by Hib Halverson
copyright 1997 Shark Communications
Used by permission.
I think every car magazine there is has run a C5 road test by now. That car has been slalomed, road raced, top speeded, gas mileaged and analyzed to death by the press using every test sequence known to man and at every test venue you could think of...except one. I have read almost nothing, not even in a Corvette magazine, about what it is like for a Corvette enthusiast, to live with the 97 Vette for a day. So.... That's what I did with my C5, manual, Z51 test car. For a whole day, I just drove the sucker around town just like I'd use my regular daily driver, an old Chevy Malibu.
My 16-hour, real world, test started in the garage before I even got into the car. One thing that is amazing about the C5 is how light the doors are. Considering the Federal regulations on door structure to prevent injuries from side impacts, you'd think they'd be heavier, as they were with C4s. Nope. C5 doors are so incredibly light; you can flick them open or closed with a finger. Clearly, there are advanced materials and slick structure in a C5 door. They move with ease and make a solid sound when they close.
I think I already raved that the awful sill height problem with C4 is gone. But I am so happy about this, I will say it again. The C5 is a much, much easier car to get in and out of. I am of average height and notice it a lot. Tall people must really feel a difference. Thank god for good structure!!
I turned the key and, heck, that bitchin' LS1 engine seemed to just instantly start running. It always amazes me by how quickly it starts when cold. One of the pleasability issues of concern to John Juriga, LS1 Project Manager, and his team of engineers was quick starts, even at the coldest of temperatures. The first time any C5 saw a public road was back in February 95 during the Alpha car period when Corvette Development did a cold weather test in Grand Forks, North Dakota. This trip was documented in Jim Schefter's book, All Corvettes are Red. The cars were subjected to cold start tests at seven degrees below zero.
The shifter in a C5 manual looks the same and is in almost the same spot as was that in a C4. As with C4s after 1994, there is no reverse lockout however there is a more aggressive detent to discourage inadvertent shifts to reverse. When going into reverse or the first two forward gears, the transmission has pretty high shift effort. This problem goes away once it warms. In fact, once warm, the C5 manual, a derivation of the Warner T56 six-speed first seen in the '93 Camaro, shifts as nice as the ZF S6-40 in low gears and nicer in 3rd-6th. That's saying a lot, considering the ZF in '89-'96 C4s had a rail shifter mounted on the gearbox, whereas the Warner in the C5 is rear-mounted and has a long rod as part of its linkage. The one thing I don't like about the manual is the price. It is outrageous that Chevrolet rapes hard-core C5ers for $815.00 extra for a stick-shfit gearbox that is derived from an existing design used in the Camaro. It would be interesting to get Dick Almond, Corvette Brand Manager, to tell us why manual buyers pay for both transmissions.
I backed the C5 out of the garage, pulled the E-brake and sat looking at the interior while the engine warmed...not that the LS1 *needed* to warm mind you...I just wanted to study the interior. The Chief Interior Designer for the C5 was Jon Albert. He and his team did a first class job with the new car's interior. First, that E-brake: back up on the console (where it was in C3s) from its idiotic spot on C4. The handle is actually just a little right of center on the console, exactly where your right hand would end up if you reached out to pull it. The Corvette Development guys have done some great things with the effort and feel of the E-brake. This might seem like a little thing to the waxer C4 owner whose car never sees driver use, but for someone who runs around town, stopping higher and yon, a convenient, easy-to-use emergency brake is a nice touch.
Some have said they don't like the radio head that is used in the 97 Corvette. It is common to other GM platforms such as J- and C/K-truck. You know, I don't give a flying fork from what GM platform the radio comes as long as it has kick-ass sound and that, my friends, is exactly what the C5 stereo has. I never cared for the C4 system because of one big problem...the Delco-Bose units had no balance control. It was often said to me that Dr. Bose and his group of control freaks knew better than I how my stereo should sound. I always disagreed because they didn't know squat about how I like Nirvana, No Doubt or Enigma to sound. The imaging with a C4 was always too far right and low. The new sound system is a control head by Delco Electronics...which is fine by me because Delco makes some of the best radios around... with Bose sticking to what they do best: speaker systems. The combination is an audio, home run.
