Out of all seven decades of Corvette production, the winner of our Best Corvette of the 1990s was by far the easiest one to select. It could be argued that the best Corvette of the ’90s is the most significant ‘Vette in history. It was the car that brought pride and relevance back to the American performance category and, even today, its engine remains one of the most advanced mills to ever turn the rear tires of the sports car that we are all obsessed with. We are, of course, referring to the “King of the Hill,” “The Corvette from Hell,” the C4 ZR-1, our ultimate ‘Vette of the 1990s.
When the ZR-1 showed up on the scene in 1990 with 375 Horsepower from its Lotus designed-Mercury Marine built DOHC 32v LT5 V8, the top of the line Mustang could only muster 225 HP from its 5.0, the final rendition of the IROC-Z Camaro was only pushing 245 HP, and the all-new 964 generation 911 Turbo made 320 laggy ponies. The ZR-1 was an absolute monster! It was capable of reaching 60 mph in 4 and a half seconds, 100 in 10.4 seconds, and covering 1,320 feet in around 13 seconds on its way to a ridiculous top speed of 175 mph, all while delivering world-class handling and stopping that had been unheard of the last time that a ‘Vette put down even close to those kinds of power and acceleration numbers. In fact, the 3,680 lb. super ‘Vette’s cornering and stopping numbers could embarrass even the most exotic vehicles of the time like the Ferrari Testarossa and Lamborghini Countach. Per Road & Track, the 1990 ZR-1 could do .94g on the skidpad which was the best they had ever tested “bar none”, and the same goes for its stopping distance of 132 feet from 60 mph.
As incredible as the ZR-1 was though, it did have two fatal flaws that caused Chevrolet to pull the plug on their supercar in the penultimate year of C4 production. The first and most important one of these chinks in the armor was the price. The MSRP of a base C4 had already ballooned $10,000 between its introduction in ’84 (MSRP of $21,800 (about $52,000 when adjusted for inflation) and 1990 to a staggering $31,979 (a bit over $61,000 with inflation). On top of this unprecedented upmarket hike that the ‘Vette had taken, the ZR-1 essentially doubled the price of a coupe. The ZR-1 package added $27,016.00 for an eyewatering price of about $60k. Adding to the unattainable nature of this new beast was enthusiasm-driven dealership markups that saw several early examples of the King of the Hill trade hands for well over $100,000.
The second detriment to sales (especially after 1991) was the lack of differentiation in looks between the ZR-1 and its lesser brethren. Many people had a hard time forking over twice the money for a car that looked exactly like (maybe even less prestigious than) the droptop ‘Vette that their neighbor just picked up in an attempt to impress the ladies after his divorce.
For real enthusiasts though, the ZR-1 was worth every penny and it was the extraordinary engineering under the skin that truly mattered.
A total of 6,922 of these supercar slayers left the factory at Bowling Green. A 1993 update bumped power to 405 HP and the 1,344 units that got the upgraded engine remain the most desirable to this day. The good news is that you can still get an excellent specimen for under $40,000, go get one before they start to creep back to their original prices and beyond!
Check out all of our Best Corvettes of Each Decade features:
- The Best Corvettes of the 1950s: No.3 – The 1953 Corvette
- The Best Corvettes of the 1950s: No.2 – The 1959 Corvette
- The Best Corvettes of the 1950s: No.1 – The 1957 Corvette
- The Best Corvettes of the 1960s: No.3 – The 1965 Corvette
- The Best Corvettes of the 1960s: No.2 – The 1963 Corvette
- The Best Corvettes of the 1960s: No.1 – The 1967 Corvette
- The Best Corvettes of the 1970s: No.3 – The 1978 Corvette
- The Best Corvettes of the 1970s: No.2 – The 1970 Corvette
- The Best Corvettes of the 1970s: No.1 – The 1971 Corvette
- The Best Corvettes of the 1980s: No.3 – The 1982 Corvette
- The Best Corvettes of the 1980s: No.2 – The 1986 Corvette
- The Best Corvettes of the 1980s: No.1 – The 1984 Corvette
- The Best Corvettes of the 1990s: No.3 – The 1996 LT4 Corvette
- The Best Corvettes of the 1990s: No.2 – The 1999 Corvette FRC
- The Best Corvettes of the 1990s: No.1 – The C4 Corvette ZR-1
- The Best Corvettes of the 2000s: No.3 – The C5 Corvette Z06
- The Best Corvettes of the 2000s: No.2 – The C6 Corvette Z06
- The Best Corvettes of the 2000s: No.1 – 2009 Corvette ZR1
- The Best Corvettes of the 2010s: No.3 – The C7’s Z07 Ultimate Performance Package
- The Best Corvettes of the 2010s: No.2 – The C6’s Z07 Ultimate Performance Package
- The Best Corvettes of the 2010s: No.1 – The 2019 Corvette ZR1