The C5 was a major change from the previous generation. Designed from the outset as a sturdy convertible (as opposed to a coupé that was subsequently weakened by the removal of the roof structure in order to accommodate demand for a convertible model), the car now had a hydroformed box frame. The transmission was moved to the rear of the car to form an integrated, rear-mounted transaxle assembly which was connected to the all-new LS1 engine via a torque tube; this engine/transmission arrangement helped facilitate a desirable 50-50 (percentage, front-rear) weight distribution for the vehicle. The LS1 engine initially produced 345 hp (257 kW), but that was increased slightly in 2001 to 350 hp (261 kW). The 4L60-E automatic transmission carried on from previous models, but the manual was replaced by a Borg-Warner T-56 6-speed that is capable of propelling the C5 to a top speed of 186 mph (299 km/h). Gone were the squeaks and rattles of the C4, replaced by a stronger frame that would last for at least two more generations. By all measures, the new C5 was better in every aspect than the C4 it replaced.
The styling of the C5 was also a departure from the trend set by the previous-generation Corvette. Whereas the styling of the C4 had largely been a simplification of the C3 hatchback design, straightening out the complex curves of the car to give it sleeker lines, the C5 reversed that somewhat. The vehicle now had a more rounded and graceful appearance that helped to recapture some of the aggressive looks of the C3 without compromising aerodynamics.
In the inaugural model year (1997), only the hatchback coupé was offered, with the convertible — the first to offer a trunk since 1962 — following in 1998. 1998 also saw the C5 convertible pacing the Indianapolis 500, and a replica pace car edition was sold; C5 Corvettes subsequently paced the 2002 and 2004 Indianapolis 500 races, but no replica pace car versions were offered during those model years. In 1999, a third body style, the hardtop (also referred to as the “fixed-roof coupé” or “FRC”), was added to the lineup. This body style, as its name suggests, featured a fixed top (no removable targa top panel as with the hatchback coupé) with a roofline shape and trunk space similar to that of the convertible. The hardtop became the top-performance Z06 in 2001, but for two model years was offered as a variant of the base-model Corvette.
Aside from cosmetic differences (new wheel styles, paint colors, pace car/commemorative editions in 1998, 2003, and 2004, etc.), horsepower boosts, and new offerings for optional equipment, there were few fundamental changes from one model year to the next within the production run of the C5. One of the more popular “high-tech” options introduced to the Corvette line was a head-up display or HUD, while another innovation was the Active Handling System (first available as an option in 1998, then standard on all models in 2001). The C5 was also the first Corvette to incorporate a drive-by-wire throttle; and variable-effort steering, whereby the assist level of the power steering is varied according to vehicle speed (more at lower speeds, less at higher speeds).
In contrast to the reputation of high-performance vehicles for poor fuel economy, the C5 achieves comparatively high EPA ratings of 18/25 mpg (city/highway) with the automatic transmission and 19/28 with the manual transmission, allowing it to avoid the “gas guzzler” tax that is levied against most other vehicles in the Corvette’s class. A number of factors are responsible for this: the relatively light weight of the C5 (a curb weight under 3,300 lb (1,500 kg); Chevrolet went so far as to omit the spare tire as a weight-saving measure, relying upon run-flat tires instead); the C5’s low drag coefficient; and the vehicle’s tendency to upshift into the higher gears as soon as possible. The manual transmission’s Computer-Aided Gear Shifting results in an obligatory shift from 1st gear directly into 4th gear under certain driving conditions; the system can be inhibited through the use of an aftermarket device.
Suspension choices for the base model C5 were limited to the standard suspension (RPO FE1), with options for either the autocross-inspired FE3 Sport Suspension (included with the Z51 Performance & Handling Package and standard on the 1999-2000 FRC); or the F45 Selective Ride Control Suspension, which permitted “on-the-fly” driver selection of different ride characteristics (sport or touring). Late in the production run (starting with the 2003 model year), the F55 Magnetic Selective Ride Control Suspension replaced the F45 as the third suspension choice. The racing-inspired FE4 suspension used for the Z06 is stiffer again than any offered on the base model C5, and is unique to that model with no optional suspensions offered.
A composite of published performance numbers for the base-model coupé and convertible gives a 0-60 mph time of around 4.7 seconds, and a standing quarter-mile time of around 13.2 seconds at 109 mph (both times for a vehicle equipped with the 6-speed manual transmission).
Although sometimes criticized for its arguably liberal use of light-weight materials (e.g., plastics, plywood, etc. in areas such as interior trim components and floor pans), overhead valve engine, and leaf springs, all of which were often (and perhaps unfairly) interpreted as “cheap-and-easy” substitutes for higher-quality materials or more sophisticated designs, the C5 quickly became regarded as the best performance vehicle available for the price. In some cases, the C5 provided performance equal to, or better than, vehicles approaching 2-3 times its sticker price, which buyers of the C5 viewed as an acceptable trade-off for these “lower-cost” compromises.