5 Reasons the C5 Chevrolet Corvette Is the Ultimate Budget Track Car
Ask almost any automotive enthusiast what the best bang-for-the-buck is when it comes to a budget-friendly track car, and the answer will almost inevitably be "Miata." There are good reasons for the Mazda roadster's cult status among road course and autocross fans, as it's cheap, reliable and offers an incredibly balanced chassis that responds well to modifications.
Time has a way of changing the conversation about almost anything, however, and the chatter in the paddock is no exception. The earliest Miatas are now 30 years old, and while there's a healthy stock of replacement examples out there for track hounds, there are also a number of potential challengers to the MX-5's crown that have aged into that sweet spot between depreciation and decrepitude.
Of these, none is more compelling than the C5-generation Chevrolet Corvette. Built between 1997 and 2004, the C5 was a huge leap forward for Chevy's flagship sports car in terms of performance, technology and practicality. Unusually, these advancements didn't come with a concomitant cost in terms of maintenance, giving the Corvette the ability to challenge exotics in both the corners and in a straight line without tagging in overly complex, prone to failure features and systems.
The C5 Corvette is on a completely different competitive level than the Miata, and while its bulk might make it less like a glove the driver slips their hand into and more like a boxing mitt at times, the lap times don't lie: This is a fun and fast high performance driving event option.
Let's take a look at 5 reasons why the C5 Corvette is poised to usurp the Miata as the ultimate budget track day car.
1. 4 Different Models to Choose From
There are three primary C5 Corvette models you'll find at any given race track, plus one outlier that we're mentioning only out of politeness.
First off is the Z06, which was offered from 2001-2004 (albeit with reduced engine output its first year). This is the most powerful C5 Vette money can buy, and it also includes a number of lightweight components (exhaust, glass, rims, reduced insulation) that chop nearly 40 lbs from its curb weight (just under 3,200 lbs) as compared to a base Corvette. Further sweetening the pot are brake ducts and a stiffer FE4 suspension setup, as well as a larger wheels and tires. It was the first Vette in a very long time to have been conceived as a showroom-ready track star, in contrast to the supercar-baiting personality of the C4 ZR1.
Next, there's the FRC, which adopts the same "fixed roof coupe" design as the Z06 but forgoes the additional go-fast goodies. It was offered from 99-00 and came standard with upgraded FE3 suspension. The most common C5 is the standard hatch, which loses some structural rigidity compared to the coupes thanks to its removable Targa top, but is otherwise identical to the FRC (although FE3 is an option on these cars). A magnetic suspension system with driver-selectable stiffness was also offered in 2003 and 2004.
There's also the convertible, but it's not anyone's first choice here as it doesn't offer the same level of safety or aero to be worth picking up exclusively as a track-day toy.
2. LS Power Is Real
All versions of Chevrolet's C5 Corvette are motivated by an LS engine, with the 5.7L LS1 pulling duty everywhere but the Z06, which was outfitted with an LS6 (also displacing 5.7 liters). These pushrod V8s are exceptionally reliable and capable of withstanding a pounding, and don't suffer from the same oiling issues that would plague the LS3 in the later C6-generation cars.
Stock power ranges from 1997's 345hp and 350 lb-ft of torque (with an extra 5hp appearing a year later) to the 385hp and 385 lb-ft of torque found in the 2001 Z06 (again, jumping by 20hp and 15 lb-ft for 2002). The latter LS6 revs higher than the LS1 thanks to its improved valvetrain, which makes it that much more engaging at the limit. A six-speed manual gearbox can be had with either engine and is a better choice than the lackluster automatic.
At the time, these were giant-killing numbers, and while the C5 might be outclassed by more modern hardware in a straight line, its lightweight design and excellent balance make it phenomenal at applying power on corner exit. Driven well, the C5 Z06 especially is still slaying cars costing many multiples of its purchase price on a road course.
3. Enormous Aftermarket
Not satisfied with 400hp? Fear not: 500hp is just a cam, intake and header swap way. The LS is one of the best-supported family of engines of the past 50 years, with go-fast parts ranging from entry-level to esoteric, ready to walk you up the ladder to however fast you feel you need your C5 to go. Additional cooling for the transmission, differential and engine are recommended regardless of what power you're putting down.
Controlling all of that output is also made easier via the universe of suspension improvements available to the car. Stock shocks and springs are going to be fine for occasional track use, especially if the Corvette is already sitting on a factory-uprated setup. Coilover kits, lowering springs, adjustable and non-adjustable swaybars, polyurethane bushings and bigger brakes are all popular additions to the C5 formula. There is at least as much vendor support for the Corvette as there is for the Miata or other popular platforms like the Ford Mustang.
4. It's Safe
This might seem like a minor point, but hear us out. Park a Miata beside a C5 Corvette, and there are two things you'll immediately notice:
- The Chevrolet is much, much larger.
- The C5 has a roof (we're pretending the 'verts don't exist, remember?).
Consider both of these differences carefully. The Miata is a tiny, open car with no passenger protection other than a roll bar should things turn tragic on a race track (that lift-off factory hardtop isn't going to offer much protection from any serious impact). The Corvette, on the other hand, offers large crumple zones front and rear, a stronger overall safety cage around the cockpit and an actual roof (stronger on the coupes versus the hatchbacks, but still).
You can invest in additional safety gear such as seats, harnesses and door bars for both vehicles, but stock-for-stock, a C5 is going to do a better job of protecting you in an on-track incident than a Miata would. Of course, there's also the argument that most Corvette offs occur at a higher rate of speed than they would in a Mazda, but the"'Vette is safer" argument holds true at almost any comparable velocity.
5. Prices Have Fully Depreciated
A daily-driver base model C5 Corvette with carelessly-maintained cosmetics can be snagged for between $8,000 and $10,000. The newer you go, the more you'll spend, but nice examples are in the mid-teens, with appealing Z06 examples falling into the $15-$20k range.
That's an astonishingly small amount of money for the whopping portion of performance that the C5 delivers. It's hard to think of a previous sports car with the power and handling prowess of this generation Corvette being available at such a reasonable cost. Even throwing in another $5,000 in potential upgrades (suspension, cooling, tires) still won't break the bank.
One final point to consider: Miata prices are on the rise as clean NAs disappear and NB stockpiles start to get used up. It's not unreasonable to pay $10k for a good NC generation MX-5. While the Mazda is undoubtedly the better learning tool for novice drivers, in more experienced hands a stock C5 will obliterate a stock NC on the right ribbon of asphalt.
Not all is perfect in C5-land. Any 3,000 pound car with V8 power and torque is going to eat through consumables at a much higher rate than a lightweight like the Mazda Miata. That means you'll be replacing things like brake pads, brake rotors, calipers and tires more often during the season. You'll also need to stay on top of oil, coolant and brake fluid changes due to the heat generated by the vehicle.
More regular maintenance will add to your costs, but you'll also be spending more on each of these components due to their size. Bigger tires and larger brakes come with a higher cost, and oil changes will set you back, too, when you're dumping that much more synthetic into your motor.