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Choosing the Blue Collar Supercar: C5 Corvette Buyer’s Guide

So you’ve decided that the gorgeous lines of the C5, or 5th generation Corvette, appeals to you so much that you want one for yourself? Or perhaps it is the performance, cornering ability, surprisingly good gas mileage, or other many qualities that these cars possess that were built from 1997 through 2004. Regardless of the reasons, let me help you out with this simple buyer’s guide for the C5 Corvette.

Where to begin?

Can you afford it?  

You may find you’re paying more per month to insure it than to own it.

There’s more than just the up-front cost of purchasing to consider. Here are some of the factors you should include in your Corvette “total cost of ownership” budget:

Insurance: According to a recent scan through eBay Motors, you could buy one for as little as $8500, with average prices ranging from $14-19K. But often purchase price isn’t the issue, and you may find you’re paying more per month to insure it than to own it. Are you a young person? Check with your insurance company about how that specific car and year that you have your eyes set on will affect your rates. The unfortunate truth is that despite being affordable to buy and own, a C5 Corvette is seen by insurers as a high-performance, expensive-to-repair vehicle, and rated accordingly.

While the LS1/LS6 engines have proven to be very reliable, there are a few potential trouble spots to look for before you buy.

Maintenance and Upkeep: Are you mechanically inclined? These cars won’t have any warranties if bought from a private party, and the third party warranty coverage offered by some used car dealers is generally overpriced and a hassle when trying to make a claim. That means any repairs or upkeep costs will be your responsibility. While an older, higher mileage Corvette might be cheaper to purchase, it will more than likely wind up costing you more money than a well maintained, newer, and with normal mileage (given the year) car. Also keep in mind that the tires on these cars are wide and high performance which means they’ll also be more expensive.

Average C5 Fuel Economy

  • City: 18 MPG
  • Highway: 27 MPG

  • Combined: 22 MPG

Source: MPGoMatic.com

Gas mileage: These cars will surprise you with their respectable gas mileage, given that every one of these has a roaring V8 engine under the hood! Here are some basic fuel economy estimates from MPGoMatic.com, with results varying by type of transmission (manuals get slightly better), modifications and tune done to the car, type of driving (aggressive vs conservative), and general condition of the engine and car (high mileage, filters that need replacing, bad injectors, or rough idling to name a few things that could result in poorer gas mileage).

Regardless of the figures presented here, many C5 owners have found that their cars get better-than-expected gas mileage, with as high as 34 MPG on the highway! Our own Project Y2k has averaged better than 23 miles per gallon, including numerous passes down the dragstrip and a bunch of fuel-guzzling dyno pulls.

Fuelly

 

The C5 Corvette was available in three basic body styles: Coupe/Targa (upper left), Convertible (upper right), and Hardtop (foreground). The Fixed Roof Coupe and the Z06 both shared the Hardtop profile.

Which body style?

Coupe/Targa: 1997-2004. The coupe was offered for all years of the C5′s production run, and has a removable top. The tops can come painted to match, or blue-tinted transparent (RPO C2L got you both). However, make sure you do not become part of the “FRC” or “Flying Roof Club!” This is what happens when the owner puts the top back on but forgets to secure the latches that keep it on, and as a result winds up having the roof literally fly off the car once they get on the main road.

This is a great body style because it allows the driver to have a safe and secure hardtop when needed, with the ability to remove it and stow it in back for those bright sunny days. It provides a nice compromise between a traditional hardtop car and convertible, with the latter being prone to cracking, ripping, fading, poor temperature retention, and theft. Another feature of the Coupe is the fastback enclosure. It allows for slightly more storage space over the Hardtop and Convertible models. The coupes are also the most common, which often translates into “less expensive.”    

Which color?

