They say time heals all wounds. I suppose it does in most cases, but it also makes plastic brittle. So I’m going to have to be very careful in my attempt at rehabilitating the Corvette C4, which a decade ago was comprehensively chopped into bite-sized, polyester-coated morsels in one of Paul’s seminal GM Deadly Sins posts. But it’s been a while, so let’s see if the fourth generation of America’s sports car can be given a more lenient look.
Actually, before you go any further, I recommend you read Paul’s piece, written back in 2010. Two things about it should be emphasized: first, I agree with every sentence. The case for the prosecution is bullet-proof and the C4’s soullessness cannot be wished away. Secondly, if you read it carefully, Paul points out that later model C4s were pretty damn good, performance-wise – the usual GM “we sort of got there eventually” type of deal.
And therein lies the nub: what C4 are we talking about? Not the weak-chested mid-‘80s resale red mullet-mobiles, no. After several years of incremental changes, the C4 turned into a substantially different car. The difference between a MY 1984 Corvette and our yellow ’96 here was pretty stark.
Oh, they took their sweet time, for sure. The first year C4s only mustered 205hp and featured a weird “4+3” overdrive manual transmission option that failed to impress. The six-speed ZF gearbox arrived in 1989 and though it had improved a bit since its 1984 “Cease-Fire” iteration, the wheezy V8 was only given the boot in 1992, when the 300hp LT1 took over, giving the Corvette most of its mojo back. Of course, from 1990, those who wanted more bang for even more bucks could get a Lotus-flavoured ZR-1, with its fancy 375hp DOHC engine (upped to 405hp from 1993). Keeping its end up, the standard issue C4 was made available with an optional 330hp engine as the Grand Sport for 1995-96. So things ended on a high, at least.
And then there were the exterior changes. Our CC displays the rectified snout common to all post-1991 facelift C4s, though it seems only the MY 1996 cars seem to have this exact look, with a small bit of body-colour plastic dividing the turn signals and the side markers. In prior MYs, that little corner piece was black. It’s a very small detail, but once you see a car without it, something looks off.
The rear end also had extensive modifications, almost completely changing its shape over the years (as rear ends are wont to do, amirite folks?) and losing all pretense of a rear spoiler in the process. Not being overly keen on spoilers myself, this post-1991 butt-lift C4 derriere is all right by me, but I can understand how some might prefer the original design’s edgier characteristics and circular taillamps.
Overall, the C4’s looks have aged pretty well. It does look bland compared to the C3, but it also seems more agile – at least, this final version does. Present-day sports cars almost always look like they should come with their own Bat-Cave, so it’s refreshing to see something this straightforward and unfussy, yet also clearly identifiable as a Corvette. The now uncommon pop-up headlights add to the C4’s classic feel.
OK, even with the best will in the world, the C4’s interior remains a complete and utter shambles. These looked dodgy when new, but the peculiar GM mix of questionable design, lousy planning, subpar component sourcing, dreadful durability, indifferent workmanship and poor quality control really found its full display in the C4’s cabin, just like it did in almost all North American GM products of the time. But there again, later cars like our CC have more analog instruments, which must be a good thing: the term “‘80s GM digital gauges” is liable to give any sensible person nightmares.
Now, there are a lot of stories about how the C4s were badly put together, even beyond the confines of the passenger area. I don’t know whether this particular car, which I believe was imported here new around 25 years ago, was a specially-made “Japan edition,” or was just born lucky, or whether Yanase, the importer, gave the car a thorough once-over prior to delivery, so that panel gaps would look more presentable. But the pictures do it justice – this Corvette looked pretty much perfect. Solid, even.
That is partially what compelled me to stop and photograph this C4 pretty extensively. I’m sure this particular example’s impeccable presentation counts for a lot, but also Corvettes are relatively uncommon in this neck of the woods. If I were living in a place where shoddy and unkempt C4s were a dime a dozen, the thought of rehabilitating these would probably not have occurred. But these are downright exotic here: you see more Maseratis, Benz SLs and Jags than Corvettes in Japan. So they do stand out, especially in this colour!
Maybe it takes an outsider to notice certain things. But yes, North American CC readers, these late-model C4s should warrant your attention. They will become rare one day. If current valuation and attrition trends continue, even the non-Grand Sport and non-ZR1 plain vanilla automatic coupes like this one will be worth a lot by the end of this decade. Soulless though it may be, the C4 may not be worthless for much longer.
CC Capsule: 1988 Chevrolet Corvette – Let’s Get Physical. by Joseph Dennis
Cohort Classic: The Corvette C4 ZR-1 Convertible, by Geraldo Solis
CC Outtake: Bright Aqua Metallic Always Beats Resale Red, by Tom Klockau
Ten Days, Ten Corvettes: Day 4, C4, by David Devereaux