Machine Design

Behind The Wheel: Chevy Prizm

Added September 9, 1999

Chevy Prizm -
Light and lively

I was anxiously anticipating a test drive in the Prizm because it was one of the last cars I expected to evaluate before deciding on a purchase for myself. When it finally arrived, I climbed aboard with great expectations because I was so pleased with one of its Toyota cousins I previously owned.

The LSi sedan I evaluated contained all available options, so I had an opportunity to test the best. For starters, I found the front seat quite comfortable (excellent on the lower back) and was happy to see the instrument panel and dashboard uncluttered and conveniently laid out. All controls are within easy reach, well marked, and their location makes sense. One novelty I discovered was the instrument panel lights that come on automatically when it’s dark outside. The panel also had a gage for temperature. Although many people are indifferent to it, I particularly like it. Also, the rear end is not as bulbous as some other subcompacts, so I could see out the rear window. The high-profile rear seats obstruct the rear view a bit too much, but I could live with it.

Prizm’s 1.8 liter, DOHC four-cylinder engine with aluminum block and cylinder head is reported to develop 120 hp and 122 lb-ft of torque. That might sound underpowered, but there was enough acceleration to let me merge safely into freeway traffic, even on short entrance ramps. I did have some trouble keeping it down to the speed limit - the Prizm wants to hurry.

I also noticed that the engine did not shudder when the air conditioner kicked in. However, the A/C may be undersized. When the outside temperature climbed to 90°, the A/C had to run at high for half an hour before the interior began to feel comfortable. Admittedly, the car sat in the sun all day, but air coming out the ports never did seem very cool. Later, I began to think the A/C might be defective. But when the outside temperature dropped to 70°, it worked just fine. In fact, it quickly got too chilly.

The 18:1 steering ratio was quite comfortable. I mention this because a compact I rented one month previously had such close steering that I was unable to stabilize it after an 18-wheeler ran me off the road into the median. I kept oversteering, swaying left to right and back. And the ABS brakes didn’t seem to help much in that accident either. Although I didn’t have the same experience with the Prizm, accelerating and cornering on hills and level ground was effortless and felt perfectly safe.

The major drawback of the Prizm is road noise. I could hear the tires rolling over the pavement even on a new, smooth blacktop road. I also heard the shock absorbers working and a myriad of mechanical workings. I wondered if they forgot to install the sound-absorbing insulation. To make matters worse, engine idle is unusually noisy for a 16-valve DOHC engine. It might not be excessively annoying to some, but it is noticeable.

Overall, the car seems lighter and tinnier than I expected. Complementing that, the stiff suspension transmits every bump in the road to your behind. As comfortable as the seat is, it does not absorb shocks well. In summary, road noise, engine noise, and the A/C capacity are major factors that would prevent me from buying the car.

On the other hand, the only positive factors that might compensate for these negatives for some buyers is the fuel economy, reported to be 28 mpg/city and 36 mpg/highway, and the price. Base price is $14,919 but the fully loaded vehicle I tested came in at $18,994. The extra four grand buys many features that are options or come standard on the LSi, including air conditioning, electric door locks, speed control, full wheel covers, four-speed automatic transmission with overdrive, electric sun roof, ABS brakes, alloy wheels, and an AM/FM radio with compact disc player.

As for me, I think I still have some window shopping to do.

- John R. Gyorki

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