By on April 30, 2010

I walked well past this Corvette before I stopped and gave it a backwards glance, suddenly remembering that it is yellow convertible week. I wavered momentarily, gauging my feelings. Yes, it was fast and pulled impressive numbers on a skid pad. But numbers alone do not make the car. And my feelings meter just wasn’t moving one way or another, so I almost moved on. Call it the Madonna of sports cars? Then it hit me: this is the most soulless sports car ever, the ultimate antithesis to the TR-6. The C4 Corvette sold its soul to the devil of numbers. And in my cartechism, that’s a Deadly Sin.

Madonna would have been the right choice: hard, fast and soulless. The C4 was a technocart: seemingly designed to meet a few key stats, but all the other qualities that truly make a car were forgotten. I remember vividly Chevy crowing about how their new ’84 C4 was the first production car to pull over one G on the skid pad. Who cared, when the ride to the mythical glass-smooth skid pad was so punishingly hard that every pebble in the road became a menace to one’s health?

The eighties were GM’s worst decade ever, because the whole company had sold its soul to the numbers devil, Roger Smith. Everything at GM became reduced to numbers, resulting in…ever worse numbers. Of course, like most new GM cars that arrived during this period, the initial shortcomings were eventually attended to over the next few years, thanks to the screaming feedback from the paying beta testers.

But their endless complaints about the C4′s profound lack of structural cohesiveness were beyond just jiggering with the springs and shocks. The C4 was fundamentally flawed in that regard, and it made painfully clear how the plastic Chevy differed from a Porsche, much the same as it was thirty years earlier. Certain deeply ingrained personality traits are hard to shed.

The C4′s styling reflects its soulless character, or is it the other way around? Bill Mitchell, the soul father of the  stunning 1963 C2 and the flamboyant 1968 C3 was highly dismissive of the C4, designed just after his retirement. I suspect the new Corvette wasn’t the only thing coming out of GM he felt that way about. Of course something a bit cooler than the emotive and exaggerated C3 was inevitable. It’s not so bad, from a distance. Get close, and it looks like a cheap kit car cobbled up by the kids down the street. Is it really a Fiero with a Corvette body kit?

That doesn’t even properly describe the interior: it looks like it came from some East Bloc country in the dying days of communism: it never fit together properly when new, and now it looks like its about to discombobulate. Maybe this one hasn’t exactly been pampered, but look at it! It’s coming apart at the seams, literally. This alone is one big nasty reason why old Corvettes are not very appealing. Makes the Triumph dash look look like a million bucks.

Well, at least the the new generation reconnected with the Corvette’s inner V8. After the miserable decline in the small block’s output for almost a decade, the C4 marked the turning point. There really was a redeeming feature to Roger’s love of technology! Fuel injection to the rescue, as well as whatever it took to get the venerable sbc to start breathing again. The resuscitation efforts started very modestly, with the highly mediocre cross-fire (two Iron Duke TBI units?) 5.7 extracting all of 205 hp. But when the General finally sprung for genuine port injection, like the 1957′s once had, long slumbering horses slowly began to stir again.

The incremental improvements came in clusters of five or ten ponies at a time, and by 1990, it was up to all of 240, almost back to 1974′s 245 hp LT-1. But that vaunted name returned for 1992, with a new LT1 that finally packed some serious punch: 300 hp. The Corvette was back! And the LT1 made the vastly more expensive ZR-1 look irrelevant, given that it cost twice as much for an extra 75 hp. Call me a wet blanket, but the ZR-1 was another numbers bragging fest whose numbers didn’t add up.

The C4 Corvette was a fairly modest seller. Once the pent up interest of the first two years were gone, it bumbled along at around 20k units, less than half the rate of what its aged and fairly lethargic C3 predecessor was selling through most of the seventies. That alone confirms it: soul sells; numbers don’t.

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75 Comments on “Curbside Classic: GM’s Deadly Sin #9 – 1990 Corvette...”


  • avatar
    Mark MacInnis

    Methinks the author doth protest too much….

    I wouldn’t kick it out of my garage for eating crackers. May not be the BEST ‘vette to roll out of Bowling Green….but it still hauls ass.

    • 0 avatar
      ott

      Exactly. Without steps and lessons learned such as these, the much improved 97 and even better 05 models would not exist.

    • 0 avatar
      threeer

      @ott: Well, sure. Without lessons learned from the 1986 VW Rabbit/Golf, we wouldn’t have the latest GTi…but that doesn’t make the ’86 any better just because it served as a learning lesson for the latest/greatest. The (especially 84-85) C4s were horrendous cars, beyond the engine and (dry) road grip. They very much remind me of the super hot redhead that’s a ton of fun that first date…exciting, exotic and a bit naughty…but not much depth beyond that for the long haul.

  • avatar
    educatordan

    Mr. MacInnis, I agree.

    I still want a C3 or C4 Vette. Many of them have been well taken care of by their owners (insert stereotype here) and are available at reasonable prices now on the used market. How many other vehicles inspire dealers that deal in nothing but Corvettes or Chevy dealers that have separate facilities devoted to selling a warehouse full of used Vettes?

    My greatest aspiration is to have a Vette from the year of my birth (1977) even in all it’s crappy disco-malaise glory. Plus that lack of power is easily solved with an engine swap. I need to get this Corvette virus out of my system before I get kids and have to forget the dream for another 20 years or so. I’m even insane enough to try one as a daily driver.

