Somewhere in Chevrolet Motor Division's plans for the future, there lies the notion that compact size and low price are the way to go.Enter the 1998 Chevrolet Prizm and Prizm LSi, new compact sedans that have been redesigned and, to a degree, renamed.The previous generation of Prizm, 1993-1997, had the name Geo attached to it. For 1998, the Geo has been dropped and the car now is the Chevrolet Prizm.The little Chevy has been designed to be an import fighter and, as such, is graced with new exterior styling, structural enhancement, safety features and a lighter aluminum four-cylinder engine.That pretty much qualifies as a new approach and, based on the '98 Prizm that debuted at the recent New York International Auto Show, Chevrolet has dealt itself a winning hand.To give a sedan that stands on 97.1 inches of wheelbase a slick look takes some fancy pencil work in the styling department.The Prizm does it with styling that features a lower hood angle that improves the car's aerodynamics. Flowing body lines have a slightly rising belt line. Then everything flows into a high rear deck that covers a spacious 12.7 cubic feet of trunk space.To enhance the service durability of the exterior, an anti-chip coating has been added to the leading edge of the hood, lower doors and rocker panels.While Chevy says the sedan is not meant to appeal to the drag race crowd, it has been given a new, aluminum 1.8-liter (109-cubic-inch) in-line four-cylinder motor. As a high-tech double-overhead cam 16-valve job, the 1.8 is standard equipment and is 66 pounds lighter that the 1997 optional 1.8-liter engine.Chevy says the motor develops more horsepower and torque (120-horsepower/127 foot-pounds of torque) than its major competitors and offers improved gas mileage over its predecessor. EPA figures have not been released, but Chevrolet's internal figures are 29 miles per gallon city and 32 mpg highway with the standard five-speed manual transmission.There is an automatic transmission available - in fact two of them - and it is interesting to note that the highway mileage goes up when the Prizm is an automatic.There is an optional three-speed and four-speed automatic offered, and the highway mileage with either one of these is 36 mpg. Chevrolet has not released any final drive-gear ratio specifications for its new compact, but I'm going to speculate that, courtesy of the automatic's torque converter, the Prizm runs a higher final-drive ratio than it does when the manual gearbox is onboard.One-hundred twenty horsepower can get a lightweight compact jogging along in quite a sprightly manner. So, to keep all four wheels on the ground and everything going in the right direction, engineering stiffened up the body/chassis structure.Overall rigidity has been enhanced by cross-bracing the platform and strengthening the powertrain and suspension cradle. The stiffer body enabled engineers to retune the springs and shocks for better ride and handli ng.A new rear stabilizer bar that is standard and an optional front stabilizer bar, that comes with a handling package on the LSi only, help counter body roll in sharp corners. The car feels tighter when turning or changing lanes, yet maintains a smooth ride even over bumpy roads.Comfort and convenience are not always a high priority in small automobiles, but the Prizm caters to drivers and passengers with seats of thicker foam. Front seatbacks are higher to provide support to a wider range of customers.I'd say that one of the more environmentally friendly features is found in the back seat. There is no rear ashtray. It has been replaced by a cupholder.Then, there are a lot of little touches. Dual trip odometers can track overall gas mileage and still record individual trips. The fuse box cover doubles as a storage bin. There is an optional side air bag. A standard Twilight Sentinal system automatically switches from daylight running lamps to full headlamps at dusk.Pric es for the 1997 Geo Prism will be announced later in the year, but it is expected that they will be in the $13,000 to $18,000 range.
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