The cars we loved.
America loves a good comeback or re-invention. Everything from Apple computers to Betty White has returned from the abyss to become more popular than ever. Detroit loves a good makeover too. One successful example involved a classic icon of muscle car fame, the Chevrolet Nova. The Nova was once a star at the tail end of the muscle car era. It had become a popular compact by the late 70’s. With its legacy as a muscle car long gone (tarnished) and nearly forgotten, it was put to rest after 1979.
Dispensing With the Old
The smaller car market which the old Nova represented was changing rapidly. GM tried its best to compete with its new J cars, but they were not quite what many Americans (people on the coasts) really had in mind. The solution came in the form of collaboration with Toyota called NUMMI (New United Motor Manufacturing, Inc). The Freemont, California factory would churn out Corollas and Chevrolet badged clones called Nova on the storied AE82 platform. Eventually the factory would produce the GEO Prizm for GM. Chevrolet oddly sold the new Nova in the Midwestern United States first as if to test the waters for a small Japanese-like car with an iconic name attached to it. A similar type of car built by Suzuki called the Sprint was being sold in other parts of the country. The Nova would eventually replace it and be sold nationwide before changing its name to Prizm in GM new captive import division called GEO in 1989.
There was one model initially, a four door sedan with a 74 hp 1.6 L four-cylinder engine. The carburetted engine was managed by a five speed manual or choice between 3 and 4 speed automatic transmissions. A five door hatchback was introduced with the national roll out in 1985. No coupe was offered. Chevy dealers already were selling the smaller Sprint and homegrown Chevette and Cavalier. The Nova (and the Sprint) represented a new breed of small Japanese front wheel drive car that was slowly sweeping the Big Three’s market share away. As if it did not know how to market the car, Nova ads mentioned the old Nova of the 70’s but did not emphasize its performance (or lack of refinement).
High Prices and Deep Discounts
Thanks to either tariff fees or a general disconnect from the rest of GM, Nova’s were not optioned and priced like most Chevrolet. With only two models seven option groups, ordering a Nova was simple if not a bit pricey. Later three models (base, CL and Twin-Cam) with anywhere from four to six options groups depending on model. Oddly, the potentially sportiest looking version, the 5-door hatchback only came in base and CL versions. Traditional Chevy buyers were not quick to bite at first because at around $8,000, the Nova was more expensive than the Corolla (older car buyers’ still saw value in the Chevrolet brand during the 80’s). Many were as expensive as the slightly larger Cavalier. Regardless of what model you chose, all Nova came with cloth bucket seats. Dash consoles/control centers were an odd blend of 80’s Japanese ergonomics and big button GM components. The combo sounded weird buy worked in this case.
Nova sales were good, but not like the Chevette or Cavalier. Even with its third place status amongst Chevrolet’s small cars in sales, it sold nearly as well as the Corolla and was deeply discounted, especially at dealerships in smaller towns and more remote areas. That was a pity, because the Nova was far more advanced than any Chevette or the Cavalier of the era. Very few changes occurred to the Nova throughout its short history. It remained nearly identical to the Toyota Corolla.
A New Performance Model
Toyota released a sporty version of Corolla called the FX-16 in 1983. Its dual overhead cam engine would make cars like the FX-16 and Corolla GTS legends for performance enthusiasts. The performance engine would be used in a new model of the Nova called the Twin-Cam in 1988. Starting with the 1.6 L used in the base Nova, the Twin-Cam added fuel injection, a sport suspension and slightly more aggressive looks thanks to 13’ alloy wheels, blackout trim and striping. With 110 hp, the 88 Nova Twin-Cam effectively became Chevrolet’s first real modern sub compact sports sedan. The relatively steep price approaching $12,000 meant that it was a hard sell compared to a larger Cavalier.
While the rest of General Motors was grappling with the concept of using its Quad 4 engine in compact cars, the Nova beat them to the punch (with Toyota’s help) in the sub-compact segment. The Twin-Cam remains the rarest and perhaps most sought after 5th generation Nova. Sought after by who is a good question as it never really appealed to traditional import fans and was shunned by fans of the old Bowtie brand. Very few remain on the road, despite being Toyota’s at heart.
A lot has been said of GM partnership with Toyota. The lost lessons and arrogance of GM was seen as one of the reason it was never able to produce competitive compact and sub-compact cars on its own (without Daewoo, Suzuki, Isuzu or Toyota’s help). Today GM finally has competitive small cars on the market, but few realize that GM has had them for decades. Often rated as the most reliable cars Chevrolet sold during the 80’s and 90’s, the Nova and later Prizm were the best the General could do, even if it needed Toyota help to do it.