Since its introduction in 1990, the Geo Prizm has been popular among those consumers looking for an affordable, modern compact car. The Prizm's redesign in 1993 improved its status, helping it earn numerous product awards. Perhaps even more important to a prospective buyer, the Prizm was at the top of its price category in the J.D. Power and Associates Initial Quality Study, and scored in the top 10 of all models in initial quality, as measured by that same study.
For 1995, the Prizm remains essentially unchanged, adding only fashionable new paint colors, improved interior fabrics and a new wheel-cover design. For its buyers - predominantly value-conscious families with kids - it remains on the shortlist of intelligently designed, high-quality transportation.
Our test model, the upscale LSi sedan, came with a number of features including anti-lock brakes (ABS), a 4-speed automatic transmission, power steering, air conditioning, power door locks/mirrors/windows and cruise control, bringing a base price of around $12,000 up to a more sobering $15,655.
The Prizm is the domestic twin of the Toyota Corolla and shares most of its hardware, including the platform, suspension, mechanics and base engines. Both the Prizm and Corolla are built at the New United Motor Manufacturing, Inc., plant in Fremont, California, a General Motors/Toyota joint venture.
Although each make has its own exterior styling and personality, there is a strong family resemblance. The Prizm is nice looking, with a rounded, functional shape. The hoodline is low, the nose inoffensive and the rear deck high for maximum cargo space and aerodynamics.
The model line consists of two sedans. The base Prizm has a 1.6-liter engine and a short feature list with less expensive items such as a 3-speed automatic transmission instead of a 4-speed. The Prizm LSi has a few more standard amenities: upgraded interior fabrics, a tilt steering wheel and a rear pass-through to the trunk. The LSi also has access to a better class of options, including a 1.8-liter engine, a sunroof and a CD player.
Lending a little verve this year are four new exterior colors called Diamond Blue, Misty Teal Mica, Tropical Green Mica and Twilight Purple Mica.
The base Prizm inherits last year's LSi wheel covers as an option, while the LSi gets sportier new covers in addition to optional alloy wheels.
One of the prizm's best refinements is its quiet interior, resulting from the union of Toyota's signature silent engine and clever engineering. Doors formed from a single piece of metal extend into the roofline, reducing wind noise. Sound-deadening materials in the roof, floor and A-pillars mask engine, wind and road noise. A hydraulic torque-axis engine mounting system uses the engine's internal forces to help cancel noise and vibration. And a structural cross-car beam behind the instrument panel adds rigidity, which reduces squeaks and rattles. In total, these elements create one of the quietest cars in its class.
Several features highlight the car's easy-maintenance qualities. The exhaust system has been converted to stainless steel, reducing corrosion. Under the hood, access to engine oil, transmission fluid, windshield washer and coolant fillers is convenient and well-marked. These extra touches make it easy for owners to take care of essential routine tasks themselves. Add GM's 24-hour Roadside Assistance program, standard on all Geos, and the ownership experience is made that much more pleasant.
As with the exterior, the interior of the Prizm is an exercise in usefulness rather than stylishness. Even on a heavily loaded LSi, the instrument panel is simple and plain, consisting of a large oil temperature gauge, speedometer and fuel gauge, plus warning lights. A tachometer is optional.
The rotary dial knobs for climate control are large and easy to use. Lights, wipers and cruise control are stalk-mounted. Not so handy are the dual cupholders that pop out of the center console - they obscure the ashtray when in use.
A neutral interior color is new for 1995, as is an optional leather seating package for the LSi. The carpet and all interior fabrics are treated with Scotchgard fabric protector, as befits a family car that is vulnerable to numerous spills.
The seats are firm and supportive. Those accustomed to softer seats may find them uncomfortable, but we found them excellent over both short and long hauls. The whole interior feels spacious and has lots of elbow room. And the roomy, flat-bottomed trunk offers a generous 12.7 cu. ft. of storage.
There are many safety features on the Prizm, which is not surprising for a car in which two-thirds of the drivers are women, many of them with children. The seat belts and head restraints are height-adjustable, and the outboard seat belts have an automatic locking mode to permit the use of a child seat without a clumsy locking clip. Dual airbags are standard. And, new for 1995, the horn has been redesigned so you can sound it by pushing anywhere on the steering wheel hub, even with the presence of the airbag.
The Toyota-built engines that drive the Prizm include a standard 1.6-liter twin-cam 4-cylinder delivering 105 hp at 5800 rpm and 100 lb.-ft. at 4800 rpm, and an optional 1.8-liter twin-cam delivering 115 hp and 115 lb.-ft. Both engines are phenomenally quiet and smooth, especially when idling. But unfortunately neither engine delivers much of a punch.
The ride, on the other hand, is smooth for a car in this class. The 4-wheel independent suspension on our test model managed bumps without spreading the news around.
The struts on the Prizm have been recalibrated to make the already-smooth ride even smoother. Cars fitted with the 1.8-liter engine have a rear stabilizer bar for flatter cornering.
The prizm's brakes are large for a compact (10.04 in. front and rear) and, complete with the optional ABS, provided excellent stopping during our test drive.
Our LSi's electronic 4-speed transmission was smooth, but we're sorry to report it wasn't geared for quick acceleration.
The most overwhelming impression we had after driving our Prizm is that it has such a quiet temperament, it sometimes comes across as a ghost car. With the whispering engine, low interior noise level, unobtrusive acceleration and effortless steering, the Prizm is the automotive equivalent of room-temperature water.
Those people who think of their car as basic transportation will be pleased with the prizm's stoic performance; those folks who prefer a bit of an edge to their driving experience might find this car's ghostly characteristics unsatisfying.
No single feature stands out on the Geo Prizm. Its strength lies instead in a consistently high standard of design, dependability and content. Although fun to drive may not be the best term to describe the Prizm, a pleasure to own would certainly be appropriate.
Buyers should note that, although the base prices are affordable, you can option this car up to around $17,000 without breaking a sweat.
But it's easy to get a lot of Prizm for not a lot of cash. For many individuals and small families, this will be as much car as they'll want or need. And for the money, we really don't think you'll find get a more competent vehicle.
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