By on October 26, 2010

The Volt is GM’s current answer to CAFE mandates and a hedge against high oil prices. In the mid eighties, the answer to the same challenge was the Chevy Sprint. The two couldn’t be more more different.

The solution then to radical improvements in efficiency was found in Japan, with GM’s partly-owned Suzuki. Their newly developed SA310/Cultus, renamed the Swift in its second generation, was tapped to be GM’s high mileage/CAFE queen . In the summer 1983, the little hatch found its way to the US, slotted in below the Chevette, and with substantially higher mileage. In its second generation here, the Sprint also rated a name change, to Geo Metro (CC here). And rightfully, I would be showing you one of the normally-aspirated Sprints in my collection (there’s quite a few of these around here still). But then, I came across this rather rare Turbo Sprint just yesterday. Can you blame me? Who could resist this ultimate of pocket-rockets?

With its well-marked mail-slot air intake, its body kit and aero-style wheel covers, I spotted the Turbo Sprint from quite a ways off. Yes! My Sprint collection is complete! I even have a Suzuki version that must have come from Canada, but I don’t have the Canadian Pontiac Firefly. Hope springs eternal.

Strictly speaking, the turbo version of the Sprint was not the initial and primary mileage standard bearer. That would have been the basic Sprint, which carried an 36/43 EPA (adjusted) sticker, or the ER version, with a 44/51 rating. That was 58 mpg, under the old EPA formula, if I remember correctly.

Available only in 1987 and 1988 in the US, the Turbo Sprint adds fuel injection, a turbo and, and as is so prominently announced, an intercooler. All those goodies add up to 73 horsepower from the little 993 cc three-pot pressure cooker. Given that the Sprint weighed about 1600 pounds, the power-to-weight ratio is decidedly in the fun zone. If anyone cares, has a listing for a stock ’87 Turbo Sprint for the quarter mile: 16.170 @ 87.00 MPH. Not bad for a car that can top 40 mpg.

Drag racing was not exactly the Turbo Sprint’s calling in life. But it was about the cheapest way to have genuine fun in 1987. It was the (original) Mini Cooper of its time, and the Fiat 500 Abarth promises to be the closest thing to it in the near future. But unlike the Mini of yore, the Sprint, including the Turbo, was/is a reliable and tough little piece of work. This on has been in its current owner’s hands for fourteen years, has 144k miles on the clock, and shows no signs of slowing down. And just for good measure, let me add that the owner of this little red scooter is a middle-aged woman, who loves it and the attention it garners.

The Sprint was quite a little bombshell when it arrived in the summer of 1984. It was the smallest car sold here for some time, undercutting even the first generation Civic by a hair. And it was the first car to be sold here with a three-cylinder engine since the Saab two stroke. I remember a business associate in LA who drove a W126 Mercedes 500SEL, but bought one of the first Sprints (to supplant, not replace the big Benz) because…well, it’s not easy to say exactly anymore; why did he do that? It was new and cool, and the second energy crisis was still a very recent memory. Well, that’s one way in which the Volt and Sprint are similar.

Just like the Civic, an extended wheelbase four-door Sprint appeared a few years later. This blue example that I shot in a Park and Ride lot is in shockingly pristine condition, and has the aura of a one-owner car. Someone else loves their Sprint, still. These four-doors really were remarkably roomy considering their tiny exteriors. They were the polar opposite of what had been Detroit’s approach to small cars in the seventies, like the Vega and Pinto. Their emphasis on cuteness and stylishness gave them pathetically cramped interiors, given their exterior dimensions. Getting into the back seat of a four door Sprint is like climbing into a limo compared to a Pinto.

The Sprint is the closest thing we ever got to a genuine Japanes kei-car, with the exception of the Honda N600 and Subaru 360. The little Suzuki is a class larger than a kei, especially in width and engine capacity. But the Turbo Sprint also follows the kei-tradition of turbocharging the little buggers.

Like everything else, our cars have gotten bigger, (generally) better and safer. And the Volt is a remarkable piece of engineering. But isn’t there a niche in the market for a modern-day Turbo Sprint? Chrysler sure hopes so; the Fiat 500 is almost exactly the same length as the Sprint, even if it weighs 600 lbs more. Not bad, all things considered. And there’s even a turbocharged two-cylinder in the line-up. Bring it on, as long as it’s as well-built and reliable as the Sprint. I know of at least one other middle-aged woman who already pines for one.

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42 Comments on “Curbside Classic: 1987 Chevrolet Turbo Sprint...”

  • avatar
    Educator(of teachers)Dan

    Love it.  One of the cars I would have drooled over if I had been a little more cognizant of cars when it was in production.
 (you know if you actually want to hear from a Sprint owner, I personally find owners stories fascinating.)
    Although if Chevy had used that same shot that you used for your clue in their advertising, they might have sold a lot more of them.  :P

    • 0 avatar

      What about the Dodge Colt Turbo, starting in 1985 ??

    • 0 avatar
      MRF 95 T-Bird

      I’m also thinking how it compares to the early 80’s Dodge Colt turbo. I remember a Popular Science revew at the time calling it a rocket powered phone booth. Though after a few years they did have that Mitubushi penchant for detonation. The next gen 85 up were larger and better. 

