Automotive History: Three Pot Stew – America’s Brief Fling With The Supermini

Automobile manufacture is like the world’s most out of sync movie, where the dialogue and the action on screen don’t always happen in a logical sequence. Our trip in the Way Back machine today is testament to that peculiarity of the car business. Many times, cars are designed and engineered to meet a specific set of circumstances that, given the long lead times of development, have changed completely by the time the model makes it to the showroom floor. Thus it was with todays study. Born of the fear that rising prices for gasoline would send drivers to the poorhouse, these miserly sub –basic transportation appliances exist now mainly as curiosities, as obsolete machines kept in service by their owners for much the same reasons that they were produced- The most MPG’s for the least money.

The first modern 3 cylinder car to be marketed and sold in the U.S. came, oddly enough, from a company that was most well known for its massive, chrome spattered barges of a decade before-GM. In the fall of 1984, Chevy dealers on the west coast began showing buyers the new Sprint that was the product of the parent company’s alliance with Suzuki. The Sprint was to be the replacement for the ( by then) ancient Chevette and would better that models fuel economy by more than twenty percent. It also negated buyers objections to the Chevette’s obsolete front engine/rear drive configuration that made the car look even more behind the times in the sales derby. The little Sprint also shocked most American drivers when they peeked under the hood: Suzuki had installed its 1.0 L three cylinder mill in a place where the plug wires usually numbered four. This was due to two factors, neither of which GM could control.

First, The dreaded CAFE standard that Washington imposed on automakers all but mandated that in order to sell big, high profit cars, the companies would have to do their penance with small econoboxes that stood very little chance of turning a profit after all costs were totted up. Sprints were imported from Japan and after transportation costs were added in, profits (if there were any) had to be split with Suzuki.

Secondly, when the Sprint was in the planning stages, the second oil shock of 1979-80 was making long term business planning a fool’s gamble. The average price of gasoline had risen sharply from about $.60 to over $1.35 -more than double in the space of less than two years. No matter what Washington mandated, the trend line of petroleum prices looked alarming. That meant that displacement was going down radically so that at least one Chevy could meet the challenge of ever more expensive petrol. Bonjour, Sprint, Merci, Chevette.

The Sprint had a pleasing, well finished look outside and befitting its entry level status, a tacky cheap interior with thin seats and rather crude ergonomics.

Chevy offered a three door and five door hatchback and buyers could spec the car with a three speed automatic that exacted the usual slushbox mileage penalty. But no matter. The Sprint put Chevy in the game again and for its entire run, the car stayed near the top of the annual EPA mileage listings.

Chevrolet even threw a bone to boy racers in 1987 by offering a turbocharged Sprint that pushed horsepower up past 70, which made the little econobox a sporting choice for stoplight derby cruising. But the intercooled turbo came and went quickly: by the end of 1988, with a redesign looming, the turbo was dropped. That makes it a rare find today. A pristine Sprint Turbo can set you back over $6K in top nick, surely the highest value retention for any GM car from that era.

The Sprint was a solid winner for GM in the three pot sales derby, so much so that when the company re branded its small cars as GEO’s in 1988, the successor generation of the little Suzuki found a place in the lineup. Known as the GEO and (again) as a Chevy Metro, the three cylinder engine stayed in the catalog until mid 2000. When equipped as an XFI model, the little Met returned an EPA rating of 43/52 (as per the current standard). Today, there is a small (but enthusiastic) cult of owners/fanatics for the little car that broke the mold in North America.

The years 1985- 2004 saw another contender in the high mileage/low displacement contest , this time from a newcomer to our shores. Venerable Japanese automaker Daihatsu finally decided that the time was right to jump into the American market (where it had sold utility trucks and small industrial engines for some time) and offered up the unfortunately named (but well constructed) Charade as its sole line of cars. In retrospect, the Charade was really an answer to which no question had been asked. Although tough and well engineered, the Charade line was limited to about 15,000 sales per year under voluntary import restrictions agreed to between Washington and Tokyo to “protect” their trade relationship. The Charade had been in production since 1977 in Japan and the new -for- ’86  models were judged to be up to American standards and as such debuted with high hopes in the fall of 1987.

