The cars we loved.
While GM was trying to get a grip on quality in the 80, it struck a deal with Toyota to co- produce small cars in a new US-based factory. The partnership called NUMMI (New United Motor Manufacturing, Inc) would pump out Toyota Corollas and a clone that Chevrolet would sell under it’s GEO and later Chevrolet nameplates.
To the casual observer, this was GM chance to get an insider scoop on Japanese production methods and quality control. Unfortunately the high quality, well-built cars coming out of the factory in Freemont California was miles away from Detroit (figuratively and literally). NUMMI showed GM, it’s workers and their union that high quality could be achieved using American labor. The lessons learned were all but ignored, as GM was in a period of deep denial as it still insisted that its Cavaliers and Sunfires were as well-built as the rebadged Corolla passing for a GEO called the Prizm.
The Prizm, like the Corolla was an unassuming small car. Simple, straightforward, efficient and sometimes fun to drive, it offered high value for the buyer looking for an American made car in the sub compact segment. Over the course of its development it was always offered with 1.6 to 1.8 litre 4 cylinder engines producing between 105 to 125 hp. Nothing overly exciting, but combined with a 5 speed manual transmission and light weight, Prizms, especially the GSi model performed well.
Sold only as a four door sedan,two door coups were never offered. An interesting four door hatchback configuration was an option in the first generation cars (1989-1992). The sportier version of Prizm the GSi was often more aggressive looking (still mild by most standards) than the equolivant Corolla. It was much later that Toyota would offer a sport model of the Corolla called the “S”.
The GEO Prizm consistently ranked as the highest quality car built by GM for most of it’s life in the company’s automotive portfolio. In fact, it was one of the automotive world’s great secretes: you could save thousands and get Corolla quality by simply opting for a Prizm and still feel good about it because you bought an American made American branded car.
The Prizm dropped the GEO name when the division was dissolved in 1998 and was just called Chevrolet Prizm. It’s new all aluminum 1.8 litre engine was advanced and refined, but not as powerful as the ancient ones across the lot in Cavaliers. A Prizm cost more that a Cavalier LS partly because it became one of the first compact cars to offer side airbags at a time when front airbags were being slowly added to low-end cars. The Prizm eventually lost out to the Cavalier and was dropped in 2003. The Corolla continues, but will be built at a facility in Ontario Canada.