Any chance to celebrate was doubtless welcome by now, for the '80s had not been kind to Chevrolet. True, the division had more models than ever, but it wasn't selling that many more cars. Worse, Ford was entrenched as number one, and seemed destined to remain so.
Nevertheless, Chevrolet was a strong "USA-2" through the mid-'90s, with yearly domestic car sales of around one million units. As with the '80s Nova, the California-built Geo Prizm was counted in those results, but not other Geo cars, which were classed as imports on the basis of "domestic content" even though some came from Canada instead of Japan.
Chevy had launched the Geo nameplate for 1989 as a marketing umbrella for Japanese-designed models like Prizm. The idea was to distinguish these products from "real" Chevrolets in the minds of those most likely to buy them -- what marketing types called "import intenders."
But the ploy worked only in the beginning, and Geo sales dropped steadily. A big blow was losing the popular Isuzu-built Storm sporty coupe after model-year '93. By '98 the remaining Geos were badged Chevrolets. The Toyota Corolla-based Prizm was redesigned that year and continued through 2002.
Though Chevy had been "The Heartbeat of America" since 1987 (an ad slogan adopted for the make's 75th anniversary), its mainstream cars of the early '90s offered little to raise anyone's pulse.
Indeed, motor-noters began chiding GM for building mostly "rental cars": dependable but dull underachievers compared to class rivals. Nevertheless, the Chevys most-popular with buyers were the least interesting to enthusiasts: Cavalier, Lumina, and Beretta/Corsica, usually in that order. Each was typically good for more than 200,000 model-year sales, sometimes a bit more.
Yet there were flashes of interest in this mundane group. The Beretta GTZ was one, as was its 1994 successor, called Z26. Also replacing the Beretta GT, the Z26 was usefully more-refined, thanks to an updated Quad-4 with 170 bhp. In the Lumina line, 1991 introduced a sporty Z34 coupe, named for its new 3.4-liter "Twin Dual Cam" V-6. This engine, the latest version of Chevy's venerable 60-degree pushrod design, delivered a punchy 210 bhp with five-speed manual or 200 with optional four-speed automatic.
Also included were firm suspension, fat tires on alloy wheels, a louvered hood, "ground effects" body add-ons and a more-driver-oriented interior. The result was a lively package many enthusiasts could warm to. Lumina sedans from 1992 were similarly entertaining when ordered with the "Euro 3.4" option, though it was limited to automatic.
Otherwise, both these model lines evolved pretty much like Cavalier. Corsica lost its sporty LTZ after 1990 and its four-door hatchback body after '91, but both Corsica and Beretta gained progressively stronger 2.2-liter base engines, a more-coherent dash (from '91), larger front brakes with standard antilock control (1992), and more-aggressive "value" pricing. Luminas also benefited from better base engines, as well as ABS, automatic power door locks, and other improvements.
A very different Lumina was the APV ("All Purpose Vehicle"), premiering for 1990 as Chevrolet's first front-drive minivan and one of three "G200" models (the others were Pontiac Trans Sport and Olds Silhouette). Unlike Chevy's rear-drive Astro, APV was a direct reply to the hot-selling Chrysler minivans that owned at least 50 percent of the market, thanks to their carlike convenience and road manners.
Accordingly, APV was sized roughly between the standard and extended Chrysler models, riding a 109.8-inch wheelbase and boasting the comfort advantage of all-independent suspension.
Body construction was novel, with outer panels of plasticlike composites attached to a steel inner "skeleton," as on Pontiac's late two-seat Fiero. Equally novel was optional "modular" seating for seven, with lightweight individual buckets that could be easily moved or removed to create a variety of useful configurations.
Only Chevy offered a blank-side cargo model, but all GM200s arrived with a 120-bhp 3.1 V-6 and three-speed automatic. That made for weak performance, especially with a full passenger or cargo load, so an optional 3.8-liter Buick V-6 was added for '92, bringing 165 bhp and a more-responsive four-speed automatic. Befitting a Chevy, APV prices were the lowest of the three corporate cousins, initially in a narrow $14,000-$16,000 range.
Unfortunately, APV's pointy-nose styling was too radical for most buyers. Critics typically likened it to an "anteater" or "Dustbuster." Worse, the design dictated a massive dashtop and huge windshield that made for lots of unwanted reflections; a wide extra set of front roof pillars only hampered vision further. The APV also suffered a relatively low-roof interior that compromised both load volume and rear-cabin access.
Hoping to improve sales with an improved product, Chevy bobbed the nose of the '94 APV and offered a new option: a unique power right sliding door (operated by remote control). Chevy also changed the name to Lumina Minivan and capped base prices at $16,800-$17,500. But nothing seemed to help, and the APV/Minivan was no more a threat to Chrysler's minivan dominance than the Astro. Sales languished mostly in the 50,000-60,000 area, about a tenth of Chrysler's volume.
There seemed nothing to do but try again, and Chevy did for '97 with the conventionally styled all-steel Venture. Though a competent competitor, it was never a threat to the top-selling Chrysler and Dodge models -- or some import-brand rivals.
For more on Chevrolet cars, old and new, see:
- Chevrolet New Car Reviews and Prices
- Chevrolet Used Car Reviews and Prices