    • 0 avatar
      Lumbergh21

      One of my dreams is to have a Vette from the year of my birth 1969. Wanna’ race? :-)

    • 0 avatar

      When I was conceived, the Corvette was still only offered with a 6 cyl “Blue Flame” engine, though by the time I was born it was a new model year and Duntov had convinced Cole to put the brand new small block v8 in the Vette. Either way, though its not nearly as fast as a ’69, I’m sure that a ’55 fuelie Corvette is worth a bit more.

    • 0 avatar
      educatordan

      Not unless I get my hands on a decent engine or my dad’s stack of old Hot Rod Magazines first!

    • 0 avatar
      thetopdog

      Too bad I was born in 83…

    • 0 avatar
      Syke

      I’ve been looking for a nice C4 for the past two years. Unfortunately, every one I’ve seen for sale (today was a gorgeous black ’91) had an automatic. Which I absolutely will not drive. Ended up with the Porsche last summer while following up another ‘Vette that also turned out to be an automatic, contrary to the reports I had gotten.

      I’ve come to the conclusion that C4 owners with manuals keep the cars forever. Automatic drivers pose for a few years and peddle it off to the next owner.

    • 0 avatar
      joeveto3

      When I turned 30, already post kids, I stumbled upon a nearly used up 77 Vette. Corvette light blue with smoke gray interior. Up until this time, I had only done oil changes and an occasional brake job. The Vette needed everything, including frame work just in front of the rear driver’s side wheel. Typical for snow belt cars.

      It took me a year, but I fixed (or had fixed, in the case of the very difficult rear wheel bearings) nearly everything on the car. Paint, frame, brakes, cooling system, vacuum operated headlights, engine, etc. It went from a wheezing SBC, to a balanced and blueprinted (really) SBC with Vortec heads (much the fad of the time). My best run, with crappy carburetion, was 14.6 at 98mph. It was my first time on a dragstrip, and it was at Beach Bend, in Bowling Green, a few miles from the Corvette museum.

      The car wasn’t lightning fast, but it was very fun to drive, looked great in its new coat of Corvette Light Blue paint, and could really stir up some cool vibes with the t-tops off, a warm summer night, and Styx playing on the upgraded sound system.

      I paid $4500 for it, then dumped another $10K into everything else it needed. My Corvette was a great project and a real learning experience. There were days when I’d limp out of the garage, thoroughly dejected, shut the door, and wouldn’t go back for a week until I figured out the solution to that which was troubling me. Then I’d fix the issue, jump back in the car, and tear off, smiling from ear-to-ear.

      I wouldn’t recommend this experiment in cars and fiscal irresponsibility to just anyone, but from the myriad of your comments I’ve read over the past year or so…you could do a lot worse.

      Know this about the C3′s (oh hell, the C4′s too…I bought one of those as well): They break, they swill gas, and sometimes they won’t brake (drove mine 15 miles without stoppers–really). But the view out the windshield, at those huge fenders, and the sound of the exhaust behind your head, is awesome. Look hard, and you’ll even meet some really cool folks who are good people and like their cars. Like everything else, the internet is an amazing resource for these cars, and they are still cheap enough to be obtainable. But regardless of the Vette you purchase, it will bleed you….wheel bearings, brakes, gas, ugh.

      My kids and I saw one the other day, nearly identical to the one I had…brought back memories, made me smile, for an instant I contemplated buying another…then I laughed and thought “No Way.”

    • 0 avatar
      educatordan

      @joeveto3

      You Sir, and people like you are why I come back to this site day after day for the past nearly 2 years.

  • avatar

    A soulless Corvette would be one rebadged from a Holden. If and when that happens it is over.

  • avatar

    I had a 1990 ZR-1. The LT5 motor had all the soul you’d ever want, even if it came with a weird propensity to lose its oil pan bolts. But the car was pretty much crap, a nasty-riding bucket of rattles and squeaks. Amazing, amazing motor, though.

    • 0 avatar

      You can thank Lotus for that engine.

    • 0 avatar

      Old ZR-1 owners’ joke: How do you know the engine is a Lotus? By the puddles of oil under it. Heck of a lot more reliable than an old Twincam, though.

      And actually the folks to thank were at Lotus and Mercury Marine and GM, more of the latter than is generally known… LT5 was more or less a proof-of-concept for the Northstar.

    • 0 avatar

      Actually, other than the water pump design, the Twin Cam was pretty reliable. Mine started every day.The water pump, though, was built into the front engine cover, which meant you had to remove the head to R&R the cover and change the impeller element. Lotus specialists sell replacement covers with modular water pumps.

  • avatar
    VanillaDude

    I was able to have an entire week in Hawaii with a brand new red Corvette of this era. On the Big Island, with lots of road, lots of hills, lots of curves, and lots of incredible places to zoom it to.

    I was incredibly disappointed. It had the worse interior of any of the other sports cars I drove. As you correctly mention, the interior of this car wasn’t good enough for a Cavalier. I never imagined a car in this class with such poor fit and finish. Not only were the gaps huge, the gaps weren’t even straight. This is a car you had to work to get into and out of because the interior was designed so poorly. This was a new car, and the glove box door kept dropping open.

