The cars we loved.
Like Ford, GM was being schooled in the art of the compact coupe from partners in Asia. For Ford, it was Mazda while GM took some cues from Isuzu (who also partnered with small trucks). GM was re-branding Isuzu Impulses as GEO Storms with some success. Even as drastic changes were happening (for the better) with some of its smaller cars, it stubbornly continued with business as usual with other models like the Camaro. The all new Beretta was an attempt to build a modern sporty coupe that was more than a Cavalier, but less than a Camaro in price and performance. The new L body platform would be shared with the Corsica, essentially a four door version of the Beretta in general appearance (but less sporty with the possible exception of the rare XT models).
Design wise, the Beretta was a radical departure from everything else in Chevy’s line, yet it was recognizable as a Chevrolet. The initial design language was borrowed from the Camaro and merged with a shark theme to end up with a narrowed, more up right variation of what a Camaro would look like on a diet. The similarities were no coincidence, as the Beretta was designed by the same studio who penned both the Camaro and Corvette.
The Camaro influence was most obvious in the big tinted wrap around tail lights. North America’s Berettas would be built in a single factory in Wilmington Delaware. US built Berettas were also shipped to Europe to compete with cars like the Volkswagen Scirocco and Renault Laguna. In Europe the seldom seen Beretta competed indirectly against some of GM’s own cars in like the vastly superior Opel Calibra sports coupe.
Like the Camaro, it would feature multiple engine choices ranging from the Cavalier’s 2.2 L four up to a 3.1 liter V6 (the same one used in some base Camaros). Unlike the Camaro, the Beretta was the style bridge between the Cavalier and its bigger faster cousin. The longer wheelbase (103.4) provided a more comfortable ride that the smaller Cavalier while being less powerful than all but the most basic Camaro.
The Beretta’s position in the middle of Chevy’s performance line up also summed up its place relative to the competition. Despite the standout design, performance wise it was somewhere in the middle. From a refinement point of view was closer to the bottom for much of its production run when up against leaders like the Honda Prelude or Toyota Celica.
The interior of early cars was clearly the weak link of all Berettas. Its blocky dash and console was an example of GM’s worst interior designs. It did not help that the materials had a cheap feel and look to them either. Like many 80’s and 90’s GM cars, the controls were oversized as if inspired by Romper Room.
The Beretta’s strengths lie mostly in its exterior. Even in its base form, the Beretta GL was a looker. It got decent gas mileage too as a result of using the Cavalier’s four cylinder engine. For many the flashy exterior was enough, but the promise of the sporting lines were met with real performance if you chose the right models.
The GT was the top Beretta initially, but would be superseded by higher performance models that approached the lower end of the Camaro’s performance envelope. These performance models would become test beds for more progressive engine designs that would see turbocharging (GTZ) and 16 valve DOHC designs (Z34) in the future.
The GT model started with a 2.8 liter V6 that produced 125 hp. In the Cavalier this engine was almost the basis of a quick car. In the heavier Beretta, it was merely adequate. 15in Goodyear GT+4 tires, a common factory option in mid- level performance cars of the time gave the Beretta decent road manners.
Up until 1989, the top Beretta was the GTU. It was more or less a looks package with an aggressive ground effects kit designed by Cars and Concepts. In addition to the ground effects, these cars has GM’s FE3 suspension package complete with 16’ wheels and wider Goodyear tires. Like the GT, it came in either four speed automatic of Getrag designed 5 speed manual.
Some of the criticisms of the GT model like harshness of the transmission and engine mount shudder were addressed in a new performance model called the GTZ. It featured bodywork reminiscent of the rare 1990 Beretta Pace Car replica called the Beretta Indy, with its more integrated and subtle ground effects. The most important innovation was the new Quad Four engine.
The 2.3 liter inline 4 cylinder engine first appeared in the 88 Oldsmobile Cutlass Calais. It was one of GM’s first widely produced DOHC designs. In the Beretta it produced a whopping 185 hp – an impressive number for a GM car (or any 80’s car for that matter) with no V8 or turbocharging.
A 1990 Quad Four equipped GTZ produced the fastest slalom times of any GM front wheel drive car up to that time. The 0 to 60 time of 7.6 seconds put the GTZ in a performance class with more expensive cars. The GTZ would remain the fastest of all the Berettas and came with only one transmission choice: a five speed manual. As quick as the Quad Four was, it was too harsh and unrefined to really go head to head with more polished luminaries like the Honda Prelude Si or even the Ford Probe GT.
By 1994, the sportiest Beretta was now called the Z26, replacing the GT and GTZ. 1994 was also the last year of the Quad Four, which had lost power but gained some refinement. Chevrolet’s product planners and marketing folks figured Z26 fit in better between the Cavalier Z24 and the Camaro Z28, even though the Beretta used the same 3.1 liter V6 as the Z24.
In 1991, the Beretta got a badly needed interior makeover, with more rounded and modern surfaces. It still looked cheap, but was an overall improvement nevertheless. Power was now at 160 horses by the final years of production. Still sporty looking after all those years, the Beretta’s 8.3 second 0 to 60 time was still respectable, but it was clear that the hey days were over.
With most of its cards played, the Beretta’s sales were creeping downward. The Corsica which it shared it’s platform was getting very long in the tooth also and buyers were moving away from coupes in seemed in favor of pickups and SUVs. While the Beretta weltered and eventually disappeared, the same had happened with Chevy’s captive import sporty coupe the GEO Storm three years earlier. Unfortunately, none of the lessons learned or observed from any of GM’s import partners be it Toyota or Isuzu were applied completely in any of its native smaller cars.
The Cavalier would continue and shoulder the void left by the Beretta/Corsica. As long as enough of the public fell for the “Buy American” pitch, it would continue to be business as usual at the Bowtie (nickname for Chevy) for many years to come. The Beretta offered plenty of initial value, but like many American cars of the era, lower resale value and fit/finish issues would contribute to a less than stellar reputation.
It’s still possible to find good examples of the Berretta on roads in North America. The cars were enormously successful for Chevrolet, even as the press had less and less to say good about them. Often seen as redneck transportation, the Beretta and its sister the Corsica in base model form can often be had for less than $1,000 in running condition.
Some industrious fans have added Beretta front ends to the Corsica to create a sporty sedan combining the best of both cars. While the Beretta/Corsica may not have been all things to all people, Chevrolet certainly has been thinking about a coupe lately that would be like the Beretta in it’s relation to the Camaro and the Cruse. Only time will tell if it will dust off the old Beretta name.