Curbside Classic: 1987 Chevrolet Turbo Sprint (Suzuki Cultus) – The Fiat 500 Abarth Of Its Time

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(first posted 2/5/2014)      The Fiat 500 Abarth and the MINI Cooper S have brought some welcome relief for those long pining for a little pocket rocket. It had been a pretty long wait since there was something comparable on the market. The last time around, it was from Japan, even if it did have a bowtie on the hood.

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In the early 80s, GM was scrambling to meet the demand for a super-efficient car small car. The solution was found in Japan, with GM’s partly-owned Suzuki. Their newly developed SA310/Cultus—renamed the Swift in its second generation—was tapped to be GM’s high mileage/CAFE queen. In the summer 1984, the little hatch found its way to the US, slotted in below the Chevette (and with substantially higher mileage). In its second generation here, the Sprint also rated a name change, to Geo Metro (CC here). And rightfully, I would be showing you one of the normally-aspirated Sprints in my collection (there’s quite a few of these around here still). But then, I came across this rather rare Turbo Sprint. Can you blame me? Who could resist this ultimate of pocket-rockets?

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With its well-marked mail-slot air intake, its body kit and aero-style wheel covers, I spotted the Turbo Sprint from quite a ways off. Strictly speaking, the turbo version of the Sprint was not the initial and primary mileage standard bearer. That would have been the basic Sprint, which carried an 36/43 EPA (adjusted) sticker, or the ER version, with a 44/51 rating. That was 58 mpg, under the old EPA formula, if I remember correctly.

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Available only in 1987 and 1988 in the US, the Turbo Sprint added fuel injection, a turbo and, and as was so prominently announced, an intercooler. All those goodies added up to 73 horsepower from the little 993 cc three-pot pressure cooker. Given that the Sprint weighed about 1600 pounds, the power-to-weight ratio was decidedly in the fun zone. If anyone cares, has a listing for a stock ’87 Turbo Sprint for the quarter mile: 16.170 @ 87.00 MPH. Not bad for a car that can top 40 mpg.

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Drag racing was not exactly the Turbo Sprint’s calling in life. But it was about the cheapest way to have genuine fun in 1987. And without the reliability hassles of similar cars, like the original Mini Cooper. The Sprint, including the Turbo, was/is a reliable and tough little piece of work. This one has been in its current owner’s hands for fourteen years, has 144k miles on the clock, and shows no signs of slowing down.

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The Sprint was quite a little bombshell when it arrived in the summer of 1984. It was the smallest car sold here for some time, undercutting even the first generation Civic by a hair. And it was the first car to be sold here with a three-cylinder engine since the Saab two stroke. I remember a business associate in LA who drove a W126 Mercedes 500SEL, but bought one of the first Sprints (to supplant, not replace the big Benz) because…well, it’s not easy to say exactly anymore; why did he do that? It was new and cool, and the second energy crisis was still a very recent memory.

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Just like the Civic, an extended wheelbase four-door Sprint appeared a few years later. This blue example that I shot in a Park and Ride lot is in shockingly pristine condition, and has the aura of a one-owner car. Someone else loves their Sprint, still. These four-doors really were remarkably roomy considering their tiny exteriors. They were the polar opposite of what had been Detroit’s approach to small cars in the seventies, like the Vega and Pinto. Their emphasis on cuteness and stylishness gave them pathetically cramped interiors, given their exterior dimensions. Getting into the back seat of a four door Sprint is like climbing into a limo compared to a Pinto.

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The Sprint is the closest thing we ever got to a genuine Japanese kei-car, with the exception of the Honda N600 and Subaru 360. The little Suzuki is a class larger than a kei, especially in width and engine capacity. But the Turbo Sprint also follows the kei-tradition of turbocharging the little buggers. Like everything else, our cars have gotten bigger, (generally) better and safer. Although the Fiat 500 is almost exactly the same length as the Sprint, it’s taller and weighs 600 lbs more. Not bad, all things considered, although I suspect the Sprint’s rear seat is bigger.

Just for good measure, let me add that the owner of this little red scooter is a middle-aged woman, who loves it and the attention it garners. And I suspect she’ll pick up a red Abarth when it comes time to give this one up. But even a red Abarth won’t likely be quite the conversation starter as her Turbo Sprint. After all, I knocked on her front door to ask her about it.

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