    Then there was the roof mechanisms. Fortunately I had great weather, so I didn’t have to operate the roof except when I left the car for the evening. Being a new red Corvette allowed me to park it directly in front of the swanky hotel I stayed at that week, and watched by valet. But I still had to use it, and operating that roof required so much extra work and nonsense I gave up half way through a number of times before giving up entirely.

    Strengths? Great tires, great power and great handling. It rocketed up mountainsides and if the road was smooth, was quite a ride. However, on regular roads, the ride on this new Corvette rattled, the body creaked and was not fun. So, about 90% of the time, driving this Corvette was far less enjoyable than it looked.

    I never asked to drive a Corvette again for four years. The Mazda RX series, the Nissan ZXs, and even the Miata became my preferred wheels when I was working on the Islands. Nothing, absolutely NOTHING, was more of an automotive blast than doing the Road To Hana on Maui in a brand new red RX. Screw the scenery! Give me another ridiculous curve to carve!

    • 0 avatar
      JeremyR

      The Road to Hana is quite an automotive experience, if you don’t have any traffic in front of you! I had the pleasure of driving it in my friend’s mildly-tuned Miata. Great fun.

  • avatar
    wannabewannabe

    Paul, I think you’re being a little harsh on the 90. I daily drove a used one for a few years. Some of your criticisms are spot on, but only for some of the cars. I think the Corvette suffered from much of the same problems that many GM cars did at the time, namely that build quality varied immensely from car to car. The car I had was thankfully fairly well screwed together. Admittedly the interior definitely had unacceptable panel gaps, but design-wise it was a major step up from the dash the C4 originally had, and having ridden in later C4s, somehow the interiors seemed to get cheaper looking. In the end, the Corvette was probably less half-baked than many of the designs coming out of GM in the 80s.

  • avatar
    Ashy Larry

    The last picture reminds me that C4 vette’s also reflected cheapness in their exhaust — nominally posting quad pipes, the car’s exhaust cheapness is undone by the fact that the be-sooted outside pipes contrast mightily with the relatively clean inside pipes, suggesting most exhaust flows through the outside and that the inside ones are for show only.

    • 0 avatar
      wannabewannabe

      No exhaust flows through the inside pipes. They’re dummies. And yes, I always thought that was weird on mine. Doubt it really changed the dynamics of the exhaust flow though.

  • avatar
    Eric Bryant

    C4 Vettes don’t just perform well in terms of numbers – they are downright effective in several different types of competition. The basic suspension geometry is pretty good, and they have plenty of room for big tires. They did very well in “showroom stock” racing in their day, and in more recent times, the 2009 SCCA Solo (autocross) champion in A Stock was a 1989 Vette. Not too bad when you look at the other competitors in that class.

    As a street car, though, I cannot defend the build quality or the styling (interior or exterior). The very last ones were a bit better than reputation would have one believe (especially ’96 six-speed cars, which got the underrated and underappreciated LT4), but most of the breed were fairly miserable vehicles if dealt with on a daily basis.

    Overall, though, I have to give them credit for laying the foundation for the C5 and C6 – GM was smart enough to build on the C4′s strengths, and wise enough to correct most of its weaknesses.

  • avatar
    YellowDuck

    “…screaming feedback from the paying beta testers…”

    Ha ha! Classic!

  • avatar

    These cars were absolute heaping piles of junk, but they did sell.

    GM corrected some of the C4 ills by 1995-1996. In addition to the aforementioned LT1, a slightly revised dash (to accommodate the passenger side airbag) was also screwed together a bit better. Of course, the ridiculous analog/digital half-moon instrument layout remained… as did the 70s trailer-grade plastics.

    GM also “cured” many rattles and shakes in the body through the use of about 30+ lbs of spray-in mastic foam. I think that came online when the LT1 did, in 1991 or ’92.

    In any case, the C5 was a revelation… like stepping from a Cavalier into an Accord. It’s only real sin is one Gov’t Motors still refuses to correct — cheap, CHEAP interiors.

    • 0 avatar
      Accazdatch

      Please lord.. dont strike me…

      The only recent car.. Ive had a twitching fetish for… from GM.. is the Malibu LTZ.

      I just cant get over how beautiful the interior “looks”…

      Then I get into its EQUAL trim copy over at Saturn.. and tap the cover over the shifter… and it feels hollow, and jiggles in place around the shifter. Then I look down at my right side.. and see a push button SWITCH for the trunk release. Im gaga over the double hoop dash.. love the dark and light colors they used. But the execution of the switch is poor, and the bright colored, hollow, plastichrome turns me off.

      But then..
      I’d think id have to do something really horrible to myself to trade an 00 Accord SE 4dr with 250k for this.. domestic POS. I might never be able to sleep at night.

      The worst part…
      The interior on some of the best cars GM makes.. VETTE and G8 (SUVS / CUVS dont count).. is worse than my wife’s 03 Focus.

      Who was smoking WHAT.. when they did that.
      Should be beaten to within an inch of their poor lives..

  • avatar

    “Call me a wet blanket, but the ZR-1 was another numbers bragging fest whose numbers didn’t add up.”

    You’re a wet blanket. ;-) (but I still love your CC series)

    One run to 7000 rpm in the DOHC LT-5, esp one with a few mods, and the numbers are irrelevant. Esp when you open the hood. DOHC motors may be a dime a dozen now, but 20 years ago, this was (and is) a major showstopper.

