By Jeremy Cato
Chevrolet took the wraps off a kinder, more gentle Corvette for the 1997 model year. Also one much better built, more powerful and as comfortable as any sports car able to go from 0-100 km an hour in less than five seconds.
Back in January of 1997, when Corvette chief engineer Dave Hill took the wraps off this new Corvette, he was quick to point out that the fifth generation ‘Vette is “easier to get in and out of…is more comfortable and more functional. It’ll thrill our current owners.”
And it has. Hard to believe, then, that this edition of the ‘Vette almost never happened. For a few days in October 1992, the Corvette program was in limbo — along with many other General Motors product programs. At that time GM was as close to bankruptcy as any car company has ever been, furiously bleeding billions and billions of dollars in red ink. So that Fall, the board of directors ordered a review of everything and everyone.
Thankfully the ‘Vette survived. An icon of American muscle dating all the way back to its introduction in 1953 remains to be enjoyed today.
Make no mistake, the ’97 car was a huge step forward. It had been 13-plus years since the ‘Vette received a full makeover and for all those years, the ‘Vette was a bit of a brute. By the middle of the ’90s, the car’s shortcomings made it attractive to only the most dedicated enthusiast. If you’re looking for a used ‘Vette and you’re not a dedicated enthusiast, then stick to cars in the post-1997 era.
These cars represent the best all-around performance value you can find. Horsepower has ranged from 345 to 405 and every car is loaded with modern technology, welcome creature comforts and a cargo area behind the two front buckets which is large enough to hold two sets of golf clubs.
Yet despite the modern safety features (dual airbags, anti-lock braking, traction control, optional electronically controlled shock absorbers) this car has a personality. It is not the sort of bland high-tech marvel Corvette traditionalists would likely shun. It is a solid, predictable and completely self assured gem. Give some serious credit to the chassis. For ’97 Hill and his team made it a whole bunch stiffer and that gave them a lot more latitude to get the right blend of ride and handling.
Stiffer, yes. But also lighter and longer between the axles by some 211 mm (8.3 inches). Credit the weight reduction to extensive use of aluminum. The floorpan, for instance, in this version of the ‘Vette is an aluminum sandwich with balsa wood in the middle. Not only is that a stiff combination, it’s also one which deadens sound. As well, Chevy used other lightweight materials such as magnesium in the steering column.
The real key to this ‘Vette’s rock-sold nature, however, is found in the siderails which run the length of the car. Where the pre-’97 car used 14 separate steel pieces bolted or welded together, this newer model has rails formed from single lengths of high-strength steel bent into shape using a technique called “hydroforming.”
Thus, rails in the door sills are about 102 mm (four inches) lower than in the ’96 car. That allows you to slide into the seats in a normal fashion, as opposed to falling into them in the ’96 model.
Once inside, the ’97-and-newer ‘Vette has a roomy cockpit with wonderfully wide footwells and even a footrest for the driver’s left boot. (All this room is possible because for ’97 Chevy moved the transmission to the rear where it’s integrated with the rear axle. Transmission choices include a six-speed manual and a four-speed automatic.)
The glass T-top is easily removed with the flip of three levers. Some might recall the ’96 car required tools for this feat. The driver looks out at clean, simple analog gauges and most controls are right where they should be. There’s a dash-mounted ignition switch (it had been moved to the column in 1968 for safety reasons) and there’s a passenger-side grab handle resurrected from the 1963 model.
You can decide for yourself about the styling, but to my mind it looks like a mix of every important sports car we’ve seen in the last decade and a half. Retained Corvette signatures include the taillights and the side air scoops. The air scoops are there, of course, to enhance engine efficiency. And what an engine it is.
Still displacing 5.7-litres, this aluminum powerplant was thoroughly updated for 1997, though it was and remains a pushrod design. There’s lots of muscle here, but this small-block V8 SOUNDS just right.
Okay, so what’s not to like? For one thing, used prices have remained strong, reflecting how much owners value their cars. They seem not to mind that thick pillars impair visibility all around; that there’s a tiny glovebox and minuscule centre console; that there have been a number of detail flaws which have cropped up over the years (see Buyer’s Alerts).
Not perfect, then. But because Chevy builds only about 30,000 ‘Vettes a year and what you get is so good, demand has long been greater than supply.