Remembering The Chevy That Actually Wasn’t A Chevy At All

Back in the 1990s, gas prices were down, and while American manufacturers were thriving with large SUV’s and trucks, the Japanese continued to thrive with smaller, more affordable cars. One of those manufacturers was Toyota, and one of the bestselling import cars of the 1990s was the compact Corolla, which also faced steep competition from its direct competitor, the Honda Civic, but still remained sales king, and went on to become the bestselling car of all time, a title which it retains today. In the 1990s, Chevrolet’s compact car was the Cavalier, which, while popular, could not outsell its Japanese competitors from Honda and Toyota. So what do you do if it’s the 1990s, you’re General Motors (or more specifically, Chevrolet), and are looking to take back the compact car market from the Japanese? You could spend millions of dollars developing an all-new model that’s just as affordable and reliable as the Japanese, or, if you’re Chevrolet, you could ask a Japanese manufacturer, such as Toyota, for help, keeping development (and production) costs down, and still delivering a fuel-efficient and affordable little sedan, such as the E110 Toyota Corolla-based Chevy Prizm.

Our story begins all the way back in 1984, when gas prices were just beginning to decline, and American consumers were just beginning to purchase larger, less fuel-efficient vehicles once again. General Motors (who we will hereinafter refer to as “GM”), and Toyota joined forces to build an all-new American automotive manufacturing facility in sunny Fremont, California, named the New United Motor Manufacturing Incorporated (or “NUMMI”, for short), which would be built on the grounds of GM’s now-shuttered Fremont Assembly Plant. The plant opened in 1984, with production of the Chevy Prizm’s predecessor, the Chevy Nova (not to be confused with the compact muscle car of the 1960s and 1970s), based on the Toyota Corolla. Until its closure in 2010 (and before the plant was sold off to Tesla Motors, who would open the “Tesla Plant” on the site of the old NUMMI plant), the plant went on to produce vehicles such as the Chevy Prizm, Toyota Corolla, Toyota Hilux, Toyota Tacoma, Pontiac Vibe, Toyota Voltz, and Toyota (Corolla) Matrix. However our story today is not about NUMMI, it’s about one product that the plant produced: the Chevy Prizm.

The Chevrolet Prizm first mades it debut for the 1990 model year as a GEO (GM’s defunct “entry-level” car brand), and was based on the Japanese Domestic Market (JDM) Toyota Sprinter (aka the Toyota Corolla Hatchback), modified with the front clip of the Toyota Corolla Sedan, and rebadged as a GEO. The second-generation Prizm, now based directly on the U.S.-market Toyota Corolla (and built alongside it at NUMMI), made its debut for 1993, and the third-generation (and final) Prizm (as well as the first model to be badged as a Chevrolet, following GEO’s demise), made its debut for 1998 along with the all-new Toyota Corolla, and remained in continuous production until its discontinuation in 2002. For the remainder of this article, we’ll be shifting our focus towards the third/final-generation Chevy Prizm model, based on the E110 Toyota Corolla.

The third-generation Chevy Prizm, introduced in 1998, was mechanically identical to the E110 Toyota Corolla, packing its reliable 1.8L Inline Four-Cylinder (I4) gas engine (known internally as the “1ZZ-FE”), producing a healthy 125 horsepower and 125 lb. ft. of torque, and mated to one of two Toyota transmissions: either a three-speed automatic (known as the “MX1”), or a five-speed manual. The Prizm was available in two trim levels: the unnamed “Base”, and the up-level “LSi”. The “Base”, starting at $12,143 (NOTE: all pricing discussed in this article excludes any applicable destination fees or taxes) in 1998, and rising to $14,330 in 2002, included a decent amount of standard equipment, including automatic headlamps and daytime running lamps (DRL’s), color-keyed front and rear bumpers, tinted glass, variable intermittent windshield wipers, power front disc and rear drum brakes (not including ABS), power rack-and-pinion steering, four-wheel independent suspension, a 13.2-gallon fuel tank, air conditioning, a rear trunk lamp, delay entry/exit interior lighting, dual visor vanity mirrors, front and rear carpeted floor mats, dual front SRS airbags, a trip odometer, steel wheels with full plastic wheel covers, a four-speaker A/M-F/M stereo radio, and cloth seat trim. The up-level LSi, starting at $14,714 in 1998, and topping out at $16,395 in 2002, added more luxury and convenience features to the Base trim level, including a four-speaker A/M-F/M stereo radio with cassette player (also including two coaxial front door-mounted speakers), a cruise control, power windows, door locks, and mirrors, a tilt steering wheel, cruise control, keyless entry, a rear window defogger, upgraded “Custom” cloth seat trim, and a trip computer with outside temperature display. The Prizm also offered some additional items not offered on its competitors at the time, such as dual front side-impact SRS airbags, a power sunroof, and an integrated rear child safety (car) seat, making it appeal towards consumers and families looking for a safer, more fuel-efficient, and reliable commuter vehicle. Value-added options included a four-speaker A/M-F/M stereo radio with a single-disc, in-dash CD player (also including two coaxial front door-mounted speakers), and a four-wheel Antilock Braking System (ABS). Prizm buyers could (in 2002) choose from one of seven available exterior paint color options (Black Metallic, Green Metallic, Medium Red Metallic, Cashmere Taupe Metallic, Silver Metallic, Dark Blue-Green Metallic, or White), three fourteen-inch wheel options (two steel wheel options with full plastic wheel covers, or aluminum-alloy wheels), and two interior color options (Dark Charcoal (Gray) or Light Neutral (Beige)).

So this now brings us to the point of why GM and Chevrolet chose to discontinue the Prizm. One of the main reasons would be that Chevrolet already had a compact car (the Cavalier) in their lineup (Pontiac also had the mechanically-identical Sunfire), and sales began to increase, so a third compact car wasn’t needed in the lineup. Also, when GM announced it was discontinuing the Chevy Prizm after the 2002 model year, this freed up room at NUMMI for production of an all-new Corolla-based model, the (Corolla) Matrix, as well as its mechanically-identical twin, the Pontiac Vibe. You could say that the Matrix and Vibe were very successful, with two generations, and over 100,000 examples sold in their first model year alone. At the time of the Prizm’s discontinuation, Toyota had already unveiled the all-new, ninth-generation Corolla (which is known as the E120, and continues to be one of the most popular Corolla models on the road today), so the 2003 Corolla was the “successor” to the Prizm. The Prizm had a good thirteen-year production run (beginning in 1989, and ending in 2002), and was just as successful as the Toyota Corolla that was produced alongside it at NUMMI. Have you ever driven or owned a (GEO) Chevrolet Prizm? What did you think of it? Would you buy a Prizm today? Let us know in the comments down below!

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