B. Grant Whitmore, Contributor
Geo redesigned the Prizm for 1998. Wait, thats not exactly right. General Motors dropped the Geo nameplate and blended all of its models into Chevrolet this year. OK, lets start over. Chevrolet redesigned the Prizm for 1998. No, thats not right either. The Prizm is hardly a Chevrolet product; in fact, it is little more than a rebadged Toyota Corolla. How about this? Toyota redesigned the Corolla this year, which you can purchase at Chevrolet dealerships under the Prizm name. Thats good; I like that.
Name and origin notwithstanding, a badge-engineered Toyota Corolla has been part of the General Motorss lineup since 1986 when the Chevrolet Nova was reintroduced as an economy sedan and hatchback. In 1989, General Motors decided to spin its foreign cars into a single division that would appeal to import buyers. The Geo nameplate was born and products normally seen at Suzuki, Toyota and Isuzu lots were suddenly being sold alongside Cavaliers, Blazers and Corsicas. For some reason GM executives decided that the Geo nameplate had fulfilled its purpose and was no longer useful. As a result, they dropped it at the end of the 1997 model year.
This nameplate drop serendipitously occurred with the aforementioned redesign of the Prizm. As such, it allowed Chevrolet to offer a new and different Prizm from the one being sold last year. Although the Prizm has never sold as well as the Corolla, it has always been viewed by savvy shoppers as the easiest route to solid and reliable transportation.
Our test Prizm was an LSi model equipped with loads of goodies including side-impact airbags, automatic transmission, antilock brakes a handling package, power windows and locks, cruise control and a stereo with CD player. Despite this, I was unable to get excited about the Prizm. Maybe it was the sandy brown color that blended too well with all of the dead winter lawns in my neighborhood. Maybe it was the hideous discount rack wheel covers that assaulted the tires of the Prizm. Maybe, just maybe, the transformation from Geo to Chevrolet robbed the Prizm of some of its greatness; a little of the uniqueness that set it apart from the other compact sedans it competes against.
One area that wasnt screwed up was the powertrain. GM dumped the 1.6-liter engine with the redesign, deciding to power all Prizms with a 1.8-liter 120-horsepower four-cylinder motor. The result is a peppy car that accelerates quickly and has plenty of power for passing slow movers on the freeway. Gas mileage doesn't suffer with this larger engine; the Prizm is capable of achieving 28 mpg in the city and 36 mpg on the highway, even when saddled with an automatic transmission.
The interior of the new Prizm is nice for the compact class, but somewhat lacking when compared to the model that preceded it. All of the controls in the Prizm are well positioned and easy to use. Likewise, the interior upholstery and dashboard materials are upscale. The missing component seems to be the Lexus-like isolation from wind, engine and road noise that the previous model enjoyed. The engine in our test car seemed buzzier than it should, and the tires roared like lions across most road surfaces. I cant help but think that some of these problems with noise arose as a result of the cost-cutting measures that make the current Prizm less expensive than the 1997 model.
Although we were disappointed by the Prizms high noise, vibration,and harshness levels, it was nothing compared to the loss we felt when first trying to hustle the new Prizm along a twisty road. Last years model wouldnt be confused with a Miata, but it was certainly more fun than its sedate sheetmetal suggested. The driving experience in the new Prizm can be described in one word: boring. The suspension does not do an adequate job of smoothing over irregularities in the road, transferring much of the shock of an unseen pothole directly to the drivers derriere. The steering is plagued by severe kickback that threatens to jolt the steering wheel out of the hands of drivers who hold it with less than a vice-like grip. These are problems that we could get over if there was anything about the Prizm that endeared itself to our enthusiast nature. Unfortunately there is not. The steering is numb and slow, the suspension allows too much understeer, and, although the brakes are firm and offer decent feel, they lose their effectiveness under hard braking, while the tires give up too quickly. The scary thing is that we formulated these opinions of the Prizm driving experience while testing a model equipped with the handling package. Imagine if we had gotten a base model without the front anti-roll bar and more aggressive tires? Yikes.
Although the Prizm isnt the most exciting compact on the market, it has become one of the safest. Our test car came to us sporting optional side-impact airbags, making the Prizm and the Toyota some of the cheapest sedans in the country with this level of safety technology. The Prizm also has standard depowered front airbags and optional antilock brakes. Traction control is missing from the standard equipment list and option roster, but we didnt have much difficulty controlling this front-wheel drive car on snow-covered roads during an early spring snowstorm.
The Chevrolet Prizm is a solid entrant in the crowded compact car market. Unfortunately, the current generation is a bit staid. The Prizm is also rather expensive, costing more than the powerful Ford Contour SE V6, the fun Volkswagen Jetta GLS and the peppy Mazda Protege ES. Each of these cars represents a great value and an even greater personality. Is it worth giving up the Prizms outstanding reliability record? Thats for you to decide. We know, however, that if we were in the market for a small sedan wed be heading to a Mazda, Volkswagen or Ford dealership for a little excitement.
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