Every gearhead wants to drive something unique. We yearn for the thrill of g-sled acceleration, the feel of cornering as though on rails, and styling that makes you the envy of everyone at Cars and Coffee. This usually means an exotic or nearly exotic car. The thrill of being shoved back in your seat, hearing the wail of a high performance engine, as the scenery outside your window blurs, as you watch the speedometer tell you you’re approaching warp speed, it’s an experience few others eclipse. The problem, for most of us, is that exotic car experience is usually accompanied by a hefty price tag, and that job working at Uncle Plucky’s House of Chicken hasn’t impressed your loan officer enough to finance a new Aventador. So, how do the true car geeks among us scratch that itch to go fast, corner hard, and look cool without selling off our first born? Look for those rare-but-attainable affordable exotics.As the average price for a new car is just over $33,500, I have tried to find exotics with an entry price around $40,000. Compared with the sticker of the 2018 Ford GT (around $450,000), Porsche 911 Turbo ($159,200 base), Ferrari 488 ($245,400), and the Lamborghini Aventador ($399,500), $40k begins to look like an absolute bargain.
Corvette ZR-1 1990-1995
Corvettes have always represented good bang-for-the-buck. In 1990, the American car market was just shaking off the malaise of the mid-seventies to late-eighties era of low horsepower, poor quality, crapbox-on-wheels domestic auto production. Chevrolet needed an explosive halo car, one that could take on the world, a King of the Hill. It found that in the Corvette ZR-1. With an all-aluminum, 32 valve, DOHC V-8 producing 375hp and 370lb-ft. of torque, the ZR-1 could hit 60mph from a dead stop in a scant 4.4 seconds, pushing on to a top speed north of 180mph. The ZR-1 was equipped with wider bodywork from the rear of the doors back, FX3 Active Ride Control, driver and passenger power leather sport seats, low tire pressure warning system, a Delco-Bose 200 watt AM/FM/CD system, and a six-speed manual transmission. The ZR-1 package pushed the sticker price of a Corvette coupe to over $60,000, but many dealers charged premiums that inflated the price beyond $100,000.
Pros: With total production numbering only 6,922, a ZR-1 owner is guaranteed exclusivity. The performance is still very good compared to today’s sports cars. The ZR-1 was proven to be quite robust, setting seven world speed records in March of 1990, including 100 miles, 500 miles, 1,000 miles, 5,000 miles, 12 hours endurance, and 24 hours endurance, all at speeds in excess of 173mph. Service for these rather impressive cars is available at most Chevy dealers. But the most notable item is this: as fourth generation Corvette prices have reached their low ebb, so have ZR-1 prices. It is fairly easy to find a 1990 or 1991 model year in good condition, with low miles, under $25,000. For less than the price of a V-6 Ford Mustang fastback you can have your very own world-class-performance Corvette ZR-1.
Cons: As can happen with exclusive cars of low production numbers, ZR-1 parts can sometimes be tricky and expensive to find. Joining an online forum is helpful. For those who don’t know the difference, the ZR-1 looks like every other fourth generation Corvette coupe. In order to achieve the chassis stiffness needed to cope with the initial 375hp, and later 405hp, the ZR-1 had to be produced as a fixed-roof coupe only. The ‘solar’ windshield was made only for this model, and can be both tough to source and pricey to replace. The interiors of all fourth gen ‘Vettes tend to wear poorly. Because of the high sills and massive transmission tunnel, getting in and out of them is akin to climbing in and out of a canoe.
Verdict: With most parts (aside from some engine components) and service readily available, and at domestic prices, ZR-1 ownership shouldn’t be an overly-expensive proposition. Moreover, current sales prices on low-mile examples that have had good upkeep are well below the price of your average new car. For this rather reasonable admission price, you are rewarded with exceptional performance, a decent degree of comfort and options, and robust powertrain, all wrapped in a package that is due to appreciate in coming years. One could find worse investments.