Chevrolet Corvettes are widely known in the automotive world for being some of the most affordable sports cars ever conceived. Known to many drivers simply as the “Vette,” the Chevy Corvette has gone through 8 design generations in its over 60-year history.
Figure 1: A 1973 Chevrolet Corvette 454 that sold at auction for $44,000. Source: American Car Collector.
Today, we’ll be tackling a very simple question: out of all the generations and models, what is the best Corvette for the money?
A Bit of History
The first Chevy Corvette rolled off the assembly line in 1953, used as a show car for the ’53 General Motors “Motorama” event. The Corvette quickly generated buzz for its distinct design. It was first sold to the public in June of that year. In that first model year, 300 Corvettes—all convertibles—were produced.
Whereas nearly every subsequent Corvette has used a V8 engine, the first two model years incorporated a 235-cu ‘Blue Flame’ I6 engine. This engine was used and loved by that first generation of Corvette owners … until they were all sold. From that point, Chevrolet decided to shift attention to the more powerful V8 engines.
Figure 2: The “Blue Flame” engine. Source: Wikipedia.
Starting the 1955 model year, all Corvette’s came with V8 engines with improved power, torque, and acceleration.
Several subsequent generations, in 1956 and 1958, received some largely aesthetic makeovers. These included a longer front end, quad headlamps, exhaust tips through the bumpers, and a redesigned dashboard. The 1958 model also introduced hood louvers and twin trunk spears.
A complete redesign came in 1961, when the Corvette acquired its distinctive 4 round headlights.
The second generation (C2) officially kicked off in 1963, and the third generation (C3) followed in 1968. The third generation is especially notable for featuring another redesigned body and interior. The third generation of Corvettes lasted all the way until 1983. We’ll discuss the generations that offer the most bang for your buck in more detail below.
Zooming ahead a few decades, the Corvette is currently in its eight generation, which just launched in 2020.
Figure 4: The latest generation Corvette has come quite a long way from its humble 1955 beginnings! Source: Wikipedia, courtesy of Don DeBold.
While the C8 is indeed a dream machine, it’s not exactly the best Corvette for the money right now. The expected price for the 2021 model year is $59,995. Not outrageous, but not a bargain either.
What’s the Best Corvettes on a Budget?
Turns out, if you want the best Corvette for the money, there are three magic numbers: C3, C4, and C5.
These generation are all extremely reliable even in their old age and make great buys today. What’s more, some of them are actually appreciating in value. Pick one up now and it may turn out be a wise investment.
1973 Corvette C3 454
Figure 5: The 454 Corvette from 1973 has a serious disco-era aesthetic to it. Source: Bring a Trailer.
The third generation of Corvettes began in 1967 and carried over most engine and chassis components from the C2 days. It immediately set sales records, and hence there are quite a few of these cars out there even today. However, we’ve picked the C3 454 as the best value out of all third-generation Corvettes. It is one of the coveted ‘Stingray’ models, as this nickname was applied to Corvettes made from 1969 to 1976.
This third-generation Corvette is known for its unique body style and 454-cu engine (hence the name). Indeed, no other model had quite the same look. No more chrome front bumper. Instead, this vehicle was fitted with a urethane front piece to meet new governmental regulations. Another notable change with the 454 was side-impact beams added to the doors, air-induction hood, and radial tires.
All these modifications signified that the Corvette was gradually transitioning from a sports car to a cruiser. Its 454-cu big-block V8 engine (that’s 7.4L) is quite impressive even today, and the car wasn’t shy about it either; big “454” emblems adorned the hood of the original big-block C3 Corvettes. The big-block was available with a 3-speed automatic or 4-speed manual transmission. Even cooler (ha) was the optional air conditioning.
While this Corvette had a slightly reduced 0–60 time, it made up for it with extra handling, power, and reliability. It has a net power of 275 HP.
All in all, this Corvette has a serious disco-era vibe to it. While the aesthetic many not be for everyone, this means that this model has largely been overlooked in the Corvette’s storied history.
For this reason, this the 454 may be one of the best investments out of all the Corvettes on this list. Its average price these days ranges from $16,800–24,900. However, some of these Corvettes have been meticulously maintained and may run as high as $37,000. If you want to save even more, grab the small-block version.
1990–1995 Corvette C4 ZR-1
Figure 6: The ZR-1 Corvette C4 may be the best bargain out of any Corvette on the used market. Source: Hagerty.
The C4 first came out in 1984 and immediately stood out from the crowd. As the first complete redesign of the Corvette since 1963, the fourth-generation cars were finally unveiled after years of extensive and quite secretive testing and prototyping.
The 1984 model included a 5.7L “crossfire” V8 engine that was a decent power upgrade from previous models. The chassis featured aluminum break calipers and an all-aluminum suspension that is great for saving weight, enhancing the strength and rigidity of the vehicle, and boosting overall performance. And the electronic dashboard—complete with LCD displays—is still super cool in a retro kind of way.
Figure 7: A C4 from 1996, complete with Six-Speed and 330 HP engine. Source: Wikipedia, courtesy of GrandSport.
We spoke to Ron Ignelzi, a specialist at MacMulkin Corvette, the second-largest Corvette dealer in the United States. According to Ron, “the C4 generation was one of the great performance cars of its time and is still a great buy today.” He added that “the C4 generation, with a 375-HP engine, really gave Ferrari, Lamborghini, and Porsche a run for their money” back when it first came out.
Ron especially wanted to draw our attention to the ZR-1 version of the Corvette C4, produced from 1990 to 1995. The ZR-1 “is dirt cheap now, you can get a used one for around $20,000, and you’re getting a lot of car for the money.”
“The ZR-1 is a rare bird, in that it has a double overhead cam with 16 fuel injectors in its engine,” Ron told us. What’s especially cool about this version is how it seemingly transforms from a regular-old car to a race car at a moment’s notice. “The secondary port vacuum system kicks on when the car hits a certain RPM. They call it a ‘Jekyll and Hyde’ Corvette because it’s very docile at lower power but, when the secondaries kick in, it feels like there’s a turbocharger.”
Indeed, the “Z” in the name stands for enhanced performance. However, all that enhanced performance technology did not come with an enhanced price tag. The ZR-1 is perhaps the best Corvette for the money you’ll find.
2001–04 Corvette C5 Z06
Figure 8: This Corvette was designed as a top-performance sports version of the regular C5. Source: Autoevolution.
Lastly, let’s have a look at the fifth generation. Out of all the C5 Corvettes, we think the Z06 from 2001 to 2004 is the best of the fifth-generation bunch.
The value of Z06 Corvettes has been rising lately, and it’s easy to see why. The Z06 is a high-performance variant with a fully re-tuned suspension and 385-HP 5.7L engine, along with 6-speed manual transmission. What’s especially cool is that the engine features a titanium exhaust system. Now how often do you see that?
Later on, the power was pushed to 405 HP, alongside 385 lb-ft of torque. It can go from 0 to 60 in 4 seconds, which is quite impressive considering its age. According to Ron, “the 405-HP C5 generation Corvette was a great performer and more tuned for the track” than previous models. In many ways, it may be an even better deal than the C4.
Currently their average value sits at about $22,000, but you can still find some for $20,000 or less. To put that in perspective, these cars went for $50,000 or more (adjusted for inflation) when they were new. All in all, the Z06 is an incredible bargain in terms of HP, acceleration, and overall sporty performance.