronic digital gauges and, horror of horrors, "idiot lights.")

To be fair, the fourth-generation Corvette did have its negatives. One certainly had to be spry, fit and flexible to clamber across its ultra-wide doorsills into the narrow, electrically activated driver's seat. The foot wells were also narrow; interior space cramped and luggage area both small and very inconvenient. Worse yet, build quality was poor, and interior pieces fell off like dandruff in an Arizona windstorm.

To which I and at least a handful of my fellow car critics said, "So what?" Even with its antediluvian small-block V-8 under the hood, the car still went like stink. A safe and sane 150 miles per hour was perfectly attainable on the street. (While trying not to sound like an over-the-hill braggart, been there, done that.) Best of all, compared to its contemporaries, the Corvettes of the fourth generation were extremely easy to drive fast. Their immense torque and reliable stick turned many a mediocre pilot (myself included) into a passable driver. (Others in the profession might say I was very passable indeed.)

But still the critics weren't satisfied. They pointed to the Lamborghini Countach, Ferrari Testarossa and several iterations of the Porsche 911 turbo, and whined about the low-tech inadequacies of the Chevrolet product in comparison. Never mind that the contending imports cost multiples of the Corvette's MSRP, the automotive press decried the Vette's lack of an overhead-cam engine and slammed its harsh ride quality. (Quit crying, men; this is a sports car, remember?)

Some contend the General Motors does not listen to criticism and that is the automotive giant's Achilles' heel. But in the case of the Corvette, Chevrolet engineers listened to its critics with a degree of interest and reverence usually reserved for religious prophets. With negatives ringing in their ears and wanting to quiet their critics once and for all, the Corvette braintrust conceived what was to become the ZR-1 version of the car. At its heart was the highly sophisticated, dual overhead cam, all-alloy engine that the press had been whining for. Since the goal was to make the car the automotive equivalent of the baddest dude in the world, the ZR-1 model quickly got hung with the moniker "King of the hill." Sadly, good as the car was when it ran right, that title was an impossible one to live up to.

When Motor Trend, which was then under my supervision, had the opportunity to test the Corvette ZR-1 for the first time, it proved to be very quick and very fast with a top speed a blistering 179 mph. But the much more expensive Countachs and Testarossas of the era were slightly faster, running up to 185 or so. Sorry, King of the Hill. Thanks for playing. Lost in all this was the fact that the ZR-1 cost considerably less than half the prices its rivals were commanding. Production problems and delays put further crimps in the ZR-1 plan, and, though 6,939 ZR-1s were built, the program wasn't the magic bullet to end press criticism that its proponents thought it would be. After the ZR-1 experience, Chevrolet executives decided to take the very advisable step of returning to the Corvette's roots. They realized that trying to achieve exoticar performance while keeping the car's price under $50,000 was a pipedream, and they wanted a car that could achieve some decent sales volume, at least enough to occupy the Bowling Green plant. The next Corvette, they decided, would be accessible to the average guy (or at least the average guy who could spend $40K on a car.) It would be high-tech but not bleeding edge. And it would be easy to own and easy to drive on a day-to-day basis. These were the marching orders for the engineers who, under chief engineer Dave McLellan, began work on what would become the C5 Corvette.

When the Corvette C5 made its debut in 1997, every one of those marching orders was fulfilled, despite a switch in the project's overseer with Dave Hill taking over the reins. To get there Chevrolet started with a stiffer chassis that not only reduced squeaks and rattles, it also helped the suspension function much more effectively. Corvette engineers went to extremes to obtain this chassis stiffness, employing hydroformed rectangular-section steel rails that ran the full length of the car near the perimeter along with a steel backbone.

The suspension of the C5 broke little new ground, but the more rigid chassis allowed it to be tuned for good grip and precise handling without rattling the fillings of the driver or passenger. The configuration was relatively familiar: unequal-length control arms, a transverse plastic leaf spring, tubular shocks and an anti-roll bar up front, and unequal-length control arms with a toe control link, a transverse plastic leaf spring, tubular shocks and an anti-roll bar in the rear. Corvette bucked the trend toward bigger and bigger tires by fitting slightly narrower P245/45ZR17 tires in front and P275/40ZR18s in the rear. Despite the slightly narrower tires the C5 offered a higher limit of steady-state adhesion with a 0.92g skidpad figure versus the 0.89 for the previous model. In transitions the new configuration proved at least equal to the old, with the key added benefit of superior ride quality.

To gain much-needed interior space the all-new body was drawn up slightly taller than the previous edition, the door sills were narrowed and cargo space grew to an impressive 25 cubic feet. The taller roofline and narrower sills also made entrance and egress much easier for the aging Baby Boomers who were the car's chief customers.

Opinions differed on the exterior styling. While some applauded the car's looks, others criticized the derivative front-end styling and the bustle-back rear end. The car does make a statement, but it is less a pure form than some of its predecessors. Suffice it to say, the C5 is not generally regarded as the most attractive Corvette of all time.

Save for the special edition ZR-1, however, it might well be the fastest. Soon after its introduction the American car magazines were reporting zero-to 60-mph times in the 4.8- second range. Top speed was reliably put at 172-5 miles per hour, just a tad off the ZR-1's potent top end. Certainly, 175 isn't bad for a car that can be purchased off a showroom floor for about $40,000.

A key reason for the dual delights of high performance and low price was the Chevy engineering team's biggest gamble. When it came to an engine, the obvious route was to design an all-alloy, dual overhead-cam, four-valve V-8. Everybody from Ford to Lexus had already headed down that path. But Chevy shocked everyone by designing an all-new 5.7-liter V-8 with pushrod-activated intake and exhaust valves. Aside from its all-alloy construction, the new engine, dubbed the LS1, was more similar to the fabled Chevy small-block powerplant than to the latest engines from Ferrari, Mercedes-Benz or BMW. Some critics scoffed, but the Chevrolet engineers had very good reasons for their decision. While overhead cam, multi-valve engines do generate a great deal of horsepower for their displacement that horsepower traditionally lies high in the rev band, higher than many street drivers usually tread. Further, big displacement two-valve engines like the LS1 produce prodigious amount of low-end torque, and it is this factor that makes them both quick and eminently drivable.

High-tech, low-tech or no tech, one certainly can't argue with the initial LS1's numbers. The engine cranked out 345 horsepower at 5600 rpm and 350 pound-feet of torque at 4400 rpm. With a redline of just 6000 rpm, the LS1 isn't a screamer like some of its more highly stressed, high-revving competitors, but its character suits the Corvette just fine, as the car's top speed and acceleration numbers attest.

In total, while behind the wheel the C5 is a kinder, gentler Corvette - offering more space and greater creature comforts - it is still truly a supercar that provides awesome performance. When one keys in a price that makes it at least marginally accessible to the average guy, one can have no doubt that, in spite of its critics, the Chevrolet Corvette C5 is one of the greatest cars of all time.
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