Ever wonder where the saying “All Corvettes are red” came from? The first 200 production C5 Corvettes were painted red instead of the traditional white for first production runs. But if you’re not interested in “Arrest-Me-Red” then here’s a list of color options by year:

Exterior

  • Black: 1997-2004
  • Arctic White: 1997-2000, 2004
  • Speedway White: 2001-2003
  • Machine Silver Metallic: 2004
  • Sebring Silver: 1997-2000
  • Quick Silver: 2001-2004
  • Med Spiral Gray: 2003-2004
  • Lt. Pewter Metallic: 1998-2002
  • Aztec Gold Metallic: 1998
  • Nassau Blue: 1997-2000
  • Electron Blue: 2002-2003
  • Le Mans Blue: 2004
  • Radar Blue Metallic: 1998
  • Navy Blue: 1999-2002
  • Fairway Green: 1997-1998
  • Dark Bowling Green Metallic: 2000-2002
  • Millennium Yellow: 2000-2004
  • Torch Red: 1997-2004
  • Lt. Carmine Red Metallic: 1997-1998
  • Magnetic Red Metallic: 1999-2002, 2004
  • Anniversary Red: 2003
  • Majestic Amethyst Metallic:1998-1999

Interior

  • Black: Most common
  • Shale (2003): A light tan
  • Lt. Oak: Tan
  • Lt. Gray
  • Firethorn Red: Bright red
  • Mod Red (2001-2004): A black and red mixture that came in some Z06s.

Convertible: 1998-2004. It’s hard to beat the feeling that the convertible gives you with the top down, wind blowing through your hair (for those still fortunate enough to have it). The top is non-automated which means that you have to roll down the windows, undo the latches, lift up the rear decklid, rotate the top down into the compartment and shut the decklid. However, this can easily be done by one person, does not need lots of human strength or dexterity, and is relatively quick. There are even aftermarket devices that allow you to use your key fob to lower and raise the windows as you are walking to the car, which would make the process even simpler.

The convertible also features a real trunk, which hadn’t been offered in a Corvette since 1962. It is claimed to store two sets of golf clubs quite easily, and indeed, it is of satisfying dimensions. Lastly, the C5 was actually built around the convertible platform, which means that the car did not lose much if any structural rigidity in this form unlike many other convertible cars, which have to make up for that weakened structural rigidity by means of added subframes and braces that significantly increase the overall weight. The C5 ‘vert is only around 75 pounds heavier than the Coupe as a result of this.    

Hardtop/FRC (Fixed Roof Coupe): 1999-2000. This body style has a traditional hard top body with no removable panels, and a trunk instead of the “fastback” glass of the Coupe. This model was intended to serve as an “entry level” lower-cost Corvette, but since it closely resembles the Z06 version which came out in 2001, and can be made to look and perform like a Z06, it has become a favorite of buyers looking for a track toy.

Z06: 2001-2004. The introduction of the Z06 came with many improvements over the other models. For one, power was increased to 385 horsepower in the form of an LS6 powerplant, compared to the rated 350 (2001) in the base LS1. 2002 to 2004 saw another power increase in the Z06 to a whopping 405. Power wasn’t the only thing that was changed for this special model. It also came with an upgraded manual 6 speed (no automatic was offered) using shorter gearing that will allow you to hit 0-60 in 4 seconds flat.

To help put the power to the ground the wheels are also widened to 9.5 inches for the front (versus 8.5) and 10.5 inch rears (versus 9.5), and can be easily identified by their unique “Z06 style.” Lastly, it also features prominent rear brake ventilation ducts on the rocker panels in front of the rear wheels to direct air towards the rear brakes. The Z06 is not for everyone though, as it is noiser, has less insulation, and a stiffer suspension which may be uncomfortable to some on long trips or as a daily driver. Thanks to running changes to the Z06, and the 405 horsepower bump between the first and second years, 2003-2004 models are the best bet.

Flip down the glovebox lid in any C5 and you will see this handy list of RPO codes the car was built with.

