The used market is a funny thing to watch and an even funnier one to shop. Amidst the “for the price of X, you could have a used version of Y!” articles and endless discussion of where money is better spent, it truly is remarkable to watch depreciation curves and play the much more important game of “What should I buy next with ~$25k?”
While some vehicles hold value well enough to justify buying new, prices of others plummet enough to rationalize the purchase of a high-performance vehicle at new economy-car cost. Few cars are better examples of this than the C5 Corvette, and especially its beefed-up, track-focused Z06 variant. With prices for a clean, well-maintained example dipping under the magical $20k-mark (and even dropping below $15k in some cases), the C5Z is a massive amount of car for very little money especially considering it’s one equally capable of handling the daily grind as it is a weekend of track time.
In an attempt to heed my own advice of “drive everything you’re considering before actually deciding on your next car,” one fall day I found myself in the driver seat of a bright red fifth-generation Corvette Z06, wringing out the LS6 and playing with the supposed race-car-for-the-street handling in order to find out if driving the widely-respected C5Z would be enough to convince my money out of me. I found good things in my brief test-drive, and for enthusiasts looking for a performance bargain it’s simply impossible to ignore this car. Jump with me to see how it fares on the street.
Given the cost of a good one, it’s hard to beat the 5th-gen Corvette as a comfortable daily-driver capable car that can also run with the best of them on autocross or at an HPDE. There’s few cars that would be as equally competent on a cross-country road trip as they would tearing up session after session on a road course, and with an almost unlimited aftermarket the C5Z is truly a must-drive for those looking for a rear-wheel-drive do-it-all companion in the sub-$25k bracket.
In the flesh, the C5 has a presence to it unlike any Corvette since. It’s long, low, and wide, and relative to today’s ‘Vette, it seems almost completely devoid of styling elements. It’s clean rather than busy, and is relatively timeless versus the C7’s deliberate attempts to look young and fresh and aggressive. There are few curves and fewer sharp edges, but nothing truly eye-grabbing. But even with the pop-up lights, the design is aging reasonably well, better than the C7 will 20 years after its debut…on the outside, at least.
Inside things feel old. And they should, given the car’s first model year was 1996 and it was likely designed years before that. The worst offense is the styling of the shifter, which not only looks like the top portion of a pickup-truck’s shifter misplaced onto that of a sports car, but it doesn’t even come close to fitting the contour of one’s hand. At least the action is notchy and mechanical. The exact opposite can be said of the seats, which are soft and very couch-like compared to what you’d expect in a car of this nature. The seats might be good for the theoretical stereotypical overweight mid-50s buyer that drives their ‘Vette to Cars & Coffee on Sundays and doesn’t require any lateral support, but for my small-ish 5’9” 165-pound frame they simply could not hold me in place during even light-duty cornering, requiring me to brace myself against the door or the transmission tunnel and/or to hold myself in using the steering wheel so as to maintain my driving position. And a commanding position it is: visibility out the front is surprisingly good, even over the long hood, and even through the small back window. It’s a fairly dominating place to sit, and though the corners and ends of the body itself are hard to discern, it’s easy to place the car but, in my brief drive at least, it definitely doesn’t “shrink around you,” or not at least in my limited experience on the street.
On the move, the Z06 is as good at slow suburb stoplight-to-stoplight and back-road driving as it is long-straight full-throttle blasts. The motor is a peach, as they say, always happy to do as the devil on your foot pleases. The LS6 is much more enjoyable than the LS2 in the C6, and has enough grunt to perfectly match the car’s “Drive me harder!” character. It boasts a plethora of old-school power, the kind that’s only available with a big-displacement naturally-aspirated engine. It’s always there, always ready to respond immediately, and it likes nothing more than having some room to run, as it should with 400+ horsepower. In stock form with the factory exhaust is over-muffled, dying for some more free-flowing pipes. Or, better yet, a two-mode system like that in the LT1-powered Camaro.
The power isn’t all-consuming like the Coyote 5.0 in the S550 Mustang is, largely due to the steering. Whereas in the ‘Stang goes light in the front once you stomp the throttle, the Z06 hunkers down and devours the pavement ahead of it. In all transparency I by no means pushed the car’s limits and I didn’t come close to using all of its potential and in turn I have no concept of how it feels at or near the point one would drive it on a track. But on the street when romping on it a bit the feeling is that of a car that is tailored to dancing the line of incredibly well-sorted and with enough potential to really induce hard-driving antics on the regular.
The Z06’s ride itself is by no means punishing but rather damped well enough to remain composed over the awful potholes of middle-Connecticut where I drove it, but it’ll never be luxury-car comfy. It feels hunkered down, like there’s a serious weight to the car and to its connection to the road. This matches the steering weight well, which is heavy by today’s standards but by no means overpowering. It all makes for a car that’s easy to drive, but that constantly reminds you of its performance capabilities.
For comparison’s sake, and because early C6 models are dropping below $20k as well, I drove an early LS2-powered car around the same time as the C5Z. Unfortunately not the much-improved LS3 car that came about shortly after the generation’s introduction, the C6 felt sheepish, soft. It was quick, but it felt unsorted and conflicted relative to the prior-gen Z. It wanted to cruise, not to dance. The C5Z wasn’t like that at all. Although it was fine when going slow, it wanted to boogie. And that’s the Z06’s charm as a sports car.
In its latest two generations, the Corvette has evolved into a fantastic do-it-all Grand Tourer. It’s still a Corvette when you’re pushing, but it’s designed to be driven long distances more comfortably than in the past. The C5Z was designed to be driven hard and, although it can also do the tame stuff and would be totally content on a road trip, it really just wants to be driven at race-pace. It feels like a car of yore, one that knows deep down it can kill you with a prolonged push of the right-most pedal, but it’s comfortable and composed enough to feel modern. Modern, and hilarious fun suitable best for the track. For that, it’s the best ‘Vette there is, balancing sports car and grand tourer as well as possible.
The C5Z truly is a hell of a car. It’s great to drive and for the money is an unmatched performance bargain, but it’s a little too much car for my day-to-day as it has to be driven at super-legal speeds in order to be anything resembling fun. And, in all honesty, it feels too 1990s for my personal preference. It might perform like some modern sports cars, but it definitely doesn’t feel modern. It’s incredible to drive, but for its shortcomings, I cannot buy one. For those that do, or that have: you’ve bought a hell of a car. The C5 Z06 stands as the pinnacle of performance on the used market on a budget. It is, in my opinion, the best analog Corvette there is. And until I get some seat time in anything that proves otherwise, it is the best Corvette. Period.