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Remember the term "economy car"? It used to mean a stripped-down box with barely enough power to get out of its own way. Options included little more than a sideview mirror, floor mats and an AM radio.
Well, those days are long gone. Economic realities being what they are, it's hard to find a truly inexpensive automobile these days. But those that do qualify for the economy car descriptor are surprisingly sophisticated, with dual airbags standard and antilock brakes and CD players as your options.
The Geo Prizm is one very good example of how much you can get for your money these days--with careful attention to the options list. It's a car that offers at least some of the performance and handling attributes you used to expect only on a much more expensive automobile.
Many customers see the Prizm as the best of both worlds. It is primarily of Japanese origin, a very close cousin to the Toyota Corolla. Both cars are produced at the NUMMI assembly plant in Fremont, California, operated as a joint venture between Toyota and General Motors. So you get the benefit of some excellent Toyota components, and if Buy American is a priority, you've got that going for you, too.
There are two levels of Prizm, base and LSi, both 4-door sedans, both front-wheel drive. The differences between the two aren't really apparent unless you're in the showroom loading up your option list.
If you're looking for a little more power, then the LSi will probably be your choice, with a 1.8-liter engine that offers much stronger low-rpm performance. It was our choice for this report.
The differences between the Prizm and Corolla are small. They use the same chassis, suspension components and powertrain. There are also some noticeably Toyota-style design cues, like the rounded shape, the snake-eye headlights, the flush door handles and the way the door openings extended into the roof.
But there are subtle differences. Of the two, the Prizm is more of an American-looking car. It doesn't have the sassy, head-turning panache of the Chrysler Neon, but it's cute, practical and built to endure.
The Prizm and Corolla were last re-skinned in 1993. It was more than a cosmetic change. Today's model is 2 in. longer, a half-inch higher and an inch wider. You'll appreciate those numbers when you step inside. The Prizm feels surprisingly roomy for a compact. Unless you've got a pair of 6-footers up front, determined to grab their maximum legroom, you'll have no trouble fitting four people inside. It could get a little cramped, though, trying to squeeze in three on the back bench seat. But that's true of any car in this size class.
Speaking of seating, the front seats are fairly comfortable, though we thought they could use a little more padding. It's a factor that might prove tiring after a long trip. On the other hand, there's good lateral support, which means you won't go bouncing around during any aggressive maneuvers.
The Prizm delivers a number of small surprise-and-delight touches, including the 60/40 split rear bench seat that comes standard on the LSi. That makes it easy for active owners to load in their skis. Getting stuff into or out of the trunk is no problem. The Prizm has a low liftover and the trunk is large and long.
Visibility is good all around. The roof pillars are small and unobtrusive, and the windows are large.
As you'd expect from a Toyota (even one wearing a GM badge), interior fit and finish are excellent and the choice of materials is solid, if uninspiring.
The instrument panel has a generic sort of look to it, but its gauges are large and easy to read. Remember, this is an entry-level model, so almost everything is an option. That includes the tachometer, something you may find useful if you stick with the manual transmission that comes as standard equipment.
With the LSi, the model we tested, you'll get several other nice and very useful touches, including a tilt steering wheel and a center console. There are plenty of other options to dress up the otherwise Plain Jane interior, including the surprisingly popular leather seat package.
The LSi's cloth seats (as distinct from vinyl in the base car) are treated with Scotchgard, something parents with young children will appreciate. And they'll like the optional built-in child safety seats, too.
Ergonomics, on the whole, are good, aside from the awkward location of the radio. It's not only positioned down and out of the way, but recessed an inch into the dash. And the volume knob has been moved to a point that we found almost impossible to reach without leaning way out of the driver's seat.
The audio quality was quite good with our optional CD player package--significantly better than the standard LSi sound system.
If safety is a serious concern--and it seems to be for most motorists these days--the Prizm meets contemporary standards. Dual airbags are standard equipment, as are daytime running lights, a feature GM plans to install on all its models. Antilock brakes are optional, but we'd recommend them.
We took delivery of our Prizm on one of the coldest days of a very cold winter, so we can say with assurance that the heating system is world class.
Despite its relatively modest pricetag, the Prizm boasts some sophisticated features, such as its all-independent suspension. You'll find that translates into a smooth, composed highway ride. The suspension is firm enough to feel the road, but not so harsh you'll shudder through every pothole. It's interesting to note here that the Corolla's ride is a trifle softer, and its handling not quite as sporty.
Power steering is an option, even on the upscale LSi, but one you'd be well-recommended to consider. We did find that the car wanted to continue straight ahead in hard cornering, a condition known as understeer that's present to some degree in virtually all front-drive cars. Reduce speed, however, and the Prizm settles back to the intended line without drama.
As we noted, there are two powertrain packages. The basic 1.6-liter 4-cylinder, with its optional 3-speed automatic transmission, is an acceptable choice, but it's a package we'd only recommend to someone on a tight budget. It's buzzy and you'll actually get less fuel economy than you would with the larger engine mated to a 4-speed automatic.
Our test car came with the 1.8-liter engine. It's quieter and more confidence-inspiring than the base engine, as well as faster. We're not just talking about quick starts at a green light, but for merging into traffic on the freeway, where some small cars are at a distinct disadvantage. About our only complaint is the brash sound the engine makes under full acceleration. But the stiff Prizm body means a minimum of overall road noise.
If you like a little more of a performance feel, the standard 5-speed manual transmission should suit you just fine. Shifts are crisp, accurate and quick.
Geo's strategy of offering a fairly stripped-down base car is good news for cash-tight buyers who just want something new that they can rely on, but don't want a mini like the Geo Metro. But for shoppers who might want a little more in their automobile, it can be misleading. Remember, almost every comfort-convenience feature is an option. So make sure you price out the Prizm as you'd actually want it equipped when you drive home.
Intriguingly, you'll find the Prizm a bit lower-priced than a comparable Corolla. That says a lot about the mindset of buyers in this hotly competitive market segment. Even though it's essentially the same car, the Corolla typically earns a higher rating in most customer satisfaction studies, probably because Detroit hasn't been known for producing great compacts.
So GM has accepted the fact that a little financial coaxing is needed to get potential customers into the showroom.
The Prizm is overshadowed by two other GM economy cars--the new Chevrolet Cavalier and the various Saturns, not to mention the Neon and Ford Escort. It shouldn't be. It may not turn heads, but what really matters is how you feel when you're driving. And that's where the little Prizm scores big.
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