Cheap wheels, basic transportation. Whatever you call it, the Chevrolet Metro is as minimalistic as they come. Also known as Suzuki Swift, the Metro is best regarded as an urban vehicle, a commuter or grocery-getter that is cheap to buy, cheap to own and cheap to operate. It's there to get the job done, but it also provides some sporty small-car enjoyment. And the gas mileage is excellent. Sure, you could take one of these on a road trip, but its diminutive dimensions and small engine might turn your pleasure tour into a grueling trek, threatened by looming semis and bogged down on uphill climbs. Though most Metros are sold in the shorter, two-door configuration, our tester was a marginally larger four-door. Both models are built on the same 93-inch wheelbase, but the sedan's rear bodywork makes it 15 inches longer. Thankfully, the sedan comes only with the bigger four-cylinder. Bigger, of course, is relative. This is a 1.3-liter unit, which is big when compared with the coupe's standard 1-liter, three-cylinder base engine. That's right, three cylinders. This little mill is a gas-mileage champ, rated by the EPA at 41 mpg city and 47 mpg highway. Now that gas prices have been climbing precipitously, that could be a major consideration. But only just, because at 55 horsepower this buzzing little critter barely can get out of its own way. I'd say that if you're going for the coupe, pony up the extra cash for the four-cylinder engine. With the four-cylinder, the sedan had enough power to keep up with traffic, and turned in decent gas mileage. Performance is not exactly sprightly, but winding out the little engine does achieve a reasonable amount of zip. And for those who wonder, yes, my 6 1/2-foot frame does tuck in behind the wheel of the Metro. But barely. Most drivers and front-seat passengers should find enough room up front, though back-seat passengers larger than child-size might feel challenged. Otherwise, the interior is reasonably comfortable and well-finished, with straightforward gauges and controls. The $13,000 test Metro came with a decent array of features, including central locking (windows were manual) at $220; a rear-window defogger for $160; a $125 package of remote trunk release, split folding rear seat, dual manual remote mirrors and a trunk light; and a $1,665 package that included power steering, an upgraded stereo (still pretty lame) and air-conditioning. An anti-lock braking system was $565 extra, surprising because Chevrolet was a pioneer in offering this important safety feature as standard equipment on even its most inexpensive vehicles, such as Cavalier. Until last year, Metro was sold by Chevy dealers as a Geo Metro, along with the Geo Prism, but both are now Chevrolets. The four-door's styling is generic Japanese, but fit and finish are pretty good for such an inexpensive car. Both the coupe and the four-door Metros were restyled and re-engineered a few years back , improving their driveability and changing the boxy, utilitarian style of the earlier models. Actually, I find the shorter coupe version of the Metro to be more interesting to look at and more fun to drive. It's just a basic little hatchback, but it handles well and feels sporty. I definitely could see having one as a second car for tooling around town, or as a fun little ride for a young driver. Compared with competitive budget craft from Korea, made by Hyundai and Kia, the Suzuki offerings seem sturdier and better engineered. But the more-mainstream competition, such as the lower-end models of Honda Civic, Ford Escort, Nissan Sentra and Dodge/Chrysler Neon, may cost a bit more comparably equipped but offer better, more-competent vehicles with fewer compromises. Even Chevrolet's own Cavalier is close in price but offers more car for the money. The Metro and Swift, by the way, are built in a Suzuki/General Motors joint-venture plant in Canada. But for those wh o want a little car at a budget price with a reputation for durability, the Metro's not a bad choice. For a young driver seeking a fun ride or someone who wants only basic transportation, the price tag is a definite incentive. 1999 Chevrolet Metro Vehicle type: Four-passenger, four-door sedan, front-wheel drive. Base price: $10,402. Price as tested: $13,517. Engine: 1.3-liter in-line 4, 79 horsepower at 6,000 rpm, 75 pound-feet of torque at 3,000 rpm. Transmission: Five-speed manual. Curb weight: 1,984 pounds. Wheelbase: 93.1 inches. EPA fuel economy: 39 city, 41 highway. Highs: Small price tag. Great gas mileage. Well-equipped. Lows: Diminutive size. Tight rear seat. Anti-lock brakes optional.
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