Car Culture & Entertainment / News & Car Culture

The Top 10 American Performance Engines of the Last 30 Years (#3): Chevy LT5

Editor’s note: The 1980s was a transition period for engine technology in America. The iconic carburetor gave way to fuel injection. Cubic inches were out, and liter designations marked a new era for engines — one when power and fuel economy were no longer mutually exclusive. This modern engine age has featured some of the best innovation, technology, and performance yet.

So what have been the best powerplants of these last 30 years? We asked you to help us answer that very question via Facebook and Instagram. Factoring in your votes and comments, we’ll unveil the rest of the Top 10 in the coming days.

#3 — Chevy LT5


The Chevy LT5 engine burst onto the scene in 1990.

And then, just like that, it was gone.
The Chevrolet LT5 left quite an impression in its short six-year lifespan from 1990-95. While it didn’t create an entire movement like the Ford 5.0L or Cummins diesel, it does hold a special place in the hearts of Corvette aficionados. Created just for the Corvette ZR-1 supercar in 1990, the LT5 was powerful for its time — 50 percent more powerful than the base Corvette. The original LT5 produced 375 horsepower, but power was bumped up to 405 horses by 1993.
Power wasn’t the only thing unique about the LT5

A Little Bit Different

Produced in conjunction with Lotus Engineering, the 5.7L LT5 was unique from any other 350 small block produced by Chevrolet. It was all aluminum. It featured a 32-valve, dual overhead cam configuration rather than Chevy’s typical 16-valve design. Even the bore and stroke were slightly different than the traditional small block setup.
You can see the complete specs at
The Chevy LT5 was hand-built for Mercury Marine in Stillwater, OK, making it the ultimate specialty engine. Only 6,369 engines were made for the rare Corvette ZR-1, but the LT5 also found its way to a few Corvette concepts, race cars, and even a limited run of the Lotus Elise GT1.

The LT5 played a huge role in bridging the gap between old and new at General Motors. Even though it went out of production in 1995, the LT5 helped pave the way for future engines. The dual overhead cam Northstar V8, for example, was patterned after the LT5 in many ways. GM also used its experience with the all-alloy LT5 and applied it to a whole new series of lightweight aluminum engines: the LS.

A Lot of Fun

The LT5 delivered power numbers on par with the later Gen. III LS6. Originally rated at 375 horsepower, later LT5s would top out at over 400 hp and propel the ZR-1 to 180 miles-per-hour. Quarter-mile times were into the 12s at 110 mph, but the LT5’s biggest accomplishment was setting a 24-hour endurance speed average of 175.8 mph.

While few could argue with the ZR-1’s performance, its price tag placed it out of reach for many consumers. Moreover, cars like the Dodge Viper, Acura NSX, and others fought for customer demand. The LT5 played a role in its own demise, too, as technology developed for the engine was used to created the less expensive LT1 (Gen. II) small block. Although the LT1 made less power than the LT5, it narrowed the performance gap between the base Corvette and ZR-1.

The LT5 was discontinued after 1995, but not before GM engineers learned valuable lessons to apply to future engines. And not before ZR-1 owners had a lot of fun.

LT5 Modifications

If you’re lucky enough to own an LT5, here are a few commonly sold parts to help you keep it running strong:

You can see the current list of our Top Engines of the Last 30 Years here.

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  1. Dave,
    Thanks for writing this. As a board member of the ZR-1 Registry it’s gratifying to see the LT-5 and the C4 ZR-1 finally being given some recognition for the fantastic motor and car that it was and still is.
    We have a vibrant community of dedicated ZR-1 owners that truly love how the LT-5 continues to perform even 25years after its introduction. With varying levels of modification, we have examples of stock block LT-5s developing 700chp NA. Stock displacement motors developing 530-560chp. Talk about a fun car to drive. Incredibly affordable and frankly way under appreciated. At the Registry we are working to change that. The C4 ZR-1 remains absolutely relevant and competitive on the street today. All except the real cognoscenti won’t realize the Vette that just blew by them
    was a KOTH. Our motto is “Life begins at 180mph”


