Y2k was a big year for technologists. Everyone was pretending that there was a chance the world would cease to exist as power plant and nuclear weapons silo control systems came grinding to a halt at the same time the air traffic control and the stock market failed. All of this was going to be the result of legacy systems being built around a 2 byte data structure for date and treating 2000 as 1900. We’re all still here so obviously none of this came to pass, but at the time the fears were real. Working as a senior engineer at a commercial ISP, this meant that New Years 2000 was spent in the Time Warner Cable datacenter. Great fun watching the millenium roll in with the guys in the cable head end! To make up for this loss of a once in a multi-generational moment (most of us won’t see too many milleniums 😉 ), I decided to put my year-end bonus to use and buy a car. After all, we had a second garage space and technically we did have two drivers, my now wife (the knot was officially tied in Sept 2000 after ages of cohabitation) having just gotten her license. Poor financial planning and impulse decisions triumph once again!
So bonus check in hand, I started my search for wildly impractical, borderline “ridiculous to own in Brooklyn”, vehicles. The idea was that my wife would take the Benz and use it for the life remaining on the lease, and I would primarily use the new car. When the Benz went back we would decide whether or not to get her something else, or just stick with having an empty garage slot (ha! like that would happen!). I was commuting daily to Queens, and had a limited budget for both purchase and ongoing maintenance and insurance (insurance in Brooklyn is a massive hit), so I had to stay somewhat sane in my decision making. So how do I define “sane”? I give you the 2000 Chevrolet Corvette C5. Now this is really the stuff that boyhood dreams are made of:
Black, automatic (what what WHAT?!), 2.73 rear, CD player, T-tops and that’s pretty much it. Total cost out the door $48,000. This was the first car I bought outright and it was both exhilarating and a bit nauseating to fork over that kind of cash but hey, this was a Corvette. And not just any Corvette, but a brand spankin’ new C5. For me, the C4 (with the obvious exception of the ZR1), had been a bit of a snoozer. The styling was far too mild for my tastes, almost unfinished to my eye, and the build quality was seriously lacking. Even the performance left something to be desired. After the iconic C3 the whole package just left me, as a childhood fan from afar, a bit wanting. The C5 was a whole different story. It was the signal that Chevrolet was not willing to simply cede the premium sports car crown to Europe and Asia (and Dodge). The iconic US car was back in the running. This was my expectation as a magazine racer anyway. So how did the reality stack up?
Build Quality, Design and Ergonomics
Right off the bat let me say that this bit is a mixed bag. It’s been incredibly hard for GM to shake the parts bin, low rent, interior on the Corvette for some reason. Indeed it could be argued that they’ve yet to shake it and a big value proposition of the C7 is that this issue might finally be addressed. As a result, the interior of the C5 really looks like a Cavalier interior. A well designed and nicely appointed Cavalier, mind you, but not a world beating sports car. The plastics are a bit rubbery and the leather somehow is as well. It gives the impression that it all won’t wear very well and that impression is correct. I drove the Vette for 3 years and nearly forty thousand miles and the wear was already starting to show in some ways despite attempts to keep things fresh (seat leather cracking, some switch gear labels fading, that sort of thing). Most troubling of all was the t-top. While the transparent lucite made for a gorgeous view, my fear that it might just leak was realized much to my dismay. Luckily it was only under pretty direct pressure (like washing the car) and only just a few drops. Still, on a brand new 21st century $48,000 automobile you really don’t want to see water droplets inside. What the cabin lacked in quality, though, it did make up for with design. The ergonomics were great and all controls were within reach and intuitive. The much maligned BOSE audio system was actually pretty good to my ears and I felt it was the first car I’d owned, including the Benz, with genuinely satisfying sound. Of course this could be attributed to a combination of my downmarket taste and the odd staging effects of a small two seater cabin and a big subwoofer. On the plus side everything worked and kept working. Power controls held up just fine and nothing inside, including the car computer, suffered the slightest bug nor seemed to indicate it might. Outside, the car was a near work of art. From the round tail lights to the front popups everything about it screamed “Corvette” while still keeping a foot firmly in the modern world. Minor nits are that the back never quite looked balanced to me on the C5 coupe. It was too thick and high relative to the sharply tapered front, the paint quality was less than great (a recurring theme with the water based paints, but the Vette finish still had a lot of room for improvement) and the popups, while a nice nod to the past, probably were past their prime (although as a child of the 80’s, I continued to love them). In the final accounting though, nearly all of these things are pretty much fully counterbalanced by “it’s a Vette!”