My road test car was equipped with both the AM/FM stereo/CD radio head and the remote-mounted CD changer. This configuration is kinda dumb because you get ripped for an extra $100 bucks you don't have to spend and, unlike C4, the up-level stereo does not play both CDs and cassettes. Better is to order a C5 with the base level, AM/FM stereo/cassette unit then adding the optional CD changer. It can be linked to and controlled by either of the radios and if you go with the base unit; you get the capability to play cassettes. Considering a lot people have cassettes, that seems a far more sensible way to equip a C5.
I like the heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) control layout, feel and operation. I wonder, though, in a car with such small interior volume, what is the value of the optional, two-zone climate control? It's a gimmicky option, I think. Just give me the base HVAC, thank you very much, and I'll save another $365.00 I can put towards the stick shift.
An interesting new feature are the window, mirror and lock controls on the driver door. They are this new "soft touch" design with the buttons under a rubber membrane about which I had mixed feelings. I like them because they feel cool and are high tech, but I don't like them because it's hard for me to detect, just by feel, whether I am pushing the window, mirror or door locks until I actually push and get a result. The C4's controls for these items were more spread apart on the door and easier to distinguish by touch. In the end, this observation probably comes more from my inexperience with the C5 rather than design. I suppose if I owned one, I would get used to this soft-touch stuff, real quick!
A great idea for two people sharing ownership of a C5 is this so-called "memory option". It stores seat position, mirror adjustments and HVAC settings for two people in a computer memory. Each person gets in the car and presses the "1" or "2" button for his or her settings and, if the other person was the last driver, the driver seat, side mirrors and HVAC immediately adjust to the new driver's previously set preferences.
Well, time to go somewhere...like out of the driveway. Our mission is the grocery store, then the post office. I got 20 feet to the end of the driveway and remembered one of the mailings I need to make was left inside, so I set the e-brake, open the car door and run in the house to get it. I came back to find the driver's door locked. I was stunned because, of course, the car is still running. I could hear the laughter now...has-been automotive writer locks keys in car on his first C5 drive.
Now, I pondered, how did that could happen? I stood looking through the window at the keys in the ignition and thinking for a minute. I dumbly, tried the door again. Yep. It was locked...well, duh. Then, I looked across the interior and noted that the passenger side door was unlocked. I went around and used its power lock button to unlock my door. As I drove down the street, I was still perplexed as to what happened. That only the driver door was locked meant it had been locked manually, which I didn't remember doing. Well...I could figure that out later.
It was a beautiful day in California. The temperature was an unseasonable-for-late-winter 80 degrees. That meant sandals, shorts, a T-shirt and both windows down. Away I went, stylin' for sure in this Torch Red C5. Soon I was rolling on the main drag around here headed for the Lucky Supermarket about three miles away. Of course, everywhere I went, people looked. The publicity splash about C5 had been wildly successful. Even though the number of C5s running on the street probably numbered less than 200, everyone in the world who pays even the slightest attention to cars knew what it was. Amongst the fairer sex, women in Camaros looked at the Red C5 the most. If I needed a date, I'd get it tonight as long as I slowed down passing any Camaro driven by a female.
I parked the in Lucky's lot. I walked the aisles, half looking for milk, potato chips, applesauce, Pepsi, fresh corn and some Oreos and half aimlessly wandering as I thought about the miss at idle that I discussed in Real Stories of C5 #1. Since I wrote that article, I had e-mailed twice with, John Heinricy, a good friend, and a veteran Corvette Group member (whose title is very long but who really acts as a defacto assistant chief engineer), and talked by phone with LS1 Project Manager, John Juriga. One of the few problems with the LS1 in the C5 right now is idle quality. While by design, LS1 should be better than the LT1/4 engines...and there were a number of design measures taken to see to that, such as: a different firing order, "replicated" cylinder head ports, more robust ignition, revised fuel injection and more advanced computer controls...it hasn't worked out that way. There are scores of factors at work in an engine that determine idle quality and we don't have enough room here to discuss each, but suffice to say that both Heinricy and Juriga owned up to the fact that idle quality is not yet what they want and that both Corvette Development and GM Powertrain are working hard to solve the problem. Understand that this slight miss at idle is an intermittent thing and not something like you'd get if you pulled a plug wire or had a racing camshaft in the engine. It's a minor annoyance that only anal-retentive, technical writers seem to notice. I am confident that it will be cleared up in the near future.
