(first posted 7/1/2015) Benign neglect. This was just one of the many manifestations of the poor parenting GM provided to its products during the 1980s and 1990s. Some children entered the world with developmental difficulties and were nurtured and experienced great personal growth, only to be cruelly kicked out of home (Fiero, Allanté). Others failed to live up to lofty expectations in the real world, and had their allowances cut as punishment (GM-10s). Older children were allowed to stay in the nest far too long because their paychecks were help keeping the lights on (A-Bodies). And finally, others received the warmth and admiration of their parents, only then to be completely and utterly ignored. The Chevrolet Beretta (and its Corsica sibling) was a one-generation wonder, sold for an overly long period of time, and left to wither on the vine until finally being axed.
It all seemed to start so well for the bouncing baby Beretta. Both it and the Corsica represented a shift from GM’s increasingly tired design language of sheer sides and upright glasshouses, and an embracing of the new, more aerodynamic design language that Ford had helped popularize.
If General Motors of the 1980s was a parent, though, they really needed some classes. To GM’s credit, they managed to almost completely modernize their lineup in a very uncertain climate. Fuel prices were rising at the genesis of GM’s front-wheel-drive revolution and imports were seriously eating into the juggernaut’s market share. GM had to change its huge model lineup to help lure import buyers back into the fold, meet government regulations and not scare off traditional buyers.
But for all their good intentions, there were a lot of horrible misfires and GM found themselves in an increasingly precarious financial situation, shedding money and market share. And for every new child they brought into the world, they seemed ill-prepared to send the older children out of the family home. The front-wheel-drive N-Body was to replaced the RWD G-Body, but when fuel prices levelled off, the G was given a stay of execution. The B-Body survived multiple attempts at being kicked out, and GM shot themselves in the foot by retaining the aged A-Body Century and Cutlass Ciera when they launched the much ballyhooed GM-10s. The L-Body Beretta/Corsica seems to be another example: although scarcely larger than the J-Car it was somewhat related to, it instead was sold alongside. And the same cruel neglect inflicted upon the J-Body was echoed with GM’s treatment of the Beretta.
But while its parent’s eyes were gazing adoringly upon it, the Beretta enjoyed considerable attention. Like the Corsica, it enjoyed a year of beta-testing in rental fleets for 1987. Whether this was intended to be beta-testing or a way to generate buzz is unclear, but the Beretta was fortunate enough to receive it. GM could not afford to have another botched launch like they experienced with the FWD X-Body: huge sales, but huge losses when those buyers never bought another GM after their first-year reliability nightmare.
The Beretta started just a tick over $10k, similarly priced to the base Dodge Daytona. Ford didn’t have a direct rival yet: the EXP was too small, the Tempo coupe too stodgy. But there were plenty of imports in and around this price range, as this was the Golden Age of affordable Japanese sports coupes: Prelude, Celica, Impulse, MX-6, et all. The Beretta’s base price undercut them, but its base engine showed why: a 2.0 fuel-injected four borrowed from the Cavalier, and putting out only 90 horsepower and 108 pound-feet of torque. If you wanted more oomph, you had to pony up for the GT, equipped with GM’s now ubiquitous 2.8 V6 which featured 130 hp and 160 ft-lbs. Either engine was available with a choice of five-speed manual or three-speed automatic. Mechanically, then, the Beretta was barely evolved from the Cavalier: out back was a simple beam axle. Handling was competent, though, especially in GT trim with its Z51 suspension tune.
But if the powertrain offerings were disappointing, the interior was even more-so. GM was still capable of putting out at least pleasant-appearing interiors, even if the Japanese were often superior in material and assembly quality. The Beretta’ s interior, though, was identical to the Corsica and featured an awkward looking dash that looked like a long shelf. Ergonomics were questionable, with radio and HVAC controls positioned quite low on the dash. Noise, vibration and harshness were keenly felt in this low-rent cabin.
The first “special” Beretta was the GTU, with a racy bodykit produced by Cars & Concepts of Brighton, Michigan. Chevy wanted to go IMSA racing with the Beretta body, and thus had to sell at least 500 production Berettas with the new rear spoiler design. An extra $2500 over the GT V6 netted you unique “meat-slicer” wheels, ground effects and the new rear spoiler. The overall look wasn’t over-the-top, but it was a hefty premium for a slightly sportier appearance. As with the GT, 0-60 was accomplished in around 9.5 seconds, which was about average for the segment.
Ford would finally launch a compelling compact FWD sport coupe with the 1989 Probe. Utilizing Mazda mechanicals, the Probe offered a more modern and refined four-cylinder engine as its base offering. To tackle this, Chevy would release a Beretta with a more modern four. GM had launched its first domestically-produced, double overhead cam four-cylinder engine in 1987 – the gutsy Quad 4 – but so far had kept the engine in Buick, Oldsmobile and Pontiac models. For 1990, a High Output version of the Quad 4 would make its way into the new performance flagship Beretta GTZ.
