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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.
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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