Curbside Classic: 1994-96 Chevrolet Beretta Z26 – Cool, But Not Cool Enough

The 1987 Chevrolet Beretta was a big deal.  It marked a return to a 2-door compact Chevrolet that was something more than just a sedan afterthought.  It also saw Chevrolet move out of the boxy styling that was so-1980 and into the smoothly styled mainstream of the 90’s.  It did not, however change Chevy’s trajectory in any significant way in a world where the competition was no longer just Ford, but also Toyota, Nissan and Honda.  Still, it could have been worse.

The word Beretta is cool.  Or it evokes cool things.  I remember in the 1970’s there was a television show called Beretta.  Robert Blake was a hip, cool kind of detective.  He dressed in a “like, way out, baby” kind of way, and was the kind of character cool enough to have a parrot or a cockatoo or some kind of bird.  (I am not sure – my little sister watched the show more than I did – maybe I wasn’t cool enough.)  People who have birds are either really nerdly or really cool.  Robert Blake’s Beretta was the second kind.  OK, I just looked it up and it was actually spelled Baretta.  But it sounds the same and my mental free-association remains unaffected.

Then there is the Italian pistol.  I am not a gun guy, but there is something about a Beretta that makes it the hip and cool firearm as opposed to the steely, efficient German Glock or the American classic brought to mind by a Colt.  It was easy to imagine the guy with a Beretta as the stealthy assassin in the movie who is smarter than the bad guys he’s trying to knock off and the cops trying to catch him.

Then there is this car.  When it came out I immediately associated it with the two examples above.  The new cool Chevy compact coupe – this was what my mind said to me when I first heard about it.  It was clearly more cool than the Corsica, the sedan that tried to bring a Mediterranean vibe with its name, never mind the thrashy powertrains and leaden handling that GM cars in the lower price ranges were becoming famous for.

In truth I kind of liked the style of the Beretta.  Not enough to look into buying one of them – I had moved beyond my sporty-new-car infatuation of the mid 80’s by the time these were out, and was back into my automotive happy place with a 1966 Fury III sedan.  So no Beretta for me, thank you.

It did look like Chevrolet was getting serious about taking on the aero dominance of the day’s Ford Motor Company, as well as the quite modern offerings coming from Lee Iacocca’s Chrysler.  The Beretta was the first Chevrolet that made me admire its styling in quite a few years.  Remember when beautiful cars in a Chevrolet showroom were something we took for granted?  As I think about it, if we ignore Corvettes, we might have to go back to the 1970 Monte Carlo or maybe the 1967 Impala to find a Chevy with styling that really moved me.  The Beretta was not in the same league as those cars, but it was not at all a bad effort for The General of the 1980’s.

In truth, as years went on I kind of forgot about the Beretta.  As one who moved from my ’66 Plymouth into the ’88 Accord (which I was fortunate enough to marry) there was nothing about the Beretta that was relevant to my life.  It was neither the old-school sled that was my sentimental favorite, nor the smooth and refined kind of car that was well along the way to colonizing the world for the Japanese manufacturers.  And once the kids started coming, any case to be made for a car like a Beretta pretty much vanished, never to return.

The poor Beretta seemed (to me, at least) to be the car that did nothing particularly well, but which would get a young person of modest means to work and back every day in a reliable if unexciting and undistinguished kind of way.  But that was often enough, and those of us who lived in the land of the GM employee purchase plan saw these things on the road by the gross.  Often with white or metallic blue paint having peeled from their horizontal surfaces in great sheets.

I had kind of forgotten that there were versions of the Beretta which tried to stir the kind of pride of ownership that once came naturally to the owner of a new Chevrolet, but was reminded one sunny Saturday morning some years back when I came across this one.

Everyone remembers that Chevy offered a Nova SS, but who remembers that the Beretta got a similar treatment?  Maybe the problem was that there were so many of them.  In addition to the basic GT available at the 1987 intro, there were the 1988-89 GTU . . .

and the 1990-93 GTZ.  All of these came with the usual confusing combinations of engines and transmissions from the GM parts bin, such as the Olds Quad 4, the 3.1 V6, a Getrag-designed 5 speed or a 3 speed automatic.  In magazine tests of the day these sportier models were pronounced as decent performers with underwhelming interiors.  One reviewer with Popular Science Magazine decided that the dash reminded him of one in a Nash that had been owned by his grandparents.

Oh yes, we mustn’t forget the 1990 Indy edition to commemorate a Beretta being chosen as the Pace Car for the Indianapolis 500.  Or a heavily modified Beretta-ish one-off convertible being chosen as the Pace Car.  But this retail version was popular enough in its time.

Chevy tried to make some sense out of the lineup in 1994 when the GT and GTZ were replaced by the Z26.  Everyone knew what a Z-28 was, and now there would be a Cavalier Z24, a Lumina Z34 and this one slotted neatly between them.  The 3.1 V6 became the 3100 V6 and was offered solely with a new 4 speed automatic.  The Quad 4 (manual only) hung around for one last year before going away.  The new Z26 wasn’t the all-out performer the GTZ had been, but then maybe this was not a market niche where that mattered so much.

I have no idea whether this one is a ’94, a ’95 or an end-of-the-line 1996 model – it has been too long since I chatted with its owner in my bank parking lot.  I also do not recall seeing the car around later – as I recall, the middle-age female owner didn’t drive it much as it was her “fun car”.

I don’t know why I decided to take pictures of this one – maybe just that it was in such great condition and that it was a top-of-the-line version that was not very common in my part of the world.  I only wish my then-current cellphone camera could have done a better job with this clean, shiny black car on a bright sunny morning.

Maybe I also had some instinctive understanding that this was the last time Chevrolet tried to recapture its glory days in this segment – one that would soon be replaced by the horrid 1997 Malibu, a dullard appliance if ever there was one.

In this car I saw a worthy successor to the old Nova SS of the 1970’s.  Yes, it had been an unassuming compact powered with off-the-shelf components, but Chevy had a pretty component shelf in those days and the Nova SS became a favorite of the performance crowd as time went on.  It was not the Beretta’s fault that Chevy’s parts bin wasn’t what it had once been.  Which is probably why Chevrolet was well along the path to becoming the perennial USA-2 (if that).

The Beretta may have suffered from its many compromises, but this shiny black Z26 still offered a flicker of Chevrolet’s former glory in the way the old Vaudeville performers in their last days could still bring smiles and applause from new audiences in the 1970’s.  The Beretta was never my thing when they were new, but this particular one makes me smile and appreciate that it was somebody’s thing and that somebody treated it so well for so long.  I don’t know if I would want to “See the USA” in it, but it does give me a hankering for a slice of apple pie.

Further Reading:

1987-1996 Chevrolet Beretta – Latchkey Kid (William Stopford)

1996 Chevrolet Beretta – A Touch Of Sportiness (Richard Bennett)