    Here are some 1990 pics, taken this week, to counter the craptastic yellow heap you shot…

    http://www.tonygphotography.net/Cars/The-Sanjay-Collection/ZR-1/12001714_FcW5D#851141411_FPzsB

  • avatar
    redmondjp

    Good review!

    Some misc. random snippets on the early C4s from my own experiences:

    As a GMI (now Kettering Univ in Flint) student who was working at Delco Electronics in Kokomo, IN from 1984-6, I had the opportunity to tour the Bowling Green plant and watch these get built in August of 1984. GM plants (which we got to tour several of every summer) were always impressive to visit, even if build quality may not have been consistent. How GM managed to assemble cars which potentially had millions of combinations of various options, colors and trim levels was an industrial engineering marvel the likes of which Honda or Toyota never even dreamed of (good/bad in that, left for another day to discuss).

    At Delco, we made the electronic dash clusters for the first C4s – they were so static-discharge sensitive that some of them were already zapped when they arrived at Bowling Green! STAY AWAY from these early C4s if you’re looking for one, go for a 1990+ model and you’ll be much better off $ and performance-wise (LT1 highly recommended, these vintage cars are VERY affordable right now). You’re looking at well over a grand just to get your dash cluster rebuilt on an early C4 and I’m pretty sure that GM no longer offers them even in refurbished form.

    I had a friend at Delco who got to drive a C4 from Kokomo to Arizona for hot-weather testing. He said it was fun for the first 20 minutes, and not a good trip car due to the harsh ride and lack of feedback regarding the vehicle’s handling limits. While autocrossing in college I personally witnessed a C4 suddenly slide sideways off the track doing about 60 in a sweeping turn and completely disappear into some thick brush–fortunately the car was virtually undamaged–the guy was driving his girlfriend’s car! These cars corner great without any body roll–until they don’t!

    • 0 avatar
      Contrarian

      A Delco E alum! Cool. I was the Delco HVAC system engineer for the C5 in the mid-late 90s – as well as the other “MCD” HVAC systems. It was a great time of my life with all the cal rides and system work (mostly with Class-2 busses). I saw almost the entire country in those few years – usually through the windshields of great cars that weren’t even out yet.

  • avatar

    I drove about 200 miles or so in a C4 back in the 80s, and here is what I recall about it:

    * About 27 billion more horsepower than my ’80 Diesel Rabbit.

    * Plenty of grip… until three drops of rain fell from the sky. Then it was like stumbling across a hockey rink in house slippers.

    * More squeaks than a seabird rookery.

  • avatar
    1169hp

    Sanjay,
    The Vette you have pictured doesn’t appear to have started life as a ZR1. As evidenced by the stock rear fenders. The ZR1′s had wider rear fenders/quarter panels from the factory.
    Sweet car though and I can’t be mad at that motor!!!

    • 0 avatar

      1169,

      It’s a factory ZR-1. The body bulge was subtle, beginning with unique door skins….it’s not a cost cutting fender flare setup like on a 96 Grand Sport or C6 Z06.

      Need more proof?

      http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/1990-corvette-lpe-zr-1-review/

    • 0 avatar

      @1169hp: This car has the right back end. The telltale sign of a ZR-1 is the black strips of plastic flanking the license plate, between the plate and the backup lights. The ZR-1 also had its CHMSL at top of the rear hatch, behind the targa roof, while the others had it integrated into the rear bumper.

      The non-ZR-1s that had the squared-off taillights did not have the extra width, seen in the license plate area between the backup lights. For example: http://local.aaca.org/gettysburg/PICS/Members/DickBeckley91Corvette.jpg

    • 0 avatar

      Yup it’s real — the hatch-mounted CHMSL is the giveaway.

  • avatar
    Darth Lefty

    As a child of the late 70′s, growing up in the 80′s, I have to say you Paul don’t have the right perspective for this car. This was not the car for people who aspired to a late-60′s Ferrari; this was the car for people who aspired to an early-80′s Lambo. Its styling is absolutely appropriate for its time and the fundamental soundness of it (compared to the overstyled Stingrays) has been borne out by the succeeding generations, which haven’t messed with the fiberglass wedge formula.

    With the possible exceptions of the Viper & Fiero, the Corvette is the only true mass-produced American sports car.

    • 0 avatar

      Well said. To those of us who cut our teeth on the early days of EFI performance…the C4 was fantastic. Did it have shortcomings? Of course. But it is a clean design that has non of the fussy cut lines of today’s modern Vettes. The dash was like Knight Rider. By 1990, they had the suspension sorted out, and the early adaptive dampers were very effective. ABS braking was exemplary. And these cars DOMINATED the 944s and Z cars in SCCA sanctioned racing.

      The yellow Vert in the pics has been wrecked and painted….granted GM’s fit and finish were hardly exemplary back then, but I hope no one comes away from this article thinking they left the line looking like that one…

  • avatar
    GarbageMotorsCo.

    At least you don’t have to worry about the roof flying off this one. Other parts maybe, but not the roof.

  • avatar
    NeonCat93

    @ Darth Lefty

    As someone of similar vintage, I have to say I’ve always hated these Vettes. Don’t much like any since then, either.

    Different strokes, different folks.

  • avatar
    ajla

    I disagree with Paul as well. In fact, I consider the C4 generation to be one of GM’s bigger triumphs. Certainly not worthy of a “Deadly Sin” title.