And here we have the meaning of “it’s a Vette!” What a monster the C5 was. Off the line even the automatic with it’s dismal 2.73 rear and low stall torque converter (all geared towards fuel efficiency) provided a fantastic adrenaline charged rush. The big V8, putting out 345HP and only needing to pull 3200 lbs, provided power all over the place. Even the base suspension was nicely matched to the chassis and engine, eliminating nearly all roll in most scenarios, and the brakes were excellent for the street and the stock setup. The steering feel was good. Not telepathically good like cars I would later be lucky enough to drive, but better than anything I had felt to date. In short, driving the Corvette provided the payoff one would be expecting which says a lot since one goes into this bargain with high expectations almost inevitably. On the negative side, I did find that the car felt bigger than it really was and I never quite got used to the feeling of looking down that long hood. I learned that I definitely prefer a more intimate driving experience. In addition, the Corvette, with it’s hugely wide tires and suspension setup, can feel a bit jumpy and, driving on uneven roads, can become a bit of a battle. I never once lost her though, or had the rear kick out in a way I couldn’t control, and I had the car up to 130MPH on an occasion or two and took her both to the drag strip and to the autocross. She might not have the polish and refinement, and absolute excellence, of the Europeans, but the Vette is a unique beast in it’s own right, with it’s own charms, and is definitely world class.
The only actual issues I had weren’t issues at all. Unfortunately, the Vette marks for me the beginning of a sickness enthusiasts call “moditis”. In short, I had been bitten by the “mod bug” and my case was a bad one! All told I sunk far more money than I should have into tweaking the performance of my baby. I added a 3.42 rear differential from the 6 speed (swapping out the 2.73) and a high stall, high ratio, torque converter (3000 RPM ProTorque), then flashed the automatic transmission computer for a more aggressive program matched to the new gearing. Seeking more power, and better sound, I attached the airflow side of the equation and went cold air induction with the Vette doctors while, at the same time, adding Borla headers and exhaust. With all of the new power I decided that the stock suspension was finally overburdened and so upgraded to the Z51 suspension aftermarket. The final result was a bit of a monster (at the time) and had me running mid 12’s (12.5 to be exact) at around 110MPH. Not shabby for a 4 speed automatic, but entirely too much money! Other than the mods, she was as solid as a tank needing only oil changes. When I sold her just shy of 40k I was actually still on the original brakes and tires!
I’ll always have a soft spot for the Vette. From gazing up at posters in my room as a young kid, to buying one in a giddy haze, to immersing myself in the Corvette community, learning a ton, and modding the heck out of one, the Vette really is a part of who I am. I’ve driven many Vipers, and came close to buying one on three occasions, but in the end I am a Vette guy. That said, being realistic, what I learned is that for myself, I’m actually neither a Vette nor a Viper guy. American muscle really just isn’t my thing. I am definitely an import guy, primarily Europe but as you’ll see I have had the absolute best of Asia as well. I am truly blessed though, to have had the good fortune to have experienced two true American classics first hand in order to really learn this about myself. As an aside, I have been in the C6 and it is a great incremental improvement over the C5 and, in Z06 and Grand Sport form, is on a whole different level. And of course a different level above that sits the mighty C6 ZR1. So while I know I won’t own one again, I do enjoy watching from afar and lurking on the forums, and await the new C7 with all the eagerness and anxiety of a true believer!