  2. Nothing not to love. Not only exotic and hand made, it made power unlike anything mass produced in 1990. It took a labor of love from many individuals to make this engine come to fruition. It was way ahead of its time and broke a 50 year speed record that other automotive giants, porsche, audi, vw and ford could not do even with custom made cars. No other engine has ever done that. None… cheers to Lotus, Mercury Marine and GM for there vision and the people who are the gate keepers in the zr1netregistry… they keep the KOTH alive.


  3. Being a member of the ZR-1netregistry, I can’t thank you enough for this article!! I recently bought a 1991 ZR-1 and the legend of the LT5, it’s all true….It truly is a forgotten engine, that just pulls like a freight train all the way up to 7500RPM. I swear the engine idles smoother than my 2008 Honda Civic.
    I have to echo Dominics’ comments above. Those who have driven or rode along in a C4 ZR-1, know how special and rare these cars are. With a incredible community of fellow ZR-1 owners, it wasn’t a hard choice to buy up one of these legends. Best car I have EVER owned, end of story…..

  4. Phil Wasinger says:

    The LT5 was the result of a great international collaboration between engineers, suppliers, and manufacturers from Europe and North America under the superb leadership of David McLellan, Corvette chief engineer at the time. The LT5 showcased what could be achieved with modern technology in terms of refined high-performance while easily meeting mandated environmental limits and fuel efficiency goals required at the time. It’s quality of design and construction is as good as you will find with any of the other limited production exotic automobile engines produced during the same time period or even today. I’ve been around engines since I was a kid and working on the LT5 is a gratifying experience like no other engine I’ve ever come across. Fortunately the ZR-1 LT5 community has some great dedicated shops and suppliers out there who continue to support this engine with essential parts and technical knowhow to keep this engine viable and on the road for many years to come.

  5. A mass produced Chevy small block Hemi 350 with four cams and 32 valves. It doesn’t get much cooler than that. Even though it doubled the purchase price of a standard Corvette, it was America’s first real 200 MPH super car and a lot of them were sold. There are plenty still around, too, but they are subtle. It takes a sharp eye to notice the wider rear fenders needed for the fat tires.

  6. “It’s a Corvette, only more so…”
    Dave McLellan, Corvette Chief Engineer

  7. Tom Mattera says:

    Sometimes it is hard to really describe the ZR-1 and the LT5 engine, even if you already own any Corvette including the ZR-1. It is a “feeling” that you have to experience first hand. And by that I mean driving or riding in a ZR-1. You can say whatever you want about the LT5, but until you get your first ride or first drive with one, then and only then IMO will you get to understand the unique mystic of the LT5 and the raw power that it possesses.

  8. I applaud you giving recognition to the LT5. It was a bright moment in the 80’s in development and hit the scene in 1990 giving everybody hope with the Corvette. In then spurred the GM engineers to get off their lazy butts and start developing better engines. The LT1/4 followed with 300 and 330 hp respectively, The LS series followed after that borrowing a lot of the LT5 architecture for the lower block.

    What is the sad realization is that these cars are a pain in the butt. When I owned mine, going to the Chevy dealership was always an adventure. Techs would always overfill on oil, because they didn’t want to wait the required time frame to allow enough oil to drain. Parts were already becoming hard to source and usually required a SPAC case to acquire through the dealer network.

    What is even more troubling is that the current club (3rd or 4th iteration) hosts regional maintenance days to keep these things on the road. I buy my cars to drive, not to have sitting around in the garage waiting on parts from the 2 to 3 suppliers that are out there.

    I’m happy to say I owned a ZR-1, I’m even happier to say I sold it when the prices were still in the sellers favor.

  9. Brian, Happy motoring!

  10. OnAllCylinders says:

    Thanks for your input, everyone! Very good insights here.

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