VMR Canada

1993-97 Geo Prizm

1993 Geo Prizm

A Rose by Another Name

For over 13 years, GM and Toyota have been producing cars side by side. In the same factory in California. Using the same parts and components. Even now, few people know that underneath, the Geo (now Chevy) Prizm and Toyota Corolla are almost identical cars.

They are manufactured by NUMMI (New United Motors Manufacturing, Inc.), a joint venture between GM and Toyota. The first Corolla clone for GM was Chevy's Nova, which hit showrooms way back in 1985. Then the Geo nameplate was created for 1989 and a second generation model was introduced as a 1990 model.  (Note: NUMMI ended in early 2010.  The factory is now owned by Tesla Motors)

The third generation Prizm, the subject of this review, made great strides in the areas of ride quality, noise levels and overall refinement. It's available on the used car market for several hundred dollars less than a comparable Corolla.

Strengths

Weaknesses

Refinement
Comfort
Build quality
Price
Pedigree
Reliability
Smallish rear seat
3-speed automatic
Brand recognition
 

What's Available

Although a comparable Corolla was available in both sedan and wagon versions, the Prizm had one body style: a four door sedan. Only two trim levels, base and LSi were available throughout the five year model run. When new, the Prizm was priced less than the Corolla for comparable models.

Base models are rather spartan in their appearance. Despite their relative mechanical sophistication, they clearly signal their mission as one of basic transportation. LSi models get you an upgraded interior with some extra equipment thrown in the package.

Motive power for Prizms came one of two sources: the standard 1.6 liter 4-cylinder engine or an optional 1.8 liter 4-cylinder unit available only on LSi models. Both base and LSi model sported a standard 5-speed manual transmission, with automatic optional.

Exterior

The Prizm presents a crisp, modern look to the world. The fascia is rather bland, but things pick up as you move down the side. The doors are mildly sculptured, with a tight and rich looking rear-end finishing up the package. Body panel fit is outstanding.

Exposed gray steel wheels were fitted to base models, while the LSi got full wheel covers. To our eyes, the steel wheels look pretty good -- better than the wheel covers. Attractive alloy wheels available only on the LSi.

There were no major styling changes during the five-year model run.

Interior

All Prizms are endowed with an attractive and expensive- looking dashboard. Gauges (speedometer, tachometer, fuel, and temperature) are large and legible, and the big rotary heating/ventilation/AC controls are particularly easy-to-use. The tachometer was optional, so not all Prizms will have one.

Radio controls are mounted low in the console, making for somewhat awkward operation.

The interior design was a leap forward over the previous version. As you would expect, the LSi model offers the richest interior, with materials that are well coordinated with excellent fit & finish. Leather, an unusual option for an economy car, was also available on the LSi. The overall look and feel is of a cabin in a more expensive car.

Room/Comfort

The front seats in the Prizm are exceptionally comfortable for a small economy car, sporting good thigh and back support. They also offer generous fore and aft travel to accommodate both short and tall drivers. A tilt wheel was provided on LSi models.

The optional sunroof cuts down head room substantially. If you're 5'10" or more, you'll probably want to avoid it.

Leg room in rear is tight, which is really not that unusual for cars in this class. Measured against other compact sedans, the Prizm falls a little below the middle. So although the Prizm is billed a 5-passenger automobile, adult passengers will not be very happy there for very long.

Immediately noticeable is the quietness of the interior, especially at idle. Even while driving, as long as you don't dip into the gas pedal too much, you'd be hard pressed to detect a small 4-cylinder engine under the hood. For an economy car, the cabin is impressively quiet. Factor in a tight and rattle free structure and you're talking class-leading noise, vibration and harshness parameters.

Trunk space is very good, and the LSi adds a split fold-down rear seatback to enhance it's hauling capabilities.

Ride/Handling/Performance

Perhaps the Prizm's strongest feature is its delightful ride. Even in base form, the ride is exceptionally smooth for a small car. Small surface irregularities are barely felt and large bumps rarely bottom out the suspension, which never seems to lose its composure.

No doubt the strong and tight body structure contributes to this, but it's obvious the suspension folks did their job.

Handling can best be described as competent, safe and secure, but the equation seems tilted toward the comfort side. The Prizm will roll and pitch a bit when driven aggressively, but it signals its intentions to the driver quite predictably, and its limits are higher than most people will ever reach.

