The cars we loved.
The 90’s was a cruel time for GM. It continued building cars that in some cases sold well, but were not in sync with emerging market trends or technologies. The out-going Monte Carlo represented the last of the old school rear wheel drive personal luxury/sport cars for Chevrolet and was long overdue for replacement (despite its popularity). The Monte Carlo’s replacement would be a large front wheel drive coupe that used more current technology. It would be part of a platform that was a family of front wheel drive cars that would also replace the Celebrity sedan and introduce a new wedge-shaped minivan. The concept of a large sporting car was not a unique one for GM, but by the 90’s it was a concept that was moving to both large and small cars. Chevrolets’ Lumina Z34 was somewhere in the middle. It was a large coupe or sedan (actually rated mid-sized), with new (for GM) dual overhead cam V6 power while much of the import market had moved to multivalve engines years ago.
GM once saved DOHC technology for smaller sporty cars that used 4 cylinder engines like the Cutlas Calais, Beretta GTZ and Grand Am. The Lumina’s (and it’s platformates) only major concession to modernism was in the form of front wheel drive. The front wheels pulling so large a car was rare in the marketplace and was almost exclusively a GM thing. The drive train may have been progressive, but much of the car was Chevy business as usual. The style of the dash dated back to the flat kitchen counter look of older cars (perhaps legitimized by Honda’s 3rd gen Prelude). Nevertheless, Chevrolet had high expectations for the Lumina Z34 as a performance oriented personal luxury coupe (and rightfully so).
Chevy had already begun using the Lumina in NASCAR at least a year before it was in showrooms, a point of contention with race fans. The 1990 Tom Cruise film Days of Thunder made the Lumina a household name (in the American Southeast at least). Chevy needed a sporty version of the Lumina to capitalize on its racing success and the Z34 moniker would fit the bill fitting nicely between the Cavalier’s Z24 and the Camaro’s Z28. The Z34 was identified by sporty wheels, ground effects and more importantly a larger sport tuned 210hp 3.2L V6. That much power through the front wheels was pushing the envelope in the early 90’s. In an odd way, GM’s G body cars helped pave the way for more powerful front wheel drive cars that we today take for granted. Chassis advancements aside, the Lumina was very much old school in nearly every other department. The regular Lumina’s suspension was not much different from many GM cars from the last 15 or so years with its MacPherson struts and leaf springs. The Z34 went a step further with beefier front and rear stabilizer bars and a special rear suspension derived partly from the Corvette. It was the first Chevrolet sedan equipped with four-wheel disc brakes. Not only did the Z34 stop quickly, it was made with the curves in mind. Many reviewers were impressed with the FE3 Sports Suspension which performed consistently well on varying road surfaces while returning a good ride with just enough firmness to communicate road feel. Such a compliant and responsive suspension was seldom seen in many GM cars of the period.
As for acceleration, the Z34 could manage a 0 to 60 time of 7.2 seconds and reach an electronically governed top speed of 134mph. Despite the good performance, critics still lambasted Chevrolet for being late to the domestic performance sedan game. The Taurus SHO had been out for more than two years before the Z34, so Chevy’s product was seen as trying to play catch up. In a March 1991 Car and Driver comparison pitting the Z34 against a Dodge Spirit RT and Taurus SHO, the Z34 finished in the middle with the SHO on top.
The situation was not helped by Chevrolet releasing the Z34 a full two model years after the standard Lumina was introduced in 1989. The Taurus was seen as having more European influence in its design and development at a time when “European Influenced” was the buzzword in all sport sedan marketing. The Z34 on the other hand was heavily associated with American NASCAR and its design was completely devoid of any major European influence. GM’s Australian division Holden produces a car called the Commodore SS who’s development parallels the Z34 in many respects. In some markets in the Middle East, the Lumina name continues as the Lumina SS. The 98-2011 Holden Commodore is considered the third generation of the car we once knew as the Lumina Z34, although it was replaced by revamped Lumina LTZ in 1995.
Today the Z34 has managed to maintain a small, but devoted following amongst fans of all things Chevy. The NASCAR linkage alone would endear many to Z34, even though the Taurus SHO was a better engineered and arguably a better looking car.