Small cars have never been a strong talent for General Motors. Throughout the history of America’s largest automaker, the corporation has always placed a greater emphasis and priority in large vehicles, whether it be full-size cars or full-size SUVs. Smaller cars on the other hand have always been somewhat of a half-hearted effort, or at least that’s the way it would appear given most of the smaller cars GM has put out in the last several decades.
Naturally, there is a somewhat logical explanation for this in that larger cars simply make more money for GM. Given their lower retail prices, the gross margin on small cars is lower for all automakers than it is for larger, more expensive cars. But for various production, supplier, and other complexities, in many cases, GM often ends up losing money on every small car it sells.
So, if higher transaction prices are equal to higher profit margins, why not just specialize in the product you can produce for less and sell for more? It sounds like an easy decision, but the big picture is far more complicated than any textbook economics principal. The truth is that the market for large cars is always less stable, as higher fuel costs and recessions are always significant threats to the sales of these vehicles.
Moreover, an even more important consideration is the negative effects to brand image when it comes to the continuous practice of releasing inferior products. This is especially significant in a segment that, despite lower profit margins per unit, is a far more important to long-term vitality. GM has certainly been making much better cars in recent years, but sadly, the way in which many people perceive these cars has not improved as much as the cars themselves.
When it comes to compact cars for its mainstay Chevrolet brand, it seems GM’s strategy in the past always went as followed: come out with a car that was at very best average among class competitors, produce it with few changes for as long as humanly possible, then replace it with a car of similar mediocrity, slapping a new name on it to avoid association with its predecessor. In terms of renaming, Cavalier was the one exception in that it managed to last for three lengthy generations spanning 24 model years. Regardless, names like Citation, Cavalier, and Cobalt don’t bring to mind the most positive memories.
Despite a single generation of ten model years, out of sheer lack of any noteworthy or memorable quality, the least remembered of these cars is the Corsica. Sold from 1987-1996, the Corsica filled the place of Chevy’s intermediate car which had been left vacant since the Citation was discontinued in 1985. Fitting rather snugly between the smaller Cavalier and larger Celebrity (and later Lumina), the Corsica competed against similar-sized vehicles including the Ford Tempo and Plymouth Acclaim.
It may have seemed unnecessary for Chevy to offer yet another small car so close in size to two others, but keep in mind these were the pre-crossover days. Sedans sold in far greater numbers and accounted for a much larger percent of overall brand sales. Unlike today, they didn’t just come in small, medium, and large, so for an automaker of GM’s size, filling any visible gap was a justifiable action.
Furthermore, the Corsica was not without value proposition. For about twenty-percent more than a base Cavalier, the Corsica offered more features, space, and available V6 power. At least at the time of its introduction, it was easily the most stylish and modern-looking sedan in the Chevrolet stable, and it had a decidedly less rickety appearance than the J-car Cavalier.
Early Corsicas were somewhat appealing, at least from an onlooker’s prospective. With several trim levels, choice of engine and transmissions, and a decent number of options, the Corsica presented potential buyers with the ability to equip one to his or her own preference. Early models also featured rather attractive red-accent trim. In lieu of a wagon, a cleverly disguised hatchback was available from 1989-1991, adding considerably more cargo capacity. Also briefly offered, was a range-topping LTZ model, jazzing things up a bit with a grille-less nose, body kit, alloy wheels, and upgraded interior.
Nevertheless, the Corsica was very much a value-oriented automobile. Just one look at the interior would clear up any doubts of this. Quite frankly, the original interior was rather numbing and barren. Thankfully, a redesigned instrument panel arrived in 1991, the only significant update the Corsica saw over its entire run. Not that it did much to improve overall levels of refinement. Reflective of both its downmarket and fleet intentions, Corsica interiors were still bestowed with rental-grade cloth and a general lack of any excitement.
It should be noted that the Corsica’s L-body (shared with its Beretta coupe sibling) was exclusive to Chevrolet, so rather uncommonly, these two models did not have any rebadged siblings from other GM divisions. Although the L-body was somewhat mechanically related to the N-body, the Corsica/Beretta utilized an extensive amount of unique components.
In terms of styling, the Corsica was clearly more aero-influenced than any other Chevy sedan at the time of its introduction. There were, however, still many straight lines and sharp angles in the design, giving it a far more boxy and conservative appearance than the new designs that Ford was coming out with at the time. Early design sketches show a far more radical plan, with more curves and flowing lines, but these ultimately did not make it to production. It is quite interesting to compare how each automaker approached aero styling in the late-’80s/early-’90s, and this perhaps deserves an article of its own.
GM, and in particular, Chevrolet’s interpretation of the “aero look” during this period was far more cautious, with a lot of squareness still present in its designs. Admittedly, some of this was the result of long development cycles, with finalized designs appearing years before vehicles ever made it off the assembly line. Regardless of this, Ford, which had first popularized the aero trend several years earlier, was moving on to increasingly organic shapes by this point. Owing to this, in a matter of just a few years, the Corsica was already beginning to look dated and dour.
Given its “inbetweener” position in Chevy’s sedan lineup, it’s easier to see why the Corsica was not updated during its run. Its bookends, the Cavalier and Lumina, were more important cars to Chevrolet and thus a higher priority when it came to making updates. While neither car was perfect, the Cavalier was indeed cheap and the Lumina was very spacious, two of the most important requirements of the compact and mid-size classes, respectively. The Corsica, meanwhile, was more of a bonus for Chevrolet. Given its steady sales, now creating a hefty return on investment, Chevy just didn’t feel the need to put any more money into this fleet-queen.
Taking into account its elderly age, the Corsica sold quite well right up until the end, even if the bulk of its sales were to fleets. From a high of almost 300,000 in 1988, Corsica sales soon leveled off near the 150,000 mark, where they would remain through 1996. These numbers do not include the 2-door Beretta, which from 1991-on was selling between 40,000 and 70,000 units annually. Chevrolet, however, would commonly lump Corsica and Beretta sales numbers together, as the latter was just the coupe version of the former in all but name.
What’s curious about the Corsica is that it wasn’t even much of a bargain in its later years. Although much nearer in size to the Cavalier, its price was far closer to the Lumina. Starting at just under $9,000 in 1987, base prices steadily rose to just over $14,000 in its final year (just under $22,000 in 2015 dollars). By that point, steep dealer discounts were extremely likely, but significantly more modern cars could be had for that kind of money in 1996.
Of course, the Corsica wasn’t even the oldest small car left in the GM stable by 1996. The A-body Buick Century and Oldsmobile Cutlass Ciera had been around since 1982. And although their general appearance and amount of creature comforts hadn’t advanced much in that time, GM had at least made some thoughtful mechanical and quality improvements over the years, helping them become among the most reliable American cars on the road by their own discontinuation in 1996. These cars also had a loyal consumer following, mainly those who wanted reliable, no-nonsense transportation, and who had often owned multiple A-bodies over the years.
Nonetheless, the Corsica was painfully outdated by time Chevy finally pulled the plug. Lacking the modern safety and convenience features that were becoming omnipresent as well as sufficient crash-worthiness for the tougher standards soon to arrive, the Corsica simply couldn’t continue as it was. After ten years of anonymity, Chevy finally axed the Corsica. Unsurprisingly, it would be superseded by another forgettable, “that’ll hold us over for a few years” car, the 1997 Malibu.