In the Know About the RPO 

These cars don’t have as many options as you would find in a Mercedes or BMW, but that’s also one of the reasons they don’t weigh 4000 pounds! That doesn’t mean that there aren’t some things to look for, and some to avoid, though. One desirable option is the RPO UV6 Heads Up Display (HUD) that displays speed, engine RPM, and other information right onto your windshield, available starting in 1999 (and sometimes found retrofitted into cars that didn’t have it from the factory). The Z51 suspension upgrade was criticized in the automotive press at the time of the car’s introduction as being too harsh, but most enthusiasts would probably classify it as “firm.”

Two For the Road

In the age of internet research, printed reference books might seem woefully out of date. But when it comes to buying a Corvette, or simply proving the local cruise night know-it-all wrong, it’s hard to beat the Corvette Bible by Mike Yager, and Mike Antonick’s essential guide, the Corvette Black Book. We took a look at both books a while back and found them interesting to read as well as handy to have on-hand. They can be ordered from Mid America Motorworks.

One option to steer clear from is RPO F45 – Selective Real Time Damping. This driver-adjustable shock system proved to be somewhat troublesome in service and expensive to maintain, with replacement shocks costing some $560 each; some owners today have chosen to delete it entirely and use conventional shocks, which requires an eliminator kit to prevent malfunction codes and a top speed limited to 80 MPH when the computer can’t see the shock electronics.

For the 2003 model year, the F55 Magnetic Ride Suspension replaced the F45 option. In any case, if you are planning on improving your new C5′s suspension components after you buy, it doesn’t make sense to pay a premium for a car with an upgraded factory suspension.

Below are some of the options available, and which years they first appear.

  • 1997: Base Corvette Sport Coupe, Memory Package, Power Passenger Seat, Sport Seats, Floor Mats, Body Side Moldings (These are those color matched ‘spears’ that you can see on the doors of some C5s), Removable Roof Panel Blue Tint, Dual Removable Roof Panel, Electronic Dual Zone Air Conditioning, Luggage Shade and Parcel Net, Selective Real Time Damping, Performance Axle Ratio (Automatic Trans. Only), 6-Speed Manual Transmission, Fog Lamps, Delco Stereo System with CD, Remote Compact 12-Disc Changer, Front License Plate Frame, California Emissions, Performance Handling Package
  • 1998: Base Corvette Convertible, Active Handling System, Magnesium Wheels, Indy Pace Car Replica
  • 1999: Base Corvette Hardtop (the FRC), Parcel Net Hardtop, Removable Roof Panel Blue Tint, Telescopic Steering Power (Coupe & Convert), Twilight Sentinel (Coupe & Convert), Lighting Package (Hardtop only), Heads Up Instrument Display, Bose Speaker Package (Hardtop)
  • 2000: Telescopic Power Steering Wheel (Coupe & Convert), Polished Aluminum Wheels
  • 2001: Base Corvette Z06 Hardtop, Preferred Equipment Group Sport (PEGS) Coupe, PEGS Convertible, Electrochromic Mirrors (Z06), MN12 Transmission (Z06), Active Handling (Now Standard)
  • 2002: Thinner/Lighter/Stronger windshield (Z06)
  • 2003:  Performance 3.15 Axle (Automatic Trans. Only), Magnetic Ride Suspension
  • 2004: Commemorative Edition (Z06, Coupe, Convertible)

Making Your Move

Ok, so you’ve determined how much you have to spent, and decided on the body style, the year or year range, color choices, and preferred options. Before you go talk to some dealer who typically knows little about these cars, or a private owner who may be trying to unload his or her own mistakes, let’s first go over some things to look out for so that you are prepared to inspect a C5 before buying.

Get a Vehicle History Report

This is an easy one. Carfax is the best-known source for vehicle history reports, but there are some competitors in the market as well. Ask for a report if you’re shopping at a dealer, or pull one up yourself for private party deals. This is where shooting a photo of the Service Parts Identification tag in the glovebox pays off, because you’ll have both the VIN and RPO list in one spot for reference.

Keep in mind that a vehicle history report will only show incidents that actually got reported to the insurance company! A clean report is no substitute for a thorough pre-purchase inspection.