    In 1984, this generation started out with an awful and underpowered car. Rather than say “good enough” though, GM actually went to work improving the Corvette. A 1996 LT4 powered C4 corvette will run just fine with a 1997 C5, and is a monumental improvement in every way over the early examples of the generation.
    ________
    And as far as “the most soulless sports car ever” goes: have you ever driven the SSR, an early Jag XK8, the 3000GT, the Prowler, or a Shelby Series 1? Any C4 Corvette is a fountain of “soul” compared to those.

  • avatar
    Contrarian

    Whatever your thoughts of the C4, they were a vast improvement in technology over the C3s which were real rattletraps. The only time I ever drove C4s was when I was part of the C5 development team and we had some along on the C5 calibration rides for reference, etc.

    One thing I remeber is that they were exceedingly difficult to ingress and egress. The dash stuck way out into where you would swing your legs in, and I frequently bashed my knees getting in and out. The later C4s were definately fast though.

    And of course the C5s were a big leap forward from the C4s.

  • avatar
    Larry P2

    Snort …. LOL. These C4 corvettes so dominated SCCA racing that the sniveling Porsche whiners got them banned. One would think such a car, albeit domestic, would have some respect as a sports car.

    Buy a used C4 for $5,000, stick in a $5,000 ZZ-383 with a miniram, Konis ($700) and some decent modern rubber ($500) Brembos ($1,000) and a C4 Vette will humiliate any Ferrari or Porsche from the same era in any measure of performance. And most of them will also humiliate most of the modern versions of the above. For less than $20,000, not bad.

    Yeah, they have sh!tty interiors.

  • avatar
    sfdennis1

    Did you take out a life insurance policy before calling a Corvette a ‘deadly sin’? …there are plenty of sites on which you’d be tared and feathered, then drawn and quartered for such an assertion…

    I drive a Miata and love it every time I get behind the wheel, so my sports car preferences are much more about ‘fun tossability’ combined with reliabilty rather than brute h.p., but I agree with other posters that this Corvette as a ‘deadly sin’ is a bit much…and to assert that ANY comparably priced British roadster was ever better built, more reliable, or better performing than it’s contemporary Vette competition is highly suspect, at best.

    Earlier C4s may not be the highlight of the Vette lineage, but then, as always, they could kick the ass of any 911 for HALF the price, all day long…as per usual GM (and, ahem, some foreign manufacturers as well) continued improvement and upgrades over the model run ended up with a pretty well-sorted ride towards the end of the run.

    In many respects, the Corvette has always represented PART of the American psyche…brute force has it’s role sometimes, and a sledgehammer can be just as much fun to use as a scalpel.

    It may not be your cup of (Earl Grey) tea, but the Vette, as a whole, deserves praise, not scorn…it’s always been about (comparatively) cheap power, borderline tacky but undeniable sex appeal, and a ‘more is more’ approach to life…long live the Vette!

  • avatar
    ponchoman49

    A souless Corvette is like calling a Camry a sports car. Sorry I don’t buy it. Sure the interior quality varied from car to car as did most of the industry at the time. This Vette was a looker from day one that had high school guys drooling and picking up chicks at a darned fast rate. It also returned the Vette name to performance, at east a year after the dreadful 205 HP Cross Fire engine was put out to rest. It also handled and showcased GM’s forward thinking technology at the time, was half the price of the lame 911′s and would easily put one of those oddities away in a race. This car was not about measuring panal gaps, humping the dashboard materials and counting the cupholders. This car was power, the American way, sex appeal, looks, brawn and awesome handling for a very reasonable sum. For that I think the author is missing the point of these cars.

  • avatar

    I think a good safety plan is to have someone you don’t care about start your car in the morning (to make sure it was rigged to explode) and then have them drive it around the block to make sure the brake lines and/or throttle wasn’t tampered with.

    This is the most soulless sports car of all time?!? Are you KIDDING me? This has less soul than a Chrysler Lebaron TC? Less soul than a Hyundai Tiburon? Less soul than an automatic Scion tC? Less soul than a BMW 318? Less soul than the last US spec Celica? FOR REAL?!?!? You wrote that with a straight face?

    Look at the interior, just look at it. OK, its a TWENTY YEAR OLD CAR! I donesn’t look like it has been well cared for, but I’ve seen a lot worse. Back in the day, in 1990, this car was fire breathing life in an otherwise drab sea of design and in a world where if you 200+ HP under your right foot at the flywheel, let alone the axle, you were an automotive god. 240 HP in 1990 in a car in that price range was nearly unheard of. Yes, a V6 Camaro has more go-go juice TODAY – but that is with 30 years of development.

    Is the C4 the crowning achievement of sports car engineering design? Well of course not. The most soulless sports car ever? Unnecessary roughness, 15 yard penalty, automatic first down, and the commissioner has assessed a three game suspension with a $25,000 fine.

  • avatar
    Morea

    205 HP from 5.7L ?!?

  • avatar
    Larry P2

    //the most soulless sports car ever, the ultimate antithesis to the TR-6.//

    One thing about TR6′s: They certainly had a lot of soul. My wife had one that was so rusty, she hit a curb and the entire body moved almost six inches forward on the frame! A slow, ill-handling deathtrap of a car, rumored to be built out of compressed rust. Profoundly unreliable, after the body-launching incident, it just sat out in the front yard for a week …. until it spontaneously combusted and burned to the ground. Nobody knows why.

