Design Analysis: Chevrolet Corvette C5 (1997-2004)

January 11, 2013—Building upon the C4’s successful reassertion of the brand, the C5 sought to bring back some of the extroverted character present in older ‘Vettes while maintaining the fourth-gen’s aerodynamic efficiency. Additionally, the 1990’s saw a resurgence of organic design themes, central to the C5.

High-tech was out as a form language and people desired vehicles and objects that referenced their design history. This era saw the birth of the retro-futurist movement. The Dodge Viper was conceived along these lines and represented a new threat to the Corvette. While the Viper was produced in much smaller numbers it was touted as the spiritual descendant of the Shelby Cobra. It was loud, mean, rough and didn’t care a bit about the Corvette’s refinement.

1997 Chevy Corvette

1997 Chevrolet Corvette (photo: © General Motors)

Chevy’s designers didn’t want to revert back to the C3’s cartoonish styling to out-macho the Viper, but had to turn up the attitude. The result was a failure. While the proportions of the new ‘Vette were still good, its dimensions expanded in every direction. Moreover, it lost the beltline that had been present since 1963 and tried to make do with a resurrected side-cove and meandering fenders as a theme.

The C5 certainly has a wide stance, but it looks bloated rather than purposeful due to the visual weight at the front and rear. The front end melts into the ground through paunchy, lazy volumes. The brake ducts, vents and lights cause the front lip to look like it has inconsistent radii along its bottom, which only contributes to the overall lack of visual control. Moving back along the sides, the fourth-gen is broken into two surfaces below the beltline, but the C5 has no clear beltline and appears more like the section of a pudgy, dented cylinder liquefying into the earth.

C5 vette

1997 Chevrolet Corvette (photo: © General Motors)

Looks don’t improve out back where the mass looks simple and unrefined. The severe taper of the backlight compared to the body further emphasizes the bulk. While this was probably a concession to airflow management, Wide Open would trade ten miles-per-hour or one mile-per-gallon for a more dynamic look (perhaps they could have added two more cylinders? Ahem, Viper).

The C5 was the first Corvette to be digitally modeled from scratch. The lack of maturity in the digital modeling shows and should have been fixed in clay. Nevertheless, all design is a compromise; otherwise we’d all be driving [insert supercar here]. And balancing aerodynamics, design heritage, styling inspiration and packaging (mechanicals, occupants, safety considerations…) is no easy task. Sadly, it seems there were too many concessions for the designers to overcome. [kiWO]