GM arrived right in time, too. The compact sport coupe segment was boiling over, with the new Probe a success and the Diamond-Star triplets garnering a lot of attention. The GTZ’s cosmetic improvements kept the basic Beretta looking fresh. There was a smooth, grill-less front, as well as a GTZ-exclusive suspension tune and body-colored 16×7-inch rims in Goodyear Eagle VR55 tires. But it was what was under the hood that really mattered. The DOHC, 16-valve HO Quad 4 was a high-revver and pumped out 180 hp at 6200rpm and 160 ft-lbs at 5200rpm. Torque down low was adequate, but giving it some gas unleashed a swell of power. 0-60 was accomplished in 7.6 seconds: very impressive for a naturally-aspirated four-cylinder. A five-speed manual was the only transmission available.
But if you couldn’t feel the Quad 4’s power, you sure could hear it. If the GT and GTU were noisy, the GTZ was positively raucous. This was a criticism levelled at all GM products with their modern new engine.
Handling, though, was neutral and the ride not too harsh. Motor Trend found in their 1990 “Bang For Your Buck” special that the Beretta bested all of the entrants bar the 300ZX in the slalom. The Beretta also handled better than the N-Body Grand Am and Cutlass Calais, and was quicker from 0-60 than the Probe GT Turbo. Overall, the Beretta finished 8th out of 20 in the overall “bang for your buck” score. But although the GTZ had plenty of power for an atmo four, it was priced right in Mustang LX and Camaro Z28 territory. Front-wheel-drive traction was a selling point in snowier climates but the Beretta wasn’t considerably more refined or better-built than the aging Mustang and Camaro.
Another new Beretta that Chevy was touting was its planned convertible variant, also scheduled for launch in 1990. The Beretta convertible, featuring a roll-bar similar to the new Cutlass Supreme convertible, was publicized by GM in brochures and magazines and paced the Indy 500 in May 1990. It was all but expected to arrive in Chevy showrooms – some dealers had commenced taking orders – but GM announced just a few months later that plans for the convertible had been scrapped. Apparently, the contracted engineers just couldn’t ensure an acceptable degree of chassis stiffness, which seems odd considering the existence of the J-Body convertibles.
Although the convertible didn’t happen, 1990 was still a significant year for the Beretta beyond the flagship GTZ. Lesser Berettas now came with a 2.2 four or a 3.1 V6, up 5 and 10 horsepower respectively over the previous four and V6. There was also a limited edition Indy model which was quite possibly the most early-1990s looking car ever.
The following year would be less momentous for the Beretta, but there were still meaningful improvements. All Berettas received a driver’s side airbag and a new dash layout. Although similar to the cheapened dashes now in GM-10 cars, it was an improvement over the chintzy, original Beretta dash. If you wanted the slick appearance of the GTZ without the noisy Quad 4, you could now get a GTZ with the 3.1 V6 but only with a three-speed automatic. Although stickshift V6s would return, it would be short-lived: 1993 would be the last year you could buy a Beretta so equipped.
GM made a big deal out of the widespread availability of airbags and anti-lock brakes in its cars, to the point of pasting “ABS” logos on their exteriors. But as automakers rushed to roll out safety features in their cars, the Beretta was quickly left as one of the few cars on the market without dual airbags. And that wasn’t the only way the Beretta was now outmoded: the base four was saddled with the three-speed automatic right until the model’s axing, despite the availability of a four-speed automatic in the V6.
The last few years of the Beretta’s run would see the shuffling of trim options (GTZ became Z26, for example) and minor engine tweaks. That V6 was now up to 160 horsepower, but still wasn’t as powerful as the Quad 4. The raucous, rev-happy Quad 4 would be gone after 1994. Either buyers weren’t happy with its refinement, or the lack of an automatic killed its sales potential. And if you were one of those buyers who wanted a manual, it was now the 2.2 four or nothing.
You would have been misguided to buy a new 1996 Beretta, unless you got an amazing deal on it. Chevy was touting its Special Value Packages at this time, but the Beretta’s MSRP was still squarely in Probe territory. And that Probe wasn’t the door-stop shaped, Back to the Future coupe launched in 1989. A new, more aggressively-styled Probe had launched for 1993, once again with Mazda mechanicals, and it made the Beretta look like the flaky, outmoded coupe it was.
For 1997, the Corsica would be replaced by the new, more modern Malibu. Conspicuous in its absence was any kind of Malibu coupe. The market had spoken: coupes were no longer hot property. The Beretta nameplate would disappear from the North American market alongside names like Talon, 200SX, Laser, Probe, 300ZX, MX-6, Daytona, Impulse, Storm, Prelude and del Sol. Although the segment had been withering and dying, it’s interesting to note that for such a fashion-conscious market, Chevy did fresh little to keep the Beretta looking a little fresh. Other than changes to wheels and bodykits, the Beretta remained visually the same for its entire run.
It was as though the Beretta’s parents had realized they had other, bigger kids (Silverado, Tahoe) that could give them the glory they sought. They had given the Beretta some attention six years ago, why should they keep that up? If the Beretta couldn’t go out with what they gave it and make some money, why bother keeping it around? Instead, they decided to shower some attention on the even more neglected Cavalier instead, before repeating the same vicious cycle all over again. Perhaps the problem wasn’t with the children. It was the parent.