Back out in the supermarket lot, it was time to try out C5s loading ease. One of Chevrolet's marketing hooks, the thing about the golf bags fitting in the back, has been beat-up pretty bad by the Corvette enthusiast right. Nevertheless, usable cargo space in the '97 is greater. Be it suitcases, golf bags, boxes of groceries, your dog or a set of exhaust headers, there is more usable space back there. In fact, about 12 and a half cubic feet more. Also, reach-over both from the back and sides is much improved. The C5 swallowed up my shopping bags of Oreos and other assorted staples with ease.
Two things I don't like in the back of this car. First, there are three storage compartments under the rear of the regular cargo area. These wells are topped with panels that latch to the cargo area floor. The latches are really cheesy expanding-pin-in-socket affairs that would pop loose without being unlatched. The panels are not hinged and remove completely to expose the compartments. The second thing is, for a car costing forty grand, GM could finish the holes for the hatch latch strikers that are in the soft trim at the back of the cargo area. The holes were simply punched in the carpet and the ragged edges look tacky.
Oh, by the way, I see in the service manual that we really shouldn't use the term "hatch" anymore. In the Geese of the C5 era, it is now "Rear Lift Window Panel"...got that? And, speaking of the lift window, the effort involved in open and close it is much less than C4. There is no reach over and no fussing to pull up an unlatched hatch glass. Also, while a bit of a slam may be needed to get the lift window closed, the hinge, support struts and latch strikers are on the solid frame of the panel not on the glass. Knowing the cost of a C4 backlight, I have always been a little hesitant to slam the thing when I can't get it to latch. With the C5's hatch, er...lift window, you give it a bit of a shove closed and it latches.
After Lucky's it was over to the Unocal station to get some gas. This was another first for me: fueling up a C5. The gas filler is on the left rear fender behind the door just like it was back in the C1 era. For a second, I was astonished at the retro-ness of this, but there it was: the gas door in the same spot as the one on the '60 that one of my first girlfriends owned. I remember filling that Corvette up many times.
Of course the C5 filler cap is plastic but, undoubtedly as a weight and cost move, so is the filler neck. As I pumped Unocal 92-octane gas into the car, I thought the 97 Vette's innovative fuel supply system. There are two "saddle" tanks. The one on the left has the electric fuel pump which supplies fuel to the engine. It also pumps some fuel over to a "siphon jet pump" in the right tank and that unit, in turn, pumps the contents of the right tank over to the left. Obviously the fuel flow needed to power the siphon jet pump is less than its output so the net result is that all the fuel goes through the electric pump and onto the engine. It certainly is a creative approach to efficiently moving fuel from two saddle tanks.
After the gas stop, I was off to the post office. There was a parking space right near the door, so I left the windows down, took the keys and closed the door...again... I can't believe how light this car's doors are.
I came back after my snail mail mission to find...whoa.... The driver's door locked, again, but this time I had the key fob and unlocked it with the remote. I got in and tried to figure out how, in the space of a little more than an hour, I had twice, unintentionally and unknowingly locked the driver's door. There I sat, watching my hand movements while opening and closing the door.
After about five minutes, I had it figured out and it's something new C5 owners who might momentarily leave the keys in the ignition will have to be careful of until they learn the car. Remember my saying that the C5 doors are so light...hold that thought.
Once you've unlatched the door, two things can combine to cause an unintentional locking. First, little effort is required to open it. Just a gentle push with the back of your hand on the door panel will do. Secondly, the manual lock effort is, also, quite low. Many people will invariably push against a spot directly behind the door handle and that, my friends, is where the manual lock is. The locking effort is so low, you don't feel that you have pushed in the lock lever. When you shut the door, you're screwed if keys are still in the car, the other door was already locked and the passive feature of the remote keyless entry system is not enabled. Perhaps this design lacks intuitiveness.
After the post office and door lock analysis, it was back home to meet a friend of mine from the Pomona Valley Corvette Association. He is a C4 owner and, as a way of getting several opinions on the new car, I agreed to let him drive it to work then I'd take it from there to my next stop.
