COAL- 1999 Chevrolet Prizm- The Right Car at the Right Time

Craigslist Sale Pictures from April 2011. It sold within 24 hours of posting.

I’m skipping two vehicles in my COAL series due to recent coverage by other writers. I migrated from the 2002 Mazda Protégé to a company car Pontiac Vibe for two years (2003-2005). Now those salad days with a free car were over. I would get my monthly car allowance from work back, but I was down a car. My Vibe review will consist of three words: I liked it.

At this point in the summer of 2005,  we had  2 toddlers at home and were both working. If you added up our incomes, it seemed we were doing well. But we had two kids in day care, and a new 15 year mortage I took on for the house we bought in 2000.  In reality, we were running on fumes…one medical issue, a job layoff, one bad furnace, etc. away from financial disaster.  I’ve never read the book from that period called “The Two Income Trap”, but glancing at the synopsis, in many ways, that described us at that time in our lives.  I now needed wheels, and this was the period where GM and Fuji Heavy Industries/Subaru had a brief tie up, and one of the spawn of this ultimately doomed relationship was the “Saabaru “, the 9-2X.   It was a Subaru Impreza WRX with a Saab styled front end, a few actual Saab mechanical, exterior and interior bits to make it semi “Saaby”,  and voila, the 9-2X was born. I thought the package looked pretty good, and I was intrigued.

The 2005 9-2x- The Best Car I Never Had!

So,  at lunch one day soon after turning the Vibe in,  I ran down to the Saab dealer to drive a 9-2X.   They were offering 0.0% APR on all Saabs and I could combine that with my brothers GM employee discount. For about 45 delusional minutes,  I giddily convinced myself that we could afford it.  $450 monthly payments, $2000 annual insurance premiums?  Ha! All that would work itself out.  Maybe we’d cancel cable? I’d soon be driving a  hot hatch around town. This would be my first semi-performance car and damned if I wasn’t ready and damned if I didn’t deserve it (or not).  I test drove it, liked it, and decided …that I was a complete and total idiot. What was I thinking?  I handed the keys back to the salesman and scurried off.  The weight of life’s responsibilities hit me like a freight train, but in a good way. Cheap and cheerful (and cheap) was what we needed.

So, off to a nearby mega Chrysler dealership bargain lot I went after work before they closed. Southeast Michigan is unlike most places in terms of car shopping. Dealers are open till 6PM Tuesday’s, Wednesday’s and Friday’s, and until  9PM on Monday’s and Thursday’s. The 9PM “long”days are always extremely crowded at dealerships. It is only until in the last ten years or so that most dealerships have Saturday hours, but even then, it is something like 9AM-2PM.  And they are never, ever open on Sunday, at least that I’ve seen. So, to new car shop you almost need to take a day off.

After a very quick negotiation before closing time,  I bought a 1999 Prizm.    This is of course, a Toyota Corolla with a few minor body panel differences.  Apparently, the AC unit and radio was Delphi, rather than from Toyota’s normal OEM. Once part of the Geo sub-brand, it now wore a Chevy bowtie.   It was made at New United Motor Motor Manufacturing Inc. (NUMMI) in Fremont, CA, a GM-Toyota joint venture that lasted from 1984 to 2010.  For GM it was an opportunity to learn about Japanese lean manufacturing and  how the Japanese could make money off small cars.  Or was it: keep your friends close, your enemies closer?  Toyota’s gain at that time was a west coast factory and for the company to avoid potential import restrictions or tariffs from the Feds.    Irony of ironies, it is now the Tesla Plant of course, and has over 6,000 employees and is going like gangbusters.

There were at least 2 owners of my Prizm before me.  It started off life on the east coast as a rental and had 60,000 miles on it.  There was a half-dollar sized rust spot in the rear quarter panel. As part of the sale, they fixed it and I drove it home for $5,500 out the door.  A stripper, it was an automatic and did have air, but those were the only option boxes checked. The radio was AM/FM only, no CD, no cassette, crank windows, and no power locks. It was equipped with a West Virginia-built 1.8L twin cam ZZ engine.

