The C4 Corvette is cool again—but still affordable
Chevrolet had the stones to call it the most advanced production car on the planet. The TV commercial said the all-new 1984 Corvette was superb in its engineering and technology and defiant in its performance. Sure, the advertising was lame, but the car was extraordinary.
The C4 Corvette was among the fastest cars you could buy during President Ronald Reagan’s first term, and its handling and braking redefined street performance at the time. The media swooned, and sales erupted. Chevy sold more than 51,000 units the first year, making 1984 the Corvette’s second-highest-volume model year ever.
It was a car we were all waiting for. Yearning for. The C3 had been around since 1968, and its chassis dated to the split-window Sting Ray of 1963. Design sketches for the fourth generation of the “plastic fantastic” were drawn as early as 1978, and its first clay models were produced in ’79.
Despite rumors of a mid-engine design, Chevy stuck with the front-engine layout that had served America’s sports car well since 1953. Chevy also kept the transverse leaf spring suspension that debuted with the C2 in 1963. But there was an all-new structure, aluminum A-arms, and 16-inch 50-series Goodyear Gatorback tires so massive we couldn’t believe our eyes. A targa-style, removable roof panel was standard, as was the busy, ahead-of-its-time digital instrument panel.
The C4 debuted with the anemic 205-hp L83 V-8 carried over from 1982, complete with Cross-Fire injection. (There was no 1983 Corvette.) A retuned suspension and real power arrived in 1985, when the Corvette got the 230-hp L98 that shared its tuned port injection with the Camaro and Firebird. Now the Corvette could top 150 mph.
In 1986, after an 11-year hiatus, Chevy reintroduced a Corvette convertible. A year later, the L98’s output climbed to 240 horsepower, but the transmission options remained the odd Doug Nash “4+3” four-speed manual (with three overdrives) or the four-speed automatic. Quarter-mile times dipped into the high 13s.
In 1989, Chevy added 17-inch wheels and tires and replaced the Doug Nash 4+3 with a ZF six-speed manual. The following year, the C4 got a new cockpit-style interior with airbags and plenty of gray, hard plastic. Most of the digital gauges were gone, too. New exterior styling with more-rounded lines came in 1991, and in ’92 the L98 was replaced with the second-generation small-block, the LT1. That engine made 300 horsepower, and although its Optispark ignition proved delicate, aftermarket solutions are readily available.
This engine family peaked in 1996 with the 330-hp LT4, optional on all Corvettes equipped with the six-speed. It also powered the Collector Edition and Grand Sport models, both of which exceed the $15,000 mandate of this page. We haven’t even mentioned the 1990–95 ZR-1 or the twin-turbo Callaway models.
They’re spendy, too. But other C4s remain cheap. Of note are the 1985–89 cars that feature the L98 paired with the retro charm of the harder-edged exterior lines and original interior design. They offer heady performance for little money, and they’re old enough to be retro cool. C4 Corvette prices are flat, but they’re starting to tick up as Gen Xers begin to seek out the cars they wanted in high school. As always, buy the absolute best one your budget can afford.
I’ve always liked the compact look of the C4 Corvette. I finally bought one—a 1988 convertible—in 2009 and have put about 4000 miles on it since. It shares the garage with an ’87 Camaro I bought new and a trio of ’57 Chevys. The C4 had 62,000 miles on it, and the body and the interior were perfect. But it had been neglected mechanically, so I replaced the clutch and the radiator and rebuilt the pop-up headlight buckets. Now that it isn’t nickel-and-diming me anymore, it’s the perfect car to go out and cruise in on a nice day. I love the Doug Nash 4+3 transmission, with overdrive in second, third, and fourth gears. It’s like having a seven-speed. Compared to my Camaro, the Corvette is a whole different animal and outperforms it in every way.
— James Benson, Portland, Oregon