I can’t remember the last time I saw a Geo Prizm of either generation in my locale, but apparently first generation Prizms are still kicking around in other parts of the country, in remarkable condition I might add.
The second vehicle produced under General Motor and Toyota’s NUMMI (New United Motor Manufacturing, Inc.) joint-venture, the Geo Prizm was a rebadged version of the Toyota Sprinter, a Corolla relative not sold in North America.
Geo itself was a newly-created brand of captive imports sold through Chevrolet dealers and GM’s latest answer to the growing popularity of Japanese imports, which continued to eat away at its share of the market. Curiously, Geos were little more than rebadged versions of the very cars which they were competing against.
The largest car sold under the Geo brand, the Prizm was initially available in 4-door sedan and a rather sleek looking 5-door hatchback, with blacked-out glass-covered D-pillars, for a wraparound glass effect.
As part of the top-trim GSi model, both bodystyles were available with Toyota’s DOHC 4A-GE inline-4 making 130 horsepower, an engine discontinued in North American Corollas after 1990. Interestingly, the sport-oriented GSi sedan was more expensive than the costliest Corolla sedan.
The first generation Prizm was sold from the 1990-1992 model years, upon which it was redesigned for 1993 following the all-new Corolla and Sprinter. The Geo experiment of course, did not succeed in its mission and the brand was defunct by 1997, with remaining models integrated into Chevy’s lineup for the remainder of their design cycles.
CC Cohort red and blue Prizm photos by Mike Hayes; White Prizm photos by CJCZ92
1992 Geo Prizm (COAL)
I remember this generation Geo Prism. I thought it was more attractive than the Toyota Corolla of the same generation. I would’ve preferred the hatchback version over the sedan. 🙂
I had that same thought and heard other say it- that the Prizm was essentially a Corolla with better aesthetics.
My father had one and drove it under the rust worm set in. I think it was at about 250k when that happened, after several bad Massachusetts winters.
I saw one of these just this weekend, it was in pretty sad shape. Aside from a passenger side that was raked by damage, the engine had an odd, almost gurgly sound to it like the radiator had a bad leak and it was about to explode due to lack of coolant.
I really thought the hatchback model looked kind of cool.
Recently purchased for a family member a second generation ’95 Prizm off Craigslist.
Was 2 miles away, the body, paint, and interior still in great condition. The ad said it had a intermittent starting problem. Bought it from the second owner who had it for 10 years, all the fluids were fresh, it had been well cared for. She gave up on the car because it kept stranding her and the shop she used couldn’t figure out the problem. Took a look and figured for $750 couldn’t go wrong. It wouldn’t start (I could see cracks in the distributor mounted coil). Came by the next day with a tow strap, this time it fired right up and drove great, the 1.6 engine ran good and the 3 speed auto trans shifts great, the AC is ice cold and the Kenwood stereo sounds great.
A trip to U pull netted a factory Toyota distributor for $40.00. The car starts every time now.
Front tires from Wall Mart for $88.00 mounted and balanced. Had to sign a waiver to have them put on the front even though the rears were almost new. Rotors were warped, so I installed new pads and rotors which totaled $65.00 and it now stops as good as it runs.
A Prizm is a great way to get a Corolla at a reasonable price used. It does have 200k miles, but I bet it has at least another 100k left in it. I think the minor changes in the body style look great. I told my niece she bought a Toyota built at the plant where they build Tesla’s now.
One of my step daughters currently drives one of these. Typical Toyota reliability and level of comfort for this size and age of car. There are a fair number of them floating around out here. They don’t rust in Arizona, but they do tend to “fade away”. Please excuse the pun but the sun out here can be relentless.
My fav generation Corolla/Sprinter, sold alongside my fav generations of Civic, 323/Protege, and later, Sentra. The golden era of Japanese subcompacts, where you really couldn’t go wrong (although the 155-section tires on base level Corollas/Prizms, ultra-soft suspension and lack of front roll bar was a silly handicapping of a solid chassis).