This gave me my first taste of the C5's passenger seat along with my first impression of the car in the Los Angeles area's awful freeway traffic congestion. As I sat in the right seat for the trip into downtown L.A., I marveled at the ample legroom on the passenger side compared with the old car. I listened to my friend rave about two things: 1) the fact that even though this was a Z51, the car rode nice over the tilt-slabbed freeway and 2) the LS1's phenomenal mid-range power. During a few periods of bumper-to-bumper, I watched him drive effortlessly. Clearly, clutch and shift efforts were more than tolerable, even in slow traffic.
Over the 2 and a half days I had this car, I let four others in the PVCA drive it for brief, supervised, tests in a local driving environment. The two most common observations were: 1) how pleasing the car's ride was despite it being a Z51 and 2) the amount of mid-range torque the engine had. Everyone raved about how the car pulled in third gear. Of course, the engine doesn't run any harder in third than in other gears but, in an aggressive acceleration on city streets, third is the gear you will be in the longest, hence, their comments.
Two of the people I had drive the car are quite tall and, interestingly, their opinions were split. Both of these were C4 Roadster owners. One said he believed the '97 had more legroom and the other said it was about the same. If we go strictly by measurements, tall people are only going to be a little happier in a C5. Legroom increases 0.7 inch and there is 1.3-in more headroom. One thing that does improve dramatically is the width of the footwells. On the driver's side, it's up by 3.1-in and the passenger gets a whooping six more inches! I am just a fidget on long trips riding shotgun. I remember my run up to the 1996 Black Hills Classic in a '95 ZR-1. I shared the driving with a friend and when I was in the right seat, I remember being uncomfortable because of the lack of space for my feet to wander. I really noticed the bigger footwell during the my test ride in the C5 passenger seat.
After letting my buddy take the C5 to work, I hopped back on the freeway headed for the town of Stanton, about 40 miles away, where Flowmaster has a small R&D facility. I had called Flowmaster's main office in northern California the day before to tell Kevin McClelland, Flowmaster's R&D ace, that I had one of these cars and that I figured that maybe, just maybe he'd want to get measurements. Kevin jumped at the chance because they had yet to see one of the cars. Some measurements and photos of the exhaust system would let them get started in designing low-restriction mufflers for C5.
Of course, I had an agenda with this idea, too. I desperately wanted to look underneath a C5 to examine the suspension and underbody structure that made this car ride and handle so well. The route I took down to Mr. G's Tire and Muffler Center, was deliberate: the I-5 through the industrial heart of southeast L.A. That road is heavily traveled by trucks. That, coupled with the People's Republik of Kalifornia's interest in Eubonics and not highway maintenance, has the two slow lanes badly tilt-slabbed with plenty of big-assed, (almost Detroit-sized) potholes to test a car's impact harshness, ride quality and squeaks and rattles. I drove the slow lanes all the way down to Beach, Blvd. where I got off and drove south to Mr. G's. Once again, I was amazed that this car, in spite of being a Z51, rode acceptably well. The decoupling of ride and handling and much improved structure, really show up well in driving like this.
At Mr. G's is a long-time Flowmaster dealer that is, from time to time, called upon to test and develop new product installations. My old friend, Jerry Holmes, and I have done countless exhaust installations for magazine articles together. We got the car up on the rack and he looked and poked at the exhaust system while I snapped photos of the 97 Corvette underpinnings.
If there is one thing I think that detracts from the car's appearance, it's the minimalist, quadruple tail pipes. While the idea of four exhausts is ok, what I hate are those little fu-fu, oval-shaped outlets. A car with the almost racecar level handling of the C5 ought to have a racecarish exhaust.... Two, big fat tailpipes. No ovals, no squares, just big, round, gnarly exhausts. Another comment? Well, sometimes the C5 is just too quiet. No I realize that one of Y-car Brand Manager, Dick Almond's sacred goals is to sell the Corvette to a customers whom never would have considered a 'Vette before, so I suppose that means we need to compromise on exhaust loudness. But, hey, that's what we have Flowmaster and the rest of the exhaust aftermarket for, right?
