One way to get a fix on what's happening in the world of small sedans is to look through a Prizm -- a Chevrolet Prizm. What we see is a car that feels like a scaled-down version of a mid-size sedan, boasts good fit and finish and provides a lot
value for the money. This compact sedan shares both its basic structure and mechanical components with the Toyota Corolla. Both are produced in the Fremont, Calif., plant that is a joint operation between General Motors and Toyota.
Prizms are available in two models, and our test car was the upscale LSi whose standard equipment includes air conditioning, power door locks, power mirrors, power windows, AM/FM stereo cassette and a 60/40 folding rear seat. Driving the
front wheels is a 1.8-liter, 120 horsepower, 4-cylinder engine that has four valves per cylinder and dual overhead cams. This new all-aluminum engine performs with the vigor of a larger engine, even when mated to the optional four-speed automatic
transmission. It weighs 64 pounds less than the previous 1.8-liter, uses a serpentine belt to drive accessories and has excellent throttle response because it has been tuned to supply its torque, or pulling power, at fairly low engine speeds. Mileage
is about 10 percent better, too. This engine is devoid of bothersome noise and vibration; so much so, in fact, that on cool mornings the whine of the transmission was the loudest thing I heard for the first few miles. To improve this
engine's exhaust emissions, it has been repositioned in the vehicle so the exhaust manifold sits closer to the catalytic converter. A fast-warming converter reduces emissions and enables the Prizm to meet California's tough Low Emission Vehicle (LEV)
standard. Like its Corolla cousin, the Prizm rides on a 97-inch wheelbase and has an overall length of 174.3 inches, which puts it in the same category as the Honda Civic, Mazda Protege and Nissan Sentra. Standard safety features include
dual front airbags, three-point safety belts for all passengers, including the one in the center of the rear seat. All belts have pretensioners and force-limiters to improve their effectiveness. Side airbags ($295) and four-wheel anti-lock brakes
($645) are both optional, and our test was equipped with both. Sound-absorbing foam and asphalt panels located strategically throughout the body cut down on the amount of wind, road and engine noise that finds its way into the passenger compartment.
Special seat foam and a special alloy in the steering column isolate the driver from unwanted vibration. The instrument panel has large gauges and switches that glide with a satisfying smoothness. Cupholders and storage nooks are plentiful.
While the Prizm and Corolla share basic body dimensions, the Prizm's styling is more lively and youthful. Competing effectively in the small car segment requires a serious commitment, and it looks like Chevrolet has made one with the Pri
zm. Price: The base price of our test car was $14,839. Options included side airbags, electric sunroof, anti-lock brakes, alloy wheels, 4-speed automatic transmission and the LSi package. The sticker price was $18,914. Warranty: Three years or
36,000 miles. Point: The Prizm is a tight, well-built small sedan with an efficient and responsive 4-cylinder engine that sips gas. There is space for four (five in a pinch) and a good-sized trunk. Counterpoint: A transmission that whined
when cold was my only gripe. SPECIFICATIONS: ENGINE: 1.8-liter, 4-cyl. TRANSMISSION: automatic CONFIGURATION: Front-engine, front-wheel drive WHEELBASE: 97 inches CURB WEIGHT: 2,403 lbs. BASE PRICE: $14,839 PRICE AS
DRIVEN: $18,914 MPG RATING: 28 city, 36 hwy.