    What a gorgeous, wood-grained dash to have wet dreams over, though!

  • avatar
    Turbo60640

    All of the Corvette/mediocre American muscle car apologists are out in force today.

    It’s not 1985 anymore, people.

    • 0 avatar
      Jimal

      That is kind of the point. It is very easy to look at this car in 2010 and dismiss it as a “Deadly Sin”, but when the car was introduced it was a performance leader in many ways. Why not complain about the 4-wheel drum brakes in an old Porsche 356, or the 40 horsepower. Do either of those make the Porsche any less of a car?

  • avatar

    Owned one of the C4s, along with an F body, and J body and a few other GM cars. Owning the 1970s and 1980s stuff out of GM was like a disease that was finally cured when I drove (and bought) a Mk2 GTI. I have since owned about 30 cars, including a C5 (I didn’t learn my lesson). The C5 was beautiful from the front and sides, had an ugly butt, and not all that well built (lots of minor problems). Overall, I’ll take the best Japanese and German offerings over GM in the same segment every day. I’ve been vaccinated.

  • avatar
    DC Bruce

    Jeez, Paul, I think you were a little harsh on this one. I remember driving one in 1986 up the Pacific Coast Highway north of San Francisco. It was the “cross-fire” injected model with an autobox. Sure, the engine was out of steam at 4000 rpm, but it had gobs of torque, cornered flat as Kansas and, with the big Eagle “gatorback” tires (developed especially for this car, I believe), it stuck to the road pretty well.

    Was it enjoyable? Well, no. Mostly because you always had the sense of a large mass. To be sure, the car would change direction, but subtlety did not seem the appropriate technique. It wanted to be “horsed” around the curves. And yes, the suspension was a stiff as I remembered from a 1962 TR4 (without IRS). It was, in short, kind of a beast: rude and crude.

    Later, during that same visit (I was in SFO for months) I had occasion to take a BMW 3.0 CS up the same road. Even allowing for the more entertaining and satisfying ability to shift for one’s own with a proper clutch and gears, the BMW experience was more satisfying.

    But for me, at least, the C4 was not without its charms. In fact, just a year later, I bought a 5.0 Mustang GT which was, in many respects like the Corvette, but better put together (although with grossly inferior brakes). It too was rude and crude.

    But, to car either the ‘vette or the early 5.0 soulless or without character — well I have to disagree strongly with that. They had character — some may not have liked it — but they had lots of character, even though lacking in charm.

  • avatar
    beken

    In my lifetime of driving, I have always wanted to own a Corvette. I have driven a C2, C3, C4, C5 at least once and have found GM has done an admirable job of preserving that “Corvette feel” through all the generations. Sitting in there feeling like you are a part of that rumbling V8 is a feel that is different than any other car I have had the pleasure to drive. Soul-less? I think you just don’t get it. Crappy build quality? My wife’s Corolla certainly had better build quality, but Vettes were never about great build quality. Come to think of it, none of the American car offerings were about build quality back then. Today, if you were to offer me 1990 Corvette would I take it? Hell yes! Deadly Sin? No. Like all things GM, it could probably have been better, but the Vette back then was one of their better cars, as it the current vette is today. The 80′s was not a good time for any American car manufacturer, even though that was when they made lots of profit.

    My only wish was that the LT-1 engine was available for my Fiero back then.

  • avatar
    Revver

    Since Porsches have been mentioned a bit as a point of reference to demonstrate the Corvettes “prowess,” let’s review.

    The Corvette is a 5700cc car.
    The 911(sc) is a 3200cc car.

    Do you really think by saying a Vette can take a 911 you are saying anything? That’s sad.

    I’m sure, in full race trim, a Vette can take a 911. The billiard smoothness of racetracks can forgive a lot of sins. But this is true only in American style sprint races.

    Checking the results for Sebring in ’84 the results were a Corvette finishing in 21st with FIVE 911s finishing in front, and in ’85 the first Vette was in 29th with FOUR 911s in front. Remember, these cars are smoking cars with nearly double their engine size.

    Now, I’ll confess, I’m handicapping the results; I’m not even counting the number of 934s in front of the Vettes. In IMSA (and most international) rules, there was a handicap of 2:1 for turbo to N/A rules, yet the 934/5 totally destroyed the Vette. It wasn’t even close.

    Results at LeMans were equally tragic. Simply put, the C4 continued the tradition of American cars being a downright embarrassment in international racing. It wasn’t until the vastly improved C5-R arrived, backed by a full factory race team, could the Vette reliably beat a car with half its engine capacity.

    A fairer comparison would be matching a 928 to a C4. The 928 would eat a Vette’s lunch, and the driving experiences are as different as two cars can get. I think the 928 was built to show just how really awful the Vette was.

    No doubt the price point should be taken into consideration. But really, does price mean it has to be that heavy, have SUCH a crappy interior, have such abismal suspension, be THAT big?

    • 0 avatar
      JuniperBug

      Why in the world does anyone care about hp/L? The Vette engine could fit into the engine bay of a 911, so it was certainly as compact. It got great highway fuel mileage for its power, so no problem there. It was cheaper to produce than Porsche’s boxer, was simple and durable. So whether hp/gallon, hp/lb or hp/$, the Vette motor compared favourably to the German. So why should anyone care about how big their respective bore and stroke were? While we’re at it, why not compare hp/valve count?