Power steering was optional on the base model through '96, after which it was made standard. Both power steering and manual equipped cars are communicative and responsive is, with their manual steering surprisingly light.

Compared to other cars in its price class, the Prizm is about average in the acceleration department. As expected, the optional 1.8L DOHC 115hp motor pulls the strongest. It is also well matched with the optional automatic transmission.

The standard engine, 1.6L DOHC 105hp unit, performs just fine with the 5-speed manual. When equipped with automatic, however, the smaller engine becomes less pleasant. This is no doubt due to the base engine being teamed with a 3-speed automatic transmission instead of the smoother and more refined 4-speed overdrive unit that is available with the larger engine.

Braking was very good during our testing, with or without the antilock brakes. The ABS works smoothly.

Safety

When this model bowed in 93, the Prizm (and its Corolla twin) was equipped with a driver's side airbag. Competitive pressure and government regulations forced the move to dual airbags for '94.

All Prizms are equipped with height adjustable shoulder belts

and a full surface horn contact so you won't have to struggle to find those small buttons in order to toot your horn.

Running Changes

1993: New model

1994: Passenger air bag standard

1995: None

1996: Daytime running lights added

1997: Power steering now standard

ABS brakes were available on both base and LSi models. GM's corporate-mandated safety (always on) headlights were incorporated for '96.

Government crash tests of a Prizms resulted in a very good score of four stars for both the driver and front passenger. This score put the Prizm among the leaders of the compact class.

Reliability

As an almost identical mechanical twin of the Toyota Corolla, you would expect the Prizm to deliver a high degree of reliability, and it doesn't disappoint. Other than some service issues, there are really no weak spots in regards to mechanical parts and components -- a distinct attribute in a used car.

Body structures on the two test cars we tried were very tight. Both retained their new car feel. Build quality appeared excellent.

Service

Service requirements are slightly above average for the class, including a valve clearance check that is required for both the Prizm and the Corolla. Why they are not fitted with self-adjusting lifters is a mystery.

It is interesting to compare parts prices for the Prizm to the Corolla. An AC Delco alternator for instance, lists at $145. Your local Toyota dealer will gladly sell you a Nipondenso unit for a cool 400-plus dollars. Excessive parts prices are a common issue with Japanese cars, and one often overlooked by buyers.

Another weak spot with most Toyotas, and consequently the Prizm, is the lack of a stainless steel exhaust system. You'll be replacing the stock exhaust much sooner than on, say, an Escort or a Cavalier, and it's not cheap.

Prizms are covered by the industry standard 3-year/36,000 mile warranty, leaving many 96/97 models available with factory coverage. Unfortunately, GM did not see fit to match the Corolla's extra limited powertrain warranty of 5-years/60,000 miles.

Major scheduled maintenance includes timing belt replacement, and the aforementioned valve clearance check at 60,000 miles.

Recommendations

There is absolutely nothing that would stop us from recommending the Prizm. In the world of compact economy cars, the Prizm is extremely competitive, even in the top tier. We think it's a great car, and you can by it for hundreds less than a comparable Corolla.

In fact, the only advantage of going with a Corolla we can think of is the extra limited powertrain warranty. And you can pretty much nullify that advantage by buying extra warranty coverage for the Prizm.

Since these engines are very robust anyway, it's highly unlikely you'll need the extra coverage, from whatever source. By choosing a Corolla you're really just paying extra for the Toyota name, which is silly. The Geo Prizm is one of the market's best deals.

 

General Specifications

General

Trim Levels: Base, LSi

Body Styles: 4-dr Sedan

Dimensions & Capacities (rounded)

Weight: 2485 lbs;

Length: 172.6"

Wheelbase: 97.1"

Width: 66"

Height: 57"

EPA Class: Compact

Interior Vol: 89 cu ft.