It isn’t that interesting that the GSi was pricier than a Corolla LE; a more apt comparison would’ve been a Corolla SR5 GT-S. Speaking of which, the GSi is, I think, more interesting. It would be fun to find one and fit front and rear clips from a JDM Sprinter sedan, OR part one out and fit its parts to an E90 Corolla sedan. The 4A-GE engine went through so many evolutions that boosting power with an imported engine and ECU wouldn’t ultimately be that difficult (in this part of the country without emissions testing).
Either way, the GTS coupe and GSi sedan/liftback show that Toyota tried to sell sporty cars; it just seems that no one noticed. Perhaps they should’ve just beaten people over the head with the idea as Mazda did during the embarrassing Zoom Zoom ad campaign.
I was in and out of the country many times between 1971 and 1986, so maybe I missed the heavy promotion Toyota had for it’s hotter models? I do seem to remember Toyota REALLY pushing the 1st couple of generations of Corolla, even the sportier (looking) models, but by the time the models that had higher performance engines came along the advertising resembled any other economy car ads.
I also can’t remember seeing the higher performance Corollas being tested by the car mags.
For your reading pleasure.
See, I’ve read this too and I find it interesting (though it covers the E80 series, not the E90 series cars as featured, I wonder how much difference there is), because I’ve also read this…
I wonder if it’s just a matter of different tastes across the Atlantic? And also, why didn’t C&D test the FX16 GT-S?
This generation bears a striking resemblance to the Colt/ Mirage generation that went from 93-96. Another example of benchmarking gone wrong as by then the Prism had gotten a lot better, if still unsuccessful in the marketplace.
The profit sharing between GM and Toyota must have been pretty heavily skewed. In 1990, a Geo Prism listed at $9650 and the Cavalier VL 4 door listed at $7759, both including destination and domestic UAW assembly. A 24% price premium goes along way to show how the J car outlasted the import invasion of the Chevy showroom.
Correction to my above post. The prices I quoted were invoice not retail. Retail has the Cavalier VL at $8202 and the Geo Prism at $10460. This is a 27% advantage in favor of the Cavalier.
I always liked the design of the sedan, especially the roofline, windows and rear quarter.
The hatch was so awkward and unbalanced looking.
Good to see these still running.
My wife had a ’89 Geo Prizm hatchback for about 7 years. It was an excellent basic car but not perfect. The engine was a real sweetheart. The wiper did not park itself after turning it off. I was quoted $400 for a new wiper motor that certainly would fail in the same manner. The inner door handles were all plastic and broke as they aged. The left front was the same as the right rear so I got a right rear from the junk yard. It needed a distributor. We had a re-manufactured one installed. A combination of rust, leaking radiator and worn brakes was the reason to fire this loyal employee. She found a commuting job locally but a year later I lost track of her. We did not give her a name but we remember her fondly anyway.
The hatchback was one of my favorite cars of this time; if 16-year-old me had been offered any new car I wanted I would’ve taken a Prizm GSi hatchback over the usual teenage-quasi-reasonable-dream-car Mustang or Camaro. The sedan just looked blah, though.
The most interesting model on that ‘platform’ was the 4WD wagon (Sprinter Carib in JDM speak).
I had one back in the 90’s – awesome little car, unstoppable in mud or snow, especially when with the MT-5 and locked central diff. The only weak spot was rust. I had the the rear wheel arches and door bottoms repaired twice.
You lived in Calgary, I assume? That’d explain the rust although the Ontario and Nummi built versions didn’t have very good rust protection either and most examples here in Indiana also look like they’ve been gnawed on by giant irradiated mice.
As a child in the Adirondacks, the Tercel 4WD and Corolla All-Trac wagons were very popular, along with the Subaru DL/GL. Civic r/t 4wd wagons and four-wheel drive Colts were comparatively rare.
Nah, that was in my former life in Moscow (the one in Russia, not Idaho). Calgary only started to use road salt in any noticeable amount around 2010-11, if I remember correctly. Before that it was gravel. Winshields and paint would suffer, but grime and rust were not too big an issue.