If you knew anything about cars, you certainly knew objectively that Corolla’s and by association Prizm’s were very reliable cars, and that was my motivation: reliable motoring.  I had considered a Prizm a week or two before and missed out on a Prism LSI being offered by a private seller.  The LSI had alloy sport wheels, power everything and a full gauge package (which really comes in handy in a car like this), amenities which would have been most welcome.  Mine had plastic wheel covers and I lost one right away.  So  I put after-market “mag” wheels on the car to perk up the exterior, and a bit later, a Best Buy Alpine radio with I-pod jack and new speakers to make it a bit more my own.

I get why people around the world love Corollas, and there is a reason why it’s the all-time best-selling car globally. It is because they are great cars, full stop. If you want excitement, look elsewhere. At that point in my life, excitement was not what I needed. While it wasn’t exceptional at any one thing, it did everything extremely well. Well designed, extremely reliable, fuel efficient, cheap to repair and insure,  long lasting, and true to its mission. Inside, hard plastic surfaces made it a feel like an economy car, but it was tough and durable.

But even Japanese cars aren’t maintenance free or infallible, no car is of course. The AC unit siezed a year into ownership, and it was the evap core, the mother lode repair of the system. It would have required removal of the dash to swap it out and upwards of $1,000 to fix it. I decided to solve the problem by doing nothing and just toughed it out.

A bit over 100,000 miles, it started to blow oil out the black, and while it wasn’t puffing white smoke, the telltale sign was the sooty black rear bumper above the muffler.  Apparently this was a problem with certain runs of this motor. There was a dealer fix for this called a ring cleaning, which I never looked into.   I solved this problem by buying the absolute cheapest no-brand oil I could find and kept it in the trunk in ample supply. Toward the end, it was using a quart a month or more.  It needed a down pipe off the exhaust manifold and and some suspension work along the way.

It started and ran and did everything I asked of it, always. In short, I would recommend a Corolla to anyone looking for quality basic transportation.   Despite the market being down on cars these days, and models like the Cruze, Fiesta and Focus being dropped in the near future in North America, I maintain cars like this will always have a place for the average North American family. Cars in this class are a better value, with more content than ever, and they just make good sense for a lot of people. Now, with GM and Ford’s  move away from compacts, Honda will get to sell a lot more Civic’s, and Toyota, a lot more Corolla’s. They have to be pinching themselves now that this market is theirs on a silver platter.

By spring of 2011, I had this car for nearly 6 years and it was getting more than a little rough around the edges.     In the fall of 2010, I was involved in fender bender.  More than a little stupidity on my part factored in on the incident that evening,  so the less said about that the better. A junkyard swapped headlight and some prying of sheet metal  in the front yard sorted that out. The headliner was sagging.  Rust bubbles were forming here and there.  A running 12 year old car in a state like Michigan doesn’t emerge from the gauntlet of our bad roads, winter salts and potholes and 4 seasons unscathed.  It was now officially a hooptie.  It kept breaking interior door handles, the cheap plastic would get brittle and crack. So, you had to roll the window down, and open the door from the outside… great in the winter. Once, someone in the city tried to break into the trunk, which could now only be opened from the latch inside.  The no AC thing was become a bit of a drag. Yet, it was like a comfy pair of old running shoes, and it was my loyal and faithful servant.

By the time I was ready to sell, at almost 149,000 miles, it was a willing runner with a long list of mostly minor issues outside of the oil burn and AC. It would be a great winter beater, or a kid’s first car or for someone who didn’t have a lot of scratch but needed a decent car.  To part with it with a clean conscience,  I listed every single known issue in the Craigslist post and asked $750 for it. I  was practically begging people not to buy it.

I had no fewer than twenty inquiries the same day the ad posted, and it was sold and gone within 24 hours. It was a feeding frenzy.  Non-English speakers tried to communicate and negotiate a sale in cryptic e-mails: “Sir, $500?”.  One desperate youth emailed me, “Dude, I got a new baby, would you take $300 plus an X-box system and all my games for it? I need a car now, bro”. Uh…no.  One would-be buyer walked up as I sold it, and offered me $1,000.00 and stormed away angrily when I told him it was sold.  The buyer was a Middle Eastern guy who had a budget lot in the City, who was going to flip it.   I guess I put too low a number on it, but the deal was done.  Mrs. C commandeered the new car process this time, and  we picked up out next car the same day the Prizm was sold. It didn’t owe me a dime.