[Note: this car does not have the original rectangular taillights. Someone mounted some sixties round lights in an attempt to confuse our readers, at least some of them]
In our recent visit to 1976, we virtually pitted the Accord against the Malibu. One garnered the title of “The Most influential Modern Car in America”, the other was disgraced as a “GM Deadly Sin”. Lots of folks said the two would never have been cross-shopped; they’re probably right. By the time a buyer stepped into a Honda dealer, a Malibu had already fallen of the list. But what about the Nova? A hatchback Nova with the options to make it comparable to the Accord’s standard fare would put it right around the Accord’s price. Let’s pit America’s most popular compact against the upstart challenger from Japan for round two.
Given that the shameful Deadly Sin moniker is missing from the title, this is obviously not going to be as lopsided. I happen to have a minor soft spot for the ’75-’79 Nova, and we might as well get the goodness flowing first. The year I was a bus driver in Iowa City, the transit district acquired a couple of ’75 Nova sedans for ferrying drivers and such. As I new relief driver, I got some seat time, and was rather impressed; with its handling, that is.
That particular Nova came with a fleet heavy-duty package (they must have known I was coming), including the excellent suspension package and wider wheels and tires. It’s no secret that the Nova was essentially a longer wheelbase sedan version of the 1970 and up Camaro, a car we have duly lionized here for its handling prowess. The steering was quick, direct ,and had some genuine feeling; the brakes were mission-appropriate, and the handling was remarkable: it gobbled curves and corners, staying mostly composed and almost utterly devoid of the dreaded Detroit understeer. Having not had a turn in a Camaro at that point in my youthful life, this was clearly the best handling American car I had ever driven to date.
It certainly wasn’t the fastest though, as it came with the 250 (4.1 liter) six that packed all of 105 hp. In all fairness, the six had a decent surge of torque, was very smooth, and was reasonably adequate in the urban setting available for my gymkhanas. Now if only they had kept the Pontiac OHC version of this engine going, the Nova would have better lived up to its ambitions at being a Euro-car challenger at the time, especially mated to a four or five speed stick. No such luck.
In Brazil, the 250 six went on to be developed and used in a highly non-US fashion, with proper MPI fuel injection, as in this 1998 Chevrolet Omega, which marries the big Opel RWD sedan with the high output Chevy six. Our loss was their gain. It was cheaper for Chevy to just to throw V8’s in it, as there were plenty of them around. Of course the golden days of the prior generation Nova with its thundering big-blocks were a long-distant memory by then. Take your pick of a 305 with 140 hp or the 350 with 165. Plenty of torque to move the reasonably light 3200lb Nova briskly for the times, but nothing like the good old days.
But let’s not meander into the Nova’s inevitable appeal to hot rodding, given its cheapness and infinite availability of the parts to do so. Anyway, its ’68-’74 predecessor seems to have more appeal to that faction, despite its less capable suspension and steering. Let’s stick to the Nova as transportation, as an alternative to the Japanese competition.
Space utilization was at a low point in Detroit during the seventies, one of the worst aspects other than quality issues. The Nova was a bit better than the Malibu, but not by much. There was still a highly unfavorable relationship of real estate wasted to oversized front and rear ends, and not enough where it actually counted. At least the Nova came in a hatchback version, which made access to a long but shallow cargo area easy. But rear seat leg room was mediocre, and the non-opening rear side windows were a royal put-off.
Of course, these cars couldn’t approach the fuel economy of the Japanese competition. Getting much more than 20 mpg even with the six was an act of heroism. With the V8, forget it. And when it comes to build quality…let’s not go there. Actually, in relative terms, the Nova was probably one of the better GM products, thanks to its simplicity. I know folks who got some cheap long-term transportation out of old Nova sixes. But the words “jewel like” will never be uttered in their presence.
Perhaps a more apt comparison would be with its Big Three competition, and there the Nova acquitted itself better. The queasy-handling and recall-prone Dodge Aspen and Plymouth Volare quickly destroyed Chrysler’s domination in the field, allowing the Nova to take the number one sales spot in the compact segment. Ford’s Maverick was long in tooth even when it arrived, but by 1976 it was in terminal decline. The Granada was more of a semi-midsized anyway, and with upscale ambitions pricing-wise.
Clearly, the Nova was at the head of the domestic class in 1976. But as a compact in the post energy crisis it was fundamentally all wrong, as the Accord and its ilk proved all too quickly. And by 1978, Chrysler’s Omni/Horizon twins had it all over the Nova in terms of space utilization and economy. The Nova soldiered on for those either in denial about the future of the small car or perhaps wanting a four-door Camaro. Now that was a small niche. And within a few years, that option would be gone too, as the Citation was lurking just around the corner.