Moscow though has always been terrible with the amount of road salt the city used. I knew people who never washed their cars in winter as they would be as dirty again in less than a mile of driving.
Patriotic Prizms? Interesting write-up and discussion. I’m glad to see my photos being put to such good use.
I thought the blue Prizm looked familiar. Still looking good Mike
Yep, that’s Betsy. Thanks, Leon.
I think the hatch version was here under the Corolla Seca badge I could be wrong but i followed one this morning on the school run, of course Toyota Sprinters are here in droves ex JDM as is everything else youve never heard of but those Secas were available new from memory, plenty about anyhow and we dont have the Prizm brand.
Correct. And the Geo Prizm’s predecessor, the Chevrolet Nova, in hatchback form also shared a body with the Corolla Seca liftback. Toyota had a lot of variety in Australia/NZ then, with the four-wheel-drive wagon, hatchbacks, liftbacks, sedans…
Those Corolla Secas were very ordinary cars. Looked nice, but nowhere near as nice to drive as the ’87 Ford Laser I had at the time.
I probably spent more seat time in these than any other model of car as a child. My aunt had two 1992 models in the same dark blue color as the top photo. She bought the first one nearly-new in 1994, drove it until about 2005 when it was worn out and tired… and replaced it with THE SAME exact car, right down to the color, but with half the miles and in way better condition. She was an odd person – uber pragmatic; she hated cars, spending money on cars, and didn’t like change… so from her perspective, eternally driving an off-brand ’92 Corolla was the perfect way of life.
My mom also drove a 1992 Corolla station wagon which I spent most of my childhood in. The little engine and 3-speed transmission never missed a beat, but the body went from showroom to clean to swiss cheese in about 5 years after she bought it used. It only had 120,000 miles when it was junked due to rust. The engine and trans probably had twice as much life in them, but the suspension, exhaust, and body were so far gone that it was unsafe to drive… even by the extremely low standards of my skinflint father.
This generation of Corolla/Prism is nearly gone in the Midwest due to rust. Even the 1993-1997 models are getting scare and finding a 1998-2002 model that isn’t a clattering rusty beater is difficult now. When I visit the west coast, though, they buzz around in spades, painted faded and hubcabs usually missing, but with bodies clean as a whistle.
Best. Chevrolet. Ever.
GM was on to something having Toyota build its cars.
Geo was a dumb idea, much like Saturn or Eagle. Likely to pass if you dealers and the unions.
These were from the golden age of Toyota before they wanted to be the biggest and not necessarily the best car company. They are struggling to get back there now.
GM had learned, the hard way, that there was a serious quality perception problem with Chevrolet-branded NUMMI cars, i.e., the NUMMI-Nova. The quality of those last Novas was every bit as high as their Corolla sisters, but no one would touch them, simply because they had a Chevrolet badge. Consequently, one of the best automotive bargains, ever, was a NUMMI Nova that Chevrolet dealers had to heavily discount to get rid of. Of particular note was the short-lived Twin-Cam version which came only in black.
Because of that, GM gave the NUMMI-built cars their own brand to try and lose the GM stench. While it helped, they still couldn’t entirely shake the ‘Made-in-the-USA’ mark of crap. Even towards the end, with the last NUMMI Pontiac Vibe (aka Toyota Matrix), you could get the Pontiac for a lot less than the Toyota, even though they were virtually identical except for grille, tailights, instrument cluster, and radio.
The NUMMI project may have ultimately failed, but when they were being built and sold under the GM banner, savvy US auto consumers got some stellar deals on solid, well-built cars. A real pity the decision was made (by either GM and/or Toyota) to end the NUMMI cars.
I am going to anecdotally disagree a little on ‘the Nova’s didn’t sell only because they had a GM label on them’ theory. In 1986 I needed to buy a new car, and -being a car magazine guy- I was in the know about Novas being built on the same line as Corollas. I went to a Chevy dealer and told the salesman that I wanted to look at a Nova. He cheerfully agreed and took me to look at a Celebrity (?). When I objected and told him that I was only interested in a Nova, he said, “ Son, I ain’t got no room to move on the price on them Nova’s..
To translate, he was absolutely uninterested in even trying to sell one to me. I suspect that a lot of other potential buyers got talked out of them by salesmen who could clear more profit by selling some other car. Me? I ended up with one of first Acura Integra’s.
Yeah, that’s true. The NUMMI Nova was high priced for a subcompact Chevy (especially when compared to a Cavalier) but it wasn’t a bad deal when compared to a Corolla that was selling at MSRP (or more). Although the profit margin on the Nova was slim, after a while when it became apparent that the dealers simply weren’t putting much effort into selling them (as in the story), GM did begin putting incentives on the hood. Maybe not as great as on domestic products, but for the cognoscenti looking for a cheap(er) Corolla, the Nova fit quite nicely. Even when the dealers weren’t dealing on them, the NUMMI Nova was still a great deal. Like the legendary slant six/Torqueflite sixties’ Valiant, it’s tough to find a former NUMMI Nova owner with a bad thing to say about them.
It is interesting to think of the crosscurrents that go with your salesman story. Used to domestic buyers, I can see how a salesman might think, if he has money for a Nova, I can wow him when I show him that he could have a Celebrity. A much bigger and to him a more substantial car.
The import buyer, used to paying the 25% premium, is just thinking he might save a little, avoid ADP, and get a better warranty in exchange for stomaching the bowtie on the grill. A complete disconnect between people that just do not understand each other.
Although not common, they are still motoring around SoCal; faded paint, dented, missing hubcaps, but still providing transportation for a segment of the population. I was driving home from work alongside a first generation last week. Not a hint of smoke from the exhaust — something that can’t be said about a lot of its contemporaries.
I never knew the GSi had a 4A-GE engine or could be more expensive than a Corolla; I always assumed anything GEO was meant to appeal to frugal buyers only.
I also live in New England and haven’t seen one for quite some time, either, though I did see a Corolla or two of this vintage today.
The GSi ended up being pretty rare, which was probably not coincidental given the price.
Even the basic 4A-FE was a really good engine. The three-speed automatic didn’t show it to best advantage, but with the five-speed, it was satisfyingly spry, it got exceptionally good gas mileage, it was smooth as an electric sewing machine (which it sort of sounded like at idle), and in my experience was utterly reliable. A decent car, but a superb engine. (The Paseo that everyone was lambasting the other day would have been a very appealing package with the 4A-FE, particularly since I don’t think it weighed any more than the E90 Prizm.)
Same here–I had no idea the GSi had anything special under the hood. Very rare; they really didn’t mesh well with the usual Geo buyer and I doubt many dealers troubled themselves to stock any. The hatches weren’t popular either but you’d see one every now and then. Last time I remember seeing one was in 2011-12.
I like the first generation of Prizm. I thought the styling was very clean and even today a well taken care of one is still good looking.(especially in dark blue)
I knew a lot of folks in the 1990’s and 2000’s that had a Prizm and loved the car. i never had a Prizm but I did have a Vibe and it as well made as the Matrix it shared assembly time at the factory with
I have never seen a Prizm GSi nor have I seen the Nova Twin Cam but I bet they would have been fun to drive.
On a 1992 trip to Disneyworld, I rented a Prizm from Alamo at Orlando airport (world’s largest car rental facility according to the shuttle driver). I had a hard time finding my car in the Disneyworld parking lot as it seemed every rental car in town was a Prizm.
Very informative – for whatever reason I always assumed the Prism (and Nova) were just badge-engineered Corollas. Didn’t realize they were JDM models solely for Geo/Chevy.
I once owned a Corolla of that vintage. Got 280k miles out of it with only minor issues towards the end (rusted muffler and fenders, a window glass that fell into the door and needed to be pulled out and reinstalled, a new clutch at some point, etc.). Still ran perfectly when I sold it and I wouldn’t be surprised if someone is still driving it today. At the time the used Prizms cost less than an equivalent Toyota and I would have easily bought a Prizm if I hadn’t gotten a great deal on the Corolla. Some of the best basic transportation vehicles ever made.