Quiet mufflers and the cute tail pipes aside, from a performance standpoint, the C5 exhaust is very, very good. Big 2.5-in. doubled-walled head pipes curve down to the two catalytic converters that are nestled in the tunnel behind the engine where the transmission on a C4 is. From there, the pipes go straight back to the transmission area. Right in front of the gearbox, the two pipes are joined with a crossover. Just ahead of where each pipe goes up and over the rear axle shafts, there is a bolt-together connector. The exhaust pipe from there back is part of the muffler assembly. I think the hardest thing for the aftermarket is going to be designing a low-restriction muffler that will offer adequate quieting and fit in the limited volume of space available. Aftermarket muffler engineers will have to be very careful of case sizes larger than OE because there needs to be adequate air space around the muffler for cooling. As it is, the C5s rear vents are functional and exist to cool the mufflers. It will be interesting to see what Flowmaster comes up with.
I could write thousands of words on the C5 suspension design. In fact, that has already been done. At the Society of Automotive Engineers' Congress in Detroit back in February, an unprecedented six SAE Papers were published on just the C5s structure and suspension. Suffice to say that the most important improvement in ride and handling was the new car's much beefed-up structure. I think car magazines have adequately covered the hydroformed rails, the closed section tunnel and the closed-section bumpers. They make a huge contribution to the more robust structure. There are a myriad of figures in these SAE Papers. One of the most interesting was a comparison between the static stiffness of a C5-Alpha prototype with the roof off, an '86 Roadster with the top down and an '85 Coupe with the roof in place. In bending, the C5 with roof off was twice as stiff as the C4 Roadster and almost twice as stiff as the C4 Coupe with its roof on. In torsion, the C5 Alpha with the roof off was five times stiffer than the C5 Roadster and almost 3 1/2 times stiffer than a roof-on, C4 Coupe. Now that, my friends, is a hell of an improvement.
This car's good ride and handling is also partially driven by a robust suspension design. Both ends of the car now use the short-arm/long-arm (SLA) design. The geometry is much revised. Materials remain much the same with aluminum control arms and knuckles, a glass reinforced plastic spring at both ends and steel stabilizer bars. A big departure in design and something that contributes much to the robustness of the suspension is two massive, aluminum crossmembers that, in the front, hold the control arms, steering and the engine mounts and, in the rear, hold the suspension and transaxle. These two pieces are cast from 356-T6 aluminum and are machined in CNC equipment. They are bolted to the chassis with no bushings. This precisely locates the suspension and decreases unit-to-unit variances.
The suspension pieces themselves are mostly aluminum. The front, upper arm is a 6061-T6 aluminum forging. The rest of the arms and the knuckles are made of 356-T6 using a hybrid cast-preform forging process. Obvious, on visual inspection, is the difference in location and engineering between a ride and a handling bushing. Some of the suspension parts are common to each end to reduced cost and parts proliferation. The knuckles are the same diagonally (ie: left-front = right-rear), all the wheel bearings are the same, as are the ball joints, stabilizer bar links, inner spring insulators and spring mount clamps. The steering rack bolts solidly to the front suspension crossmember. There are no bushings to impede steering response.
Unfortunately, there isn't time for a full suspension discussion and, besides, my examination was cut short because the measurements and photos were complete. I gave both Mike Gephart, the "G" in Mr. G's, and Jerry short test-drives in the car. Both got out it shaking their heads at the excellence C5 has brought to the automotive world. Mike, who was fairly aggressive in wringing out the LS1, had nothing but high praise for the new engine.
The night's plan included talking this Torch Red 1997 Corvette to a book signing with All Corvettes are Red Author, Jim Schefter. My club, the PVCA, was sponsoring this and we wanted to have a C5 to display outside Borders Books in Montclair, CA where we were doing the signing. That the car was going on display and that I had already driven it for a day or so meant a wash job.