What buyers got for their money was a fairly advanced and clever package that included a four wheel independent suspension that made handling crisp and precise.The running gear consisted of a thrifty 993 CC engine that could return upper 40’s mileage on the highway with the standard 5 speed. Power and torque were another matter, as the little Daihatsu only belted out 53 HP at full tilt with its fuel injected three banger. The ride was penalized by the Charades short wheelbase and could be punitive over long distances. Daihatsu thought that its unique selling proposition was quality. The car was so well built that the good looking little Charade zoomed to the top of the J.D. Power rankings for owner satisfaction just two years after its launch. Contemporary testers, including Car And Driver, praised the solid, tight package, but high quality didn’t translate to high sales. By the fall of 1990, Daihatsu was hemorrhaging money in its U.S. operation and plans were being made to exit North America.

The high cost of maintaining a limited lineup of models (Daihatsu had added the Rocky 4X4 in 1990), meant that there were no profits to be made for either the parent company or the dwindling number of dealers. Many Daihatsu outlets were opened alongside more established franchises, and dealers were hesitant to push a car that undercut their bread and butter models in the same showroom. Daihatsu never ran any national advertising and there was even some confusion with the name. These were the nightmare years for Hyundai quality and even though there as no connection between the two, potential buyers were wary of being stuck with a car that carried so many unknowns. Another factor that killed the diminutive Daihatsu was the asking  price. The Charade stickered at over $7300 for a base five speed, which put it over $1800 above the Chevy Sprint and almost a grand over the Subaru Justy. That made it a hard sell when the parent company was all but unknown in the states.

Thus Daihatsu announced in early 1992 that it would exit the U.S., just five model years after it arrived. The company itself still sells its unique line of fuel stingy cars and utility trucks in Asia and Africa, but the years have seen a gradual pullback from some markets. Even today, almost twenty years on, Daihatsu maintains a website for parts and technical help for its stranded owners.

The triple with the most potential was the Subaru Justy. Potential for trouble, that is. The little Justy was a car that made lots of ex- Subie owners out of its purchasers. Introduced late in September 1986 (as an ’87 model), the Justy was the smallest Subaru since the tiny 360 of 1969. On paper, the Justy checked off a lot of boxes on shoppers wants lists. Four wheel drive, great fuel mileage and Subaru’s sterling reputation all made the Justy a must see for subcompact shoppers in its day. But two fatal flaws made the Justy a flash in the pan stateside.

One, the 1.2 liter engine installed into the Justy, while the largest in its class, had a dark family secret that came out when several thousand hit the streets- the oil pump was prone to early, frequent failure which could turn the car into a paperweight when it let go. And the Electronically Constantly Variable Transaxle was a typical early adopters risk- While fine in theory, the not-quite-an-automatic transmission proved to be the cars weakest link. Buyers reported an alarming rate of total ECVT failure within less than a year of purchase and later on, the high cost of out of warranty repair frequently made no sense for its frustrated owners. Even today, 17 years after the Justy went off the market, its not unusual to find a low mileage ECVT car that needs a new transmission. Some owners even converted to Subaru’s five speed manual when the factory units died.

The little Subaru was the last carbureted model sold in the U.S, although parent company Fuji did install an EFI system in its final year. The Justy lineup was available as a three door and five door hatchback and sales, while respectable, never cracked 25,000 in the U.S. In 1994, Subaru gave up on selling a supermini in the U.S. and the Justy was deleted from its lineup here. The name lives on in other markets, but Justys are built by companies other than Fuji in Europe and Asia.

So the end of America’s tepid love affair with miserly cars came when Subaru decamped to other continents in the spring of 1994. By then, the price of gasoline had stabilized close to its level of 1977 (adjusted for inflation) and technological advances by Japan’s “Big 3” had brought their entry level, four cylinder Corollas, Civics and Sentras within just a few MPG’s of the superminis, while performance was in a whole other league entirely. Only the little Metro still offered its rough running miser mill for the masses. The tiny cars had proven to be not very well adapted to American driving habits and keeping them up with emissions and crash standards meant that profits were all but impossible to realize given their low volume.

The next time that a mainstream manufacturer would attempt three cylinder motoring in the states would be when Honda brought its Insight hybrid to market in 1999. The one liter, aluminum bodied Insight would return 61 MPG on the highway– just  about nine miles per gallon better than a Metro had done two years before. But the Met had done the job for less than half the price.