Trunk Vol : 13 cu ft

Fuel: 13.2 gallons

 

Mechanical

Layout: Front-engine, Front-wheel drive;

Engines: 1.6L (4cyl-105hp) 1.8L (4cyl-115hp)

Transmission: 5-speed manual; Optional: 3-speed automatic (1.6L) 4-speed automatic w/od (1.8L)

Brakes: Front disc/rear drum

Performance (1.8L / manual trans)

0-60mph: 9.0 seconds 1/4 mile: 17.0 seconds Top Speed: 112 mph

EPA Mileage: 28/34 (1.6L/5spd) (city/hwy) 26/30 (1.6L/Auto) 29/34 (1.8L/5spd) 27/34 (1.8L/Auto)

 

Safety

ABS Brakes: Optional

Air Bags: '93 Driver standard, '94 - '97 Dual standard

NHTSA Safety Rating:

Driver **** Passenger ****

Overall: Very Good

Key:

Best: ***** No or minor injuries probable

Worst: * Serious injury probable

IIHS 40 mph Crash Rating:

Not tested

Original Warranty:

3yr/36,000 mile bumper-to-bumper 6yr/100,000 mile corrosion

 

What They Said When New

"For a little car, it's a solid road-grabber--and remarkably quiet inside."......Car & Driver 1992

"On the curves, however, the Geo felt more stable, even though it did have a tendency to get a bit tail happy near the limit."....Motor Trend 1993

"As one might expect, this body stiffness cuts down on squeaks and rattles and makes for better handling.".....Automobile 1994

"This high-rated model and the Toyota Corolla share powertrains, platform, and many body parts, but the Prizm has a firmer ride and sportier handling."......Consumer Reports 1993

 

 

Parts/Service Costs Parts Only  Parts & Labor
Accessory belt(s)  $25-$60 $55-$90
Alternator (new) $120-$145 $175-$200
*Brakes (pads only) Front $35-$70  $170-$210
Rear $25-$40  $150-$180
CV Joints (outer ea.) $90(rblt)-$240 $225-$340
Exhaust (full) $150-$600  $280-$750
Headlamp $n/a  n/a
Struts- Front (ea.)  $95-$150 $270-$320
Struts-Rear (ea.)  $95-$120 $270-$300
Timing belt $18-$36 $170-$220
Water pump  $65-$130  $130-$170

Note: Pricing comes from dealers, wholesale mail-order companies and independent parts stores. Average labor rate computed at $50/hr. Pricing can vary widely - shop around.

*Brakes include turning rotors

 

Safety Recalls

Model Year: 1993-95 - Year of Recall: 1996

IF LIQUID IS SPILLED IN THE CONSOLE BOX AREA, THE AIR BAG WARNING LIGHT CAN ILLUMINATE AND STAY "ON" DURING NORMAL DRIVING CONDITIONS. THIS LEAKAGE CONDITION COULD CAUSE THE AIR BAG TO INADVERTENTLY DEPLOY. DEALERS WILL INSTALL A PROTECTIVE COVER OVER THE AIR BAG SENSOR TO PREVENT POSSIBLE MALFUNCTION CAUSED BY THE SPILLING OF LIQUID SUBSTANCES ON THE SENSOR. AIR BAG SENSORS DAMAGED BY PREVIOUS LIQUID SPILLAGE WILL BE REPLACED.

Model Year: 1994 - Year of Recall: 1994

THE ANCHOR STRAPS INSTALLED IN THE BELT ASSEMBLIES (FRONT INNER, LEFT AND RIGHT HAND SIDES) WERE IMPROPERLY HEAT TREATED AND CAN BREAK, WHICH WILL NOT SUFFICIENTLY RESTRAIN SEAT OCCUPANTS IN THE EVENT OF A SUDDEN STOP OR ACCIDENT. THIS DOES NOT COMPLY WITH FMVSS NO. 209, "SEAT BELT ASSEMBLIES." THE MANUFACTURER WILL PROVIDE REPLACEMENT SAFETY BELT ANCHOR STRAPS.

Model Year: 1995 - Year of Recall: 1995

THE BATTERY CAN HAVE A DEFECTIVE WELD INSIDE THE POSITIVE AND/OR NEGATIVE TERMINAL ALLOWING THE CONNECTION INSIDE OF THE TERMINAL TO SEPARATE. THIS CONDITION CAN RESULT IN A NO-START CONDITION, OR A BATTERY EXPLOSION. DEALERS WILL REPLACE DEFECTIVE BATTERIES.

Model Year: 1997 - Year of Recall: 1997

If the air bag computer in a subject vehicle experiences a mechanical shock (i.e., rapidly moving the front seat back against the stops or a sudden release of the parking brake) within a very short time after the engine is started, the air bag can deploy inadvertently. Unexpected air bag deployment can result in occupant injury. Dealers will repair the air bag computer.

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