The first step, because the car had been given to me with a dirty engine compartment...I think the last user must have been off road somewhere because the tops of the frame rails were covered with sand and rocks...was to spray down the engine then blast it with shop air. As I did this, I marveled at how attractive the engine compartment looks. While traditionalists will bitch at all the plastic pieces, I think the Nylon 66 intake manifold and the plastic valve cover shields make the engine look really high-tech. The textured appearance of the coolant and windshield washer tanks further enhance the look. Speaking of the windshield washer, I mentioned in Real Stories of C5 #1 that the washer system leaked on hard acceleration. I got an email from John Heinricy earlier this week saying that had been corrected on later units with a check valve between the tank and the nozzles on the wipers. Getting the hood closed on these new Corvettes can be a little difficult. The hood is much lighter than the C4 clamshell which we could just hold at about a foot above closed, then drop it and it would latch. The new car needs a pretty aggressive slam to get both sides to latch.
I always hand wash road test cars at least once. It gives me a chance to go clear around the car looking closely at fit and finish. I would say that, considering this car was a pilot (VIN 00063), that they were acceptable. The only places I noticed any poor fit was the rear lift window in its opening and one of the rear quarter panels. Paint-wise, the car looked, by C4 standards and on average, pretty good. There was intermittent orange peel. Some panels were almost smooth as glass, but a few had slight peel. One thing I did notice, is that the rear fascia, which is revolutionary both from a design standpoint, (its dramatic look) and from a manufacturing standpoint (because it is the largest panel in the industry made of sheet molded compound), was perfect in fit and finish. This car was a very early one, built in October of 1996. I suspect that once the plant began to do cars that went to dealers, all of the problems I saw on number 00063 were solved.
In the early evening it was back in the C5 and on the freeway...rush hour traffic of course...headed for Montclair and dinner with Jim Schefter before the book signing. Earlier today I had tried the truck lanes of I-5 to test ride. Well, now I was going to do one of the all-time worst highways in the west for tilt-slab and potholes:, the Pomona Freeway east between Kellogg Hill and Montclair. The fast truck lane is so bad that automotive engineers come to the L.A. area to test on it. As I live locally and drive that stretch often, I can attest to many different car companies' development work there on a regular basis. Once again the C5/Z51 impressed me with its reasonable ride over this piece of crummy road. If this car had the F45 shocks, in their new, continuously variable configuration, which includes softer springs, geezzzz.... This Vette might ride almost like a Cadillac.
At Border's Books, PVCA was extremely fortunate to have not one but three Torch Red 1997 Corvettes on display just outside the store. We had the car I was testing, a second GM-owned unit driven in by Chevrolet's Director of Regional Communications, Carl Sheffer and a third that was driven over from the dealer in Montclair, Richard Hibbard Chevrolet. It was a pretty spectacular sight, to say the least. We had a crowd of 56 present for the signing and every one of them ohed, ahed and drooled over the trio of C5s
Driving home gave me my first real chance to see the C5 interior at night. Everything is well lit. The instrument cluster uses a totally-cool, ultraviolet lighting set-up that makes the markings on the analog gauges really standout but keeps the background very, very dark. In addition, the individual gauges are mounted on two-different planes, which gives the cluster a very pleasing depth effect, especially at night. While I prefer digital instrumentation, if we have to have analogs; on this car, they are really good ones. Thankfully, GM got rid of the inaccuracy we saw with the 90-96 analogs. The 1997 instrument panel also has a digital display along its bottom. This is where the "Corvette by Chevrolet" message is displayed each time you start the car. It would take too long to describe all the stuff you can see here simply by making driver information center button selections, but oil temperature, tire pressure in real time and computer fault codes are just some of the data you can look at. Instrumentation-wise, night or day, the new 'Vette has it right.
Another interesting lighting feature is the door switches. The soft-touch membrane that is over the controls for the windows, locks and mirror has lettering that is some kind of white, translucent stuff. The actual lights are behind that and when lit, the white letters appear to be suspended in space...very high-tech, very cool.
Well, it had been a long, but delightful day with a C5. I'd been the grocery store, the gas station, the post office, had the car up on a rack, washed it and driven it at night. Once I was on the freeway-rolling west at 75 mph headed for home, I turned on the stereo. So many journalists drive these cars, that I never know what will come up when I punch a button pre-set, so I picked one. I got some oldies station doing 70s and 80s stuff. Wouldn't you know it...they were playing Prince's "Red Corvette". Not my favorite, but certainly appropriate!
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