Today, and for most of its production run, the Corvette has been primarily known as two things above all else: the bane of expensive European exotica, and the champion of old-school technology. Even now, the Corvette still catches flak from Euro-snobs for its "pushrod" small-block engine and "buggy cart" rear leaf springs. In the early 1990s, GM experimented with the "if you can't beat 'em, join 'em" philosophy with the LT5-equipped ZR-1. But, in 1996, GM took a deep breath on the last of the C4 Corvettes, and put traditional pushrod power back at the front of the pack with its new LT4 engine.
The entire automotive industry turned a sharp corner toward this century in 1996, and that was especially true for the Corvette. This model year marked an interesting transition point for the badge: it was the last for the C4 generation of cars, and the only year of that generation to carry the last and greatest of the old-school small-blocks. Got all that? Customers at the time didn't either. In 1996, many were too busy either lamenting the loss of the exotic ZR-1, with its DOHC, Lotus-engineered LT5 engine, or looking forward to the all-new LS engine due out in 1998. Of course, the previous ZR-1 was a legit hypercar; but at $110,000 to $180,000 in today's money, it also had a hypercar price tag. The LS was due to mark a return to pushrod prominence, but the old-school small-block wasn't going out without one last victory lap in the form of the LT4 used in C4-generation Grand Sport models.
For the last year of the C4 chassis, GM introduced the LT4 engine, a high-performance version of the LT1 in the former base Corvette. This LT4 also found its way into the engine bays of some of the fastest and rarest F-bodies ever produced, including the Firebird Firehawk and Camaro SLP. The LT4 in Grand Sport Corvettes used a more aggressive cam, 1.6-to-1 ratio rockers, a bespoke intake and new exhaust -- all standard hot-rodding tricks. Less so were its new aluminum cylinder heads, which used 2.00- and 1.55-inch valves and raised ports, and had a bit of extra material above the ports to allow for aftermarket port-matching. These heads and the reverse-flow cooling system that prioritized them allowed for a fairly high 10.8-to-1 compression ratio. All of this added up to 330 horsepower at 5,800 rpm, 340 foot-pounds of torque at 4,500 rpm and a 6,300-rpm redline. This engine was coupled to a German ZF six-speed manual, as had been the ZR-1 before it.
All the usual C4 bits applied to this car, "transverse monoleaf" springs front and rear included. These springs were one-piece composite strips running from one side of the car to the other, serving effectively as both the spring and an anti-roll bar. Otherwise, the front suspension used unequal-length control arms that helped to better control camber in cornering, and the rear used a five-link independent setup. It's worth noting that this was the last year the Corvette used a regular transmission, going to a rear-mounted transaxle for the C5 generation. Both coupes and convertibles measured 178.5 inches long, 70.7 inches wide and 46.3 inches tall, and had a 96.2-inch wheelbase with 57.7-inch front and 59.1-inch rear tracks. Coupes weighed in at about 3,298 pounds, while convertibles, with their extra reinforcement, were about 62 pounds heavier. All used 13-inch front and 12-inch rear ABS disc brakes. Standard Corvettes used P255/45ZR-17 front and P285/40ZR-17 rear tires, while LT4 Grand Sport models used wider P275/40ZR17 front and massive P315.35ZR-17 rear tires.
The LT4 Grand Sport could hit 60 mph in about 5.2 seconds and run the quarter in 13.7 seconds at 105.1 mph -- that acceleration is right on par with a 1996 Nissan Skyline GT-R, 1997 Acura NSX-T and -- interestingly -- a 1993 Corvette ZR-1. It would also just outrun a 2004 Harley Sportster 1200, if the mood ever takes you. It would stop from 60 mph in 121 feet and 218 feet from 80 mph, slightly quicker than a new Z06 and again, about on par with a contemporary Acura NSX. Its 0.88G of lateral acceleration on the 200-foot skidpad and 62.6 mph through the slalom weren't bad by contemporary standards, but a 2006 Dodge Charger or 2007 Acura MDX would match its speed through the slalom cones, and any number of modern economy cars will pull more than 0.88G on the skidpad. However, the LT4's 17 city and 25 highway figures are probably a bit conservative, as properly driven C4 Vettes are known to exceed 35 mpg in the real world.
The 1996 LT4 Corvette was neither fish nor fowl, but a middle child caught in the years between ZR-1 supercar and LS engine manias -- but it's this very status that endears it to so many owners and collectors. In 2014, about $20,000 will get you a decent driver, and upward of $50,000 will buy you an utterly pristine and low-mile convertible. Average price hovers around $30,000 to $35,000, depending on options and condition. That's a massive chunk more than an LS-powered Corvette C5, which starts at about $12,500 currently, and it's easily in basic ZR-1 territory. However, on the high end, a pristine ZR-1 is about $25,000 more than a similar-condition LT4 Corvette. The LT4 Corvette was an odd duck in Corvette history, which adds all the more to its collector value. The fact that it was the last C4, with the last of the old-school small-blocks -- that much is priceless.