When reviewing the history report, you really want to avoid cars with a history of major damage unless you don’t mind wrenching or have plans on upgrading/modding or tracking. If the latter is the case, then just be careful and make sure the car tracks straight and has been professionally repaired – oh, and make sure the price reflects the less-than-perfect record! Otherwise move on to a better maintained one. The fewer owners the better, usually speaking, and cars that are from the South or dry states will typically have higher mileage for their age, but less underbody issues.

One of the unique things about shopping for a late-model Corvette is that you will find most fall into one of two categories: Pampered low mileage “status symbol” cars, or Corvettes that have had the misfortune to fall into the hands of a car enthusiast and show the honest wear that results.

Check the Cosmetics   

Even if the vehicle history report checks out fine, you want to inspect the paint and body. Look for any obvious signs of mismatched panels, repainted areas, or cover ups. Open the doors and look at the sills, under the hood where the fenders are bolted, under the front and rear bumper, and wheel wells. If the car looks like it’s been repainted, ask why. The old-school trick of using a magnet to look for body filler under the paint obviously won’t work on a Corvette, so be especially careful when looking for repairs to the composite body panels.

Seats

A common problem with C5 interiors is the leather seats cracking and tearing. Typically, the most worn area is the driver’s side left bolster where the driver rubs against as he/she enters and exits the vehicle. Also check to see if the foam is still good or flattened. This generation of Corvette wasn’t known for the support or comfort of its seats even when it was factory-fresh, so pay special attention in this area.

Electronics     

Check to make sure that everything works! The newest C5′s are coming up on a decade old, and even though the reliability has proven to be far better than the C4 generation, this is still an area where potential repairs can get expensive. The lights on the HVAC system display are known to go dim or completely dark. This common problem doesn’t effect the system’s function, but it does make it hard to operate after sundown. You can get them repaired online or do it yourself if you have some electronic and soldering skills.

Gauges/Warning Lights/Engine Diagnostics   

This may seem obvious, but make sure that there are no warning lights illuminated after startup, and that all gauges look normal. One common failure is the oil pressure sender – if the gauge is pegged “high” and displaying the oil pressure on the DIC gives you a constant 130 PSI reading, the sender has failed and will need to be replaced. It’s an inexpensive part, but fixing it requires intake manifold removal.

Another thing to check is the onboard diagnostic system that reports codes. To do this, without starting the engine, clear the current messages on the dash by pressing “Reset,” and then press and hold the “Options” button. While holding that, press the “Fuel” button four times. An automatic readout will begin displaying codes in order, until it gets through all of the sections, and will then go into manual mode. You can activate manual mode at any time by pressing any of the right side buttons except for “E/M” which will close out of the system. If it shows a stored code in a section, you can scroll through them by pressing “Options” and then “Trip” to go back and continue looking. If the code has a “C” after it, then it means that the condition is “Current.” If it has an “H” after it, then it means it is a past “History” code. Write the codes down (if any) and check one of the many internet resources available for decoding what they mean. Some are minor, while others may point to a Corvette that needs imminent repair work.

Tires     

Check the tires for tread life, as well as aging. A lot of information about how the car was used can be seen by the condition and type of tires. If the rear tires are far more worn out than the fronts, then it could be an indicator that the previous owner spent a lot of time with the traction control turned off, doing burnouts or driving aggressively. That’s not necessarily a dealbreaker, and the fact is that since the wheels can’t be rotated front to back (18 inch wheels in the rear, 17 inch in the front), you should expect the rears to be somewhat closer to the end of their life than the fronts.

You should prefer a car with high performance tires with plenty of life left, as new ones can cost around $400 each on average! You may encounter a car that still has the factory runflats: some people prefer these due to the fact that the C5 doesn’t carry a spare, but they are typically noisier and worse handling than aftermarket ones. And if they are the originals, then beware, because even if they still have decent tread depth, tires that old can be dangerous.