      GM has done a lot of things wrong, but the LS/LT series of V8′s sure wasn’t one of them.

      And to answer your last question, of course price is the reason for weight and cheaper suspension! Compare the price of a 928 to a Vette. Then compare maintenance costs.

      Personally I’m a fan of Porsches, too, but a Vette is a different animal. Scalpel and sledge hammer is an apt comparison, I think, and there’s something to be said for both.

    • 0 avatar

      Excellent reply, juniperbug. HP/L is a meaningless metric, except in racing series where displacement is limited, or in countries where cars are taxed on their displacement.

      The Corvette V8 has long been more fuel efficient, simpler, and more powerful than Porsche’s boxers. Starting with the Aluminum blocked 1997 LS1, Vette motors are lighter as well…..just ask this guy! ;-)

      http://toy-jet.com/index.html

  • avatar
    Vetteman

    I had a new 1970 TR6 and also bought a new C4 an 1987 Coupe and I would not even think to compare the two. The vette was totally reliable while the TR6 was plagued constantly with minor problems. I have to say I enjoyed both but I would not consider them comparable cars, I felt much safer in the vette and really think of the TR as a four wheel motorcycle. I autocrossed both at different times and the Z51 vette was a very capable track car in street trim. The Tr6 was very underpowered and had a fair amount of body roll and tire squeal.

  • avatar

    Funny that the current Corvette still draws it’s style from this model that debuted in the 80s. For the 80s this car looked like a starship. But now the style is very vanill and very tired.

    The best thing GM can do with the Corvette is give it’s popups back and seriously rethink the look of the entire car. The Centennial concept is a big step in the right direction. The Corvette should look just as dramatic as the Ford GT did or the current Camaro, not anonymous and forgettable like it does now.

  • avatar
    Darrencardinal1

    This car is a bulky, bland POS with an ugly, tacky interior. I don’t care how fast it is, it sucks.

    I would never trade my 1990 Miata for this turd.

  • avatar
    rudiger

    By the time the C4 was released, Zora Arkus-Duntov had long been gone and the Corvette program was then headed by Dave McClellan. Roger Smith retired in 1990 and so, too, would McClellan eventually be replaced by Dave Hill for the C5 and C6.

    The C4, for better or worse, could be laid at the feet of McClellan. It’s unlikely that the techno-freak, bean-counter Roger Smith would have had nearly the impact on the C4 if the legendary Arkus-Duntov had still been in charge, and one wonders how different things might have been had he still been around.

  • avatar
    IronEagle

    GM put a lot of effort improving this generation over the years. They supported factory Corvette racing in SCCA and IMSA, even supplying vehicles for the Corvette Challenge series. The last model year C4 even had its own suspension and chassis tuning with the C5 on the way. The 94-96 was a fantastic vehicle even though I prefer the 90-93 seats and interior.

    I was fortunate enough to drive a brand new 96 LT4 for about a year and it was a great car. The first C5s were arriving and I could have had one of those but being a child of the 80s I always loved the C4′s design. The clamshell hood opened to expose the Eagle GS-C tires and aluminum wishbone suspension and the LT4/M6 was a great value. It had the “base” suspension tuning and 150mph on hwy 85 was like floating on a firm cloud.

    The LT4 pulled strong. The first time I opened the throttle all the way up in third gear blew my mind. I got used to the power but that first time the thrust was incredible and i’ll never forget that feeling!

    One complaint I had was the roof that had to be removed using that wrench with bolts that could fall out and get lost while removing it. I was also really surprised at how much structural integrity was lost when driving targa style! You could really feel it in your ass and through the steering wheel.

    Also GM sold this LT4 with new bad CompCams 1.6 roller rockers. One came apart in the Chik-Fil-A drive thru sending a valve seat through the oil pan at about 9k miles! The car was down a month for a replacement motor and we got the letter about the recall two months after that! Bastards!

    I had driven a 92 Miata for about a couple of years before that. It was a great car also but the Corvette was twice the car but of course at 2x the price. Darren’s post sounds like he would be afraid to drive one because he knows how much he’d love it. :) After all there is a reason the horrible soulless bland C4 sent the early 90′s 300ZX, RX-7 and Supra back on the boat to Japan! It was war. Nissan, Toyota, Mazda and Mitsubishi all benchmarked Corvette and put their best and brightest to beat it. GM held off the challenge and I wonder why it took them so long to do the same in other parts of the marketplace. You know, like a good Camry challenger back in the early 90s.

  • avatar
    Larry P2

    Does it have to be that heavy, have SUCH a crappy interior, have such abismal suspension, be THAT big?

    The C4 Vette and the Porsche Carerra 4 made in the same era weigh almost exactly the same, with almost exactly the same horsepower, that is until the LT1 blew the Porsche into the weeds. At about a third of the price. The C4 Vette is also almost a whole foot shorter than the highly-lauded C3 Vette, and weighs about 3-400 pounds less, and is almost 5 inches lower.

    Shouldn’t this review have mentioned gas mileage regularly in the low 30s? Shouldn’t it have mentioned the dramatic fixing of the suspension with the electronically-adjustable Bilstein suspension that came in 1989?