      Instead of comparing the Sprint/Swift to a Kei size car I think it compars more to a early 1st gen 73-78 Civic. Those had the same displacement 1200-1300 cc

  • avatar

    Well, I was half right. I got “Suzuki” correct! Do I win anything? I do agree (once again) with Dan – the clue shot was wickedly obscene and made me uncomfortable!

    • 0 avatar

      Not quite half.  My guess of a 1988 Suzuki Swift Turbo is a little closer.  Strangely, because I recognized what the clue was right away, I didn’t see what you guys all saw until I started reading the comments.

    • 0 avatar
      Paul Niedermeyer

      No. Sorry, but Zackman essentially nailed it, since the two are identical except for badging.
      Edit: I wrote the wrong name; I meant thirty-three nailed it. Sorry!

    • 0 avatar

      Zackman’s guess was a “Samarai”, which I take to mean the Samurai – a different vehicle altogether.
      I also posted first :)  Either way, I’m thrilled that I actually figured out one of the clues.  Now I’m all excited for the next one.

    • 0 avatar
      Paul Niedermeyer

      So sorry; I meant to say thirty-three nailed it. I just wrote the wrong name. My apologies.

    • 0 avatar

      Credit where credit is due! Thirty-three did it! I know I should’ve checked my spelling of “samurai”.

      That clue still gives me pause, though.

  • avatar


  • avatar

    “The Sprint is the closest thing we ever got to a genuine Japanes kei-car, with the sole exception of the Honda N600.”
    I would suggest that the Subaru 360 would also fit the bill.

  • avatar

    One of my ex-coworkers here at the motorcycle shop had (actually, probably still has) one of these.  A neat little automobile.   Closest I came was the ’94 Metro I bought for my live-in girlfriend at the time.  Every option available except the automatic, and I still look fondly at those cars.  And wouldn’t mind having another.

    Contrary to a lot of current opinion, those weren’t little crapboxes.  Yes, they were small and light – that’s what it takes to have a economical automobile.  And boy, did I love that car on Philadelphia’s Schukyll Expressway during rush hour.  Almost as much fun as a motorcycle.

  • avatar

    Nice one Paul. I had a friend who had one of these in Suzuki guise and it was a hoot. While not outright fast it could give many sports cars of its day a serious scare from 0-40 and was a great handling car for urban driving.

  • avatar

    Gorgeous little car that oozes fun, simplicity, and efficiency, three of the qualities I hold dearest. I like how proudly this is badged as a Chevrolet. I really don’t understand what the hell Geo was all about, and apparently neither did Chevy, as the Metro/Prizm/Tracker all became Chevys in the end. I also wish that Chevy had stayed with Suzuki with their subcompacts, rather than Daewoo.

  • avatar

    You got the interior room part right- I remember these things had more headroom than most cars of the time- front and back seats both with the flat roof.

  • avatar

    I had an ’85 Pontiac Firefly, bought in Washington, DC, used, in 1990. Apparently it was, according to the dealer, a rare US version (the speedo was in MPH, at any rate). Loved that car. Perfect for DC parking. A year later I got T-boned on the driver’s side on Wisconsin Ave by a truck. Firefly was totaled, but I was largely unhurt. And it really was roomy and pretty peppy, even the un-turbo version.

  • avatar

    The little Geo Sprint has done well for itself.  The butt of jokes upon its release it now has quite the cult following.  Turned out there are insanely reliable and there is very little that duct tape, a hammer, and bailing wire can’t fix.  A well thought out industrial design, shockingly roomy cabin, and actually fun to drive.  Amazed you found a Turbo Sprint in the wild, and it appears to be overally in very good condition for a 23 to 24 year old car.  The four door you found in the pics above appears to be in near museum grade condition!

  • avatar

    I wasn’t so far off on my guess then

    Maybe the CC has got a longer wheelbase than Paul’s CC. 

  • avatar

    This is what the Honda CR-Z should have been.

  • avatar

    i think you’ll find the Subaru Justy was offered with a 3cyl 1L contemporaneously, so the chevy was not quite the first 3cyl offered since DKW.
    hope to see a CC for the Justy some day… it was quite a machine. all of 47hp, but better than 50mpg with the 5spd, offered optional shift-on-the-fly 4WD, optional CVT, and quite a bit of space and comfort for its time and even today. All in a 1900lb package. I had a third or fourth owner car for about two years and was quite thrilled with it. i drove it to the train to avoid getting the bodywork on my RX8 destroyed by careless commuters in the parking lot. it was very reliable as well, until the radiator sprung a massive leak and it needed carb work at about 190,000 miles. i sold it to a Harley mechanic who had more time and knowhow than I did at the time. It sold for more than I paid for it, and I replaced it with a less charming but also less broken 80s tercel.
    If I were looking for a cheap car to rally or lemons it would be at the top of my list, along with a simpler carb and a plan for de-OBD-ing the car as in stock form has a paralyzing amount of emissions control and close to three dozen tiny vaccum hoses leading to the carb.

  • avatar

    I was always a fan of the later, rounder versions. I think they came out in 1991(?) Very sharp looking little cars. Though the earlier models also had their charms…

  • avatar

    A housemate of mine in grad school had a