Brakes     

Check the brakes for grooves or lines in the rotors, or for hairline cracks that may be caused by consistent aggressive braking. Rotors can warp under extreme braking, and improper bedding of replacement pads can lead to hard spots on the rotors that produce a vibration in the pedal, so look out for that as well. Inspect the brake fluid – if it’s dark and filled with particles, expect more potential problems than if it looks like it’s been properly flushed and maintained.

Known Issues

Overall, the 5th generation Corvette is a pretty trouble-free car. But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t a few problems that have cropped up more than once. The internet has plenty of good resources for in-depth research on the topic, but here are a few of the big ones to be aware of:

Steering Column Lock

This is the dreaded issue that causes the steering column to “lock up,” requiring servicing at a dealer or special aftermarket parts to fix. There are preventative measures in the form of dealer recalls as well as aftermarket parts that will make the steering lockup solenoid perpetually open so that it won’t lock up on you. It’s worth asking if this fix has already been performed on any C5 you’re considering

Leaking Battery

It shouldn’t be much of a current issue, but be wary of any factory/original batteries as they had a tendency to leak acid down onto the PCM and AC lines. 2001-up cars came with leakproof AGM (Absorbed Glass Mat) batteries, and it’s a good upgrade for older cars.

Headlight Gears

The stock headlight gears are plastic and can wear out over time, especially if the previous owners opened and closed the lights at high speeds (you generally want to avoid doing that). If they come up slowly or one slower than the other, then they may be worn. Not a hard fix, but one to note.

Underbody Scrape-age     

It’s no secret; these cars sit very low even at factory ride height and as such, will scrape on many things throughout their life. You need to look underneath carefully to check for previous “terrain intercepts.” Look under the front bumper at the plastic shrouds – the center one is important due to it directing air to your radiator. Check the radiator support cradle for signs of damage. Some scrapes will be normal. But if it is bent up or torn then inspect for further damage.

Check under the rocker panels on the sides of the car, because these take lots of abuse on driveways and slopes. Improper jacking can also damage the rockers, so make sure there isn’t any cracking or holes. While you are under there, check as best you can for leaks, obvious damage, or extreme filth. If you can, get the car on the lift to get a better look.

Engine    

Check under the hood for any obvious signs of broken, modified, or missing parts. You can also see how the car has been treated by the cleanliness of the engine bay, as well as any modifications installed by the previous owner(s). While a quick clean-up can let a seller hide some potential problems, the condition of the pad on the underside of the hood can sometimes reveal a history of fluid leaks through stains.

Test Drive     

Don’t turn down a test drive! Sit in the car at idle and listen for any surges or rough idles (the RPM gauge will help visually). Rev it up to about 2500 RPM and hold it there for a few seconds, and listen for any odd noises or if it has a hard time maintaining a smooth sound or consistent engine speed. Go drive it and listen to any weird noises. Make sure that it tracks straight and brakes smoothly. Give it a somewhat aggressive stop and go, as well as some turns with and without power.

Be respectful, but remember you are buying a high-performance car and should be able to drive it at a decent fraction of it’s potential during a test drive to check for problems. The owner/dealer shouldn’t mind.

While some C5 variants may command a premium from tomorrow's collectors, the real value in these cars is found in enjoying them on the road, track, and dragstrip.

Now Go Find one!     

You are armed with knowledge and ready to find yourself a “new” C5. There are a few obvious online sources like eBay and Craigslist. eBay is a great place to compare prices and get vehicle reports, but in many cases the car will have to be transported to you or you will have to go get it. Craigslist is great for local cars, but be careful as many of them will be private sellers who may or may not be upfront or honest about their cars.

My recommendation, however, is to go onto a Corvette fan site, like CorvetteForum.com and look in their “C5 For Sale Section”. The reason I suggest this is because many of those owners are enthusiasts who take better care of their cars, are typically more honest, upgrade their cars for performance and reliability, and have a “reputation” that they probably don’t want ruined online. Plus, generally speaking their prices are more fair due to “peer review” from other owners on the forums.

Whatever route you take, you’re about to get what many consider the best-performing car for the money available today. Welcome to the family!

 



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