Chevrolet had a good opportunity to jettison the Prizm compact sedan when it scrapped the Geo division earlier this year. With the compact Cavalier and mid-size Malibu selling well, there really was no need for another small sedan in the Chevrolet lineup - especially one built by another manufacturer. The Prizm, designed and built by Toyota, is made in California in a factory operated by Toyota and General Motors. But the Prizm has something not found in any other sedan wearing the Chevy bow tie: a sterling reputation and the ability to cut across the domestic vs. import battle lines. The Prizm sells well to the buyers of both groups. According to Chevrolet, about 95 percent of current Prizm owners would recommend the car to their friends. With competition fierce in the $15,000 to $20,000 range, Chevrolet was wise not to trash that kind of brand equity. For 1998, the Prizm is all new. Everything between the bumpers has been rebuilt and redesigned. After logging nearly 700 miles in one week of driving a pretty blue Prizm LSi, I believe the 1998 Prizm (and its Toyota Corolla cousin) can lay claim to being the best compact sedan in its class. PERFORMANCE, HANDLING The Toyota-made 1.8-liter, 16-valve four-cylinder engine in the Prizm delivers an unexpected wallop when you press the accelerator. This year, the 120-horsepower, double-overhead cam motor is made entirely of aluminum. It weighs 66 pounds less than the 1.8-liter engine that powered previous Prizms and Corollas. In addition to less weight, the new motor makes 15 more horsepower. Though not overpowering, the Prizm moves away from stoplights and past slower traffic with verve. The four-speed automatic transmission shifts smoothly and precisely. The drivetrain endeared the Prizm to me. But there was much more to like. For instance, the power is sent to the front wheels in typical Toyota fashion: smoothly and quietly. The level of refinement in the Prizm's drivetrain is equal to what you might find in a luxury car. The refinement I'm talking about refers to what automobile engineers call NVH - that's noise, vibration and harshness. There isn't much of these things in the 1998 Prizm. Toyota designed the car using some of the sound-deadening technology that makes the company's Lexus luxury vehicles so quiet. Mechanical parts - such as engine mounts, door seals, body panels and suspension components - all made using the same technology found in Lexus vehicles. The Prizm's smooth and quiet ride is not just a result of a finely tuned drivetrain. The four-wheel independent suspension system, using MacPherson struts at each wheel and front and rear stabilizer bars, irons out the rough spots in the road. The Prizm LSi eagerly devours tight, fast curves. You can dive into a sloping corner, such as an interstate exit ramp, very quickly in the Prizm. The body will not lean much, and all four wheels stay pl anted firmly on the pavement. The power-assisted rack-and-pinion steering responds quickly and with like precision. You don't have to turn the wheel much to change directions. The Prizm can turn a circle in a tight 34 feet. Our test car came with a strong set of four-wheel anti-lock disc brakes. They do a fine job of stopping quickly in an emergency. The Prizm returned about 39 mpg on the highway. Just one word describes the overall performance of the Prizm: balanced. FIT AND FINISH At nearly $18,000, the fully loaded Prizm LSi is not an inexpensive compact four-door sedan. You could get a much bigger car, such as a Buick Century, for about the same price. But some drivers prefer small cars. Generally, small sedans are more fun to drive, better on gas and easier to maneuver in cities. They also offer enough room for one or two people and two small children. If you need a safe, well-made small sedan with plenty of accessories, you probabl will find the Prizm LSi a suitable set of wheels. I donned my chauffeur's cap and ferried my parents to Miami and back - about 450 miles - for my brother's graduation from the University of Miami. That was about nine hours on the road in one day. You learn a lot about a car when you take such a trip. The front bucket seats are firm and offer good support. That's something you'll appreciate if you spend many hours at a time behind the wheel. The rear seat also is firm, but leg room can be tight for tall adults. The seats fold forward to increase interior storage room - a nice touch. Though the dash likely will not win any awards for innovative design and original thinking, the controls for the lights and accessories are placed in easy-to-reach locations, and the analog gauges are cleanly styled and easy to read. An outside temperature gauge and optional ($295) side-impact air bags place the Prizm LSi in a class by itself. No other compact sedan (except the nearly identical Toyota Corolla) offers these items, which are usually found in luxury cars. The list of standard equipment on the LSi is long and strong. Included are air conditioning, power windows, door locks and mirrors, cruise control, rear window defroster and an AM/FM/CD player. By any standard of measurement, the 1998 Prizm LSi is an excellent automobile - and a car I'll gladly recommend. Specifications: 1998 Chevrolet Prizm LSi Baseprice: $14,614.Safety: Dual front and side air bags, anti-lock brakes, front and rear crumple zones, side-impact protection. Price as tested: $17,909. EPA rating: 29 mpgcity/36 mpg highway. Incentives: None. Truett's tip: Smooth, refined and powerful, the new Prizm is a terrific small car. It comes well-equipped and loaded with safety and convenience features.
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