  • avatar
    Turbo60640

    I still can’t get over how ugly this thing is.

  • avatar
    Darrencardinal1

    I’m sure the car is plenty fast.

    But I would still never consider it.

    One look at that cheap, tacky, ugly, gross, nasty interior is enough to immediately rule it out.

    Seriously, it looks like the interior for a Cavalier. Yuck.

  • avatar
    Power6

    Oh Paul you are wayyy off your rocker on this one!!

    The ’90 was the great fixing of the C4, the lame 4+3 manual was already gone in favor of the 6-speed, and this year brought the redesigned dash with mostly analog cluster. Say what you will about that but it was so much better than the old video game dash. This is when sports cars still had proper sets of gauges, the Vette had everything including oil temp. The C4 sport seats were the real deal compared to the spongy crap in every ‘Vette since.

    I am biased, my aunt bought a new Z51 6-speed in 1990 and I logged some driving time in it as soon as I got my license until she sold it in 2000. Sure the specs were there: 275 Tires, 13″ PBR brakes, Bilstein dampers etc. The driving experience was great over the road, even with the Z51 stuff(intended for showroom stock racing teams), had a lot of good times in that car.

    You need to drive an old L98 Vette to understand, of course the later LT1/LT4 Vettes were better and faster, but nothing felt as good to me as the rush of that narrow powerband of the old L98 with a 6-speed. I haven’t felt that sort of excitement until I got my 09 WRX which has a similar excitement as the turbo boost comes up.

  • avatar
    IronEagle

    I hear you on that L98 Power6! A friend in high school’s uncle had an 87 L98 Vette A4. One time when riding in it he punched it from a stop sign to about 50 mph on a 35 mph 2 lane and I wasn’t expecting it. That torque and G force was incredible and I still haven’t ever felt anything like that since. I can only imagine what an 850hp stock car or F1 car would feel like!

  • avatar
    vurtok

    And there you have it, this is GM’s Corvette, not Duntov’s. I seriously doubt that Z-A would have approved such a hideously styled automobile while he was at Chevrolet. Corvettes have always been about hot Chevy engines, and for me, the loss of high performance small and big blocks along with the overwhelming dominance of THM automatics in the mid-seventies undid the mystique. The new (’83 I think?) Corvette was just so much GM window-dressing to try to recapture a lost market segment of buyers. And the prices! Anybody remember how much these things cost? I know it was way over the $11,000 that I was considering laying out for a new black ’77 in the summer of that year. By the way, I don’t remember having to ID any Corvette as C-anything; anyone who considered themselves a hotrodder, Chevy fan, or Corvette fanatic referred to them by their production year. At any rate, given that I had the required $30,000 in 1990, I wouldn’t have spent it for one of these ugly, un-Corvettes.

  • avatar
    jplane

    My roommate had the first year C4 vette. It had the power of a vega. It was not sporty at all. And it wasn’t fun to drive.

    I just don’t look twice at a post C3 vette, but I almost wreck my car when I see a C3 or earlier. They just don’t have the looks they should. The 2010 engine is awesome – I just wish it was in a curvier body.

  • avatar
    Carlson Fan

    “And actually the folks to thank were at Lotus and Mercury Marine and GM, more of the latter than is generally known”

    Yep. If you need expertise in casting aluminum MerCruiser Marine is your company.

    My buddy had a C4 and my first thought when I rode in it was “what a rattle trap”. Seriously, value aside I wouldn’t have traded him for my Olds Cutlass Supreme I owned at the time with its little 260 100 HP V8!

  • avatar
    houseguy4

    In ’90, I was busy raising babies and moving up from my station wagon to a minivan.
    In ’90, this was the style and those of us driving toasters thought these were pretty cool.
    Looking back at ’90 clothes and hair, this car seems right for the time.

  • avatar
    EuroAmerican

    Author is right, it’s a POS. GM really had me going with all their hype when this thing was introduced. I’m glad I couldn’t afford one then. Will they ever do justice to the Corvette? Will they ever make it what it should be? I’m not waiting any more.

  • avatar
    vl5150

    I don’t agree completely with this article. The Corvette design team went through great pains to right the wrongs of the C3 Vette, which had became a soft, underpowered GT. I like C3′s but by the late 70′s it was no longer competitive with the rest of the world. The C4 was a hard core sports car and surprising that it came from GM given the C3′s good sales figures. It held up with the best of it’s time and restored credibility to Corvette’s racing image. Let’s see what you get for 5 grand today: Forged aluminum front A-arms, 5 link forged aluminum rear suspension, space age frame, clamshell hood, complete digital instrumentation (84-89). And compatibility with any cheap small block crate motor you can get from Chevrolet.
    What’s the downside? Cheap interior, maybe ride? Anything else can really be fixed quite cheaply. As Han Solo said, “She got it where it counts”.

    The sales figures reflected the hardcore nature of the C4. If you build a small, low sport car with deep bucket seats and a stiff ride you’ll sell less cars. Whenever entry/exit improved, suspension softened, and the seats became flatter the sales went up.

    My recollection from the era:
    From it’s introduction until about 1992 this was the car to have from what I remember. After that Chevy continued to improve the car but to me it really got long in the tooth. By ’93 and needed to go.

    I think it’s a good buy for what you get. There’s guys spending $5-10K on 4 cyl forced induction to get the power levels that these cars come with stock.


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