COAL – 1990 Chevrolet Beretta GTZ – Trying Hard To Be A Genuine Sports Coupe


photo by W. Stopford

It was June 1990, and I had just graduated from grad school and started my first week as an engineer at General Motors.  For someone who was a certifiable car-nut since childhood, it was almost like dying and going to heaven.  I had a 10 year old Civic in college which was rusting itself into oblivion, and self-conscious about showing up for work in a Japanese car, I traded cars with my dad and drove his ’88 Escort until I could get a new set of GM wheels using my employee discount.  How exciting!

I visited all of the GM dealerships in Lansing Michigan and this white Beretta GTZ caught my eye, parked in the showroom of the local Chevy dealership.  It was stunning, all white with skirts, spoilers and matching 5 spoke alloy wheels.  It was love at first sight, and I bought it on the spot.  The GTZ, new for 1990, was Chevy’s top trim level for the 3 year old L-car platform shared with the more pedestrian Corsica sedan.  It had the new HO version of GM’s 2.3L Quad 4 engine featuring 180 hp, which was a lot at the time, driven through a Getrag 5 speed manual and 205/55 VR16 Goodyear Gatorback tires.  So the hardware and the specs were impressive, but how well did all of this componentry come together into a refined, sporting coupe?

The 2.3L HO Quad 4 engine had 180 hp and a muscular exhaust note, and with the 5 speed Getrag manual transmission it was very quick for its day.  Yes it was pretty raucous up to the redline but if you’re grinning as you run up the gears your ear canals close up and help block out the racket.  It had an agreeable ride-handling balance, not as bone-crushingly stiff as you might think.  I ran the Beretta in local SCCA Solo events and it wasn’t very competitive against the Acura Integras and Toyota Celicas in its class; it felt big and clumsy on a tight parking lot course and the Quad 4’s power delivery was like an on-off switch.  On a racetrack it was much better.  We did a few track days at mid-Ohio and other road courses, and more than a few times spectators would comment on how sweet the Quad 4 sounded passing by at full throttle.

Beretta and I had 6 memorable years together. Driving home from work on the highway one evening in the middle of a horrific ice storm, one of the tires on this car decided to shred itself after running over something on the road. So I had no choice but to pull over onto the shoulder and attempt to change a tire on a dark but busy highway in freezing rain, during rush hour traffic. It was the most miserable time, soaked from head to toe with ice pellets pelting my face, fingers numb with cold trying to loosen uncooperative lug nuts, and terrified that a wayward car will slide off the half-frozen highway and send me and Beretta to the great garage in the sky. But an angel in the form of a semi truck driver pulled up and stopped behind me, blocking the shoulder and shielding me from danger, keeping his headlights fixed on me so I could see. I waved and mouthed a huge “thank you” as I finished up and moved on.

The GTZ would rank up as one of my favorite cars that I’ve owned, despite some of its glaring flaws.  The biggest problem was that this car is really not suited to be a winter vehicle.  The same low profile Goodyear tires that were so difficult to change in freezing rain were also atrocious in snow, but the more serious issue was that the Quad 4 engine couldn’t put out enough heat to warm the interior.  I remember more than one long highway trip during brutal sub-zero Michigan winters where I’d have to stop and let the engine idle every 20 minutes to warm up the cabin, then get back on the road and stop again when frostbite started setting in again.  I asked around my colleagues and found out that it was a design flaw in the cooling system that was being corrected in a future model year.

Another design flaw prompted me to move on and get rid of the Beretta, the dreaded Quad 4 head gasket leak which I was well aware of.  It was only a matter of time, and by 80,000 miles the telltale whiff of white smoke was starting to appear.  So it was time for Beretta and I to say goodbye before the engine self-destructed.  I miss it, though.  It was a perfect example of GM in the late 80’s – well intended, distinctively styled, mostly well engineered but with a few glaring deal-breaking faults.  The final verdict on the Beretta GTZ was that yes, it could match the raw performance numbers of its Japanese competitors but still fell short in refinement and day to day livability.  But we had great memories together, and future cars in my garage wouldn’t have the same charisma that this GTZ did.

Related CC reading:
Curbside Capsule: 1990-93 Chevrolet Beretta GTZ – Locked And Loaded