Why the Corvette ZR-1 is the bargain buy of super C4s

1990 Chevrolet Corvette ZR-1

The ZR-1 was once called the “Corvette from Hell” by Car and Driver. Its key points are now a well-worn legend: a Lotus-designed dual-overhead-cam V-8 built by Mercury Marine and pumping out 375 horsepower, acceleration times that bested the Porsche 911 Turbo and shamed the Ferrari 348, and a price almost double that of a standard Corvette.

Why then, does the 1990–95 ZR-1 cost less than other fourth-generation super ’Vettes like the Callaway Twin Turbo and the Grand Sport?  The average value for a #2 (excellent) condition ZR-1 is $27,700, versus $33,200 for a Callaway and $40,000 for a Grand Sport.

The short answer is rarity, and that old saw of supply and demand. Chevrolet built 6939 ZR-1s, compared to 1000 Grand Sport models. The GS, produced in the final year of the C4, was also seen as collectible right from the start, which increased the chances of careful ownership. The Callaway Twin Turbo is also more rare, with around 500 retrofitted at the tuner’s facility in Old Lyme, Connecticut. By 1987 the Callaway made 382 horsepower and 562 pound-feet of torque; the latter figure makes the 1993 ZR-1’s 385 lb-ft seem wimpy by comparison.

1990 Chevrolet Corvette ZR-1 badge taillight detail
1990 Chevrolet Corvette ZR-1 lt5 engine passenger side
1990 Chevrolet Corvette ZR-1 shifter
1990 Chevrolet Corvette ZR-1 side driver

There’s still something special about the ZR-1’s look. From a distance, you might mistake the ZR-1 for any 1991 or later C4. The rest of the Corvette lineup received the rounded-off square taillamps that year, but only the ZR-1 has the fat rear fenders housing 11-inch wide rear wheels. Those fenders are smooth, not flared, with redesigned doors to meet them flush and almost camouflage the width. There’s a subtlety of purpose going on with the ZR-1 that the Grand Sport and Callaway lack.

The ZR-1’s horsepower jumped up to 405 in 1993. Had GM continued production of the ZR-1 past 1995, Lotus was working on a new generation of the engine capable of far more horsepower. It was good, as we found out back in 2017.

1990 Chevrolet Corvette ZR-1 3/4 rear driver
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1990 Chevrolet Corvette ZR-1

Corvette values have decreased across the board in the last two years, but we still picked the Grand Sport as part of our 2019 Bull Market List. The ZR-1, despite being less expensive, has a few things going for it that make it a nice long-term proposition. Namely, the people buying it. In terms of insurance quote activity (which we can use as a measure of interest in a particular car) Millennials make up 4.5 percent Grand Sport queries, but 13 percent of ZR-1 requests. The ZR-1 also has a 2.5-point advantage with Gen X-aged collectors.

That means the ZR-1 has a pretty decent long-term outlook for value, because younger buyer demographics increase the likelihood that there will be continued demand for a collector car. According to our valuation experts, prices should be stable for the near future.

The Grand Sport is special, yes, but it’s not a historic milestone like the ZR-1. When it comes to super Vette, there is only one King of the Hill, and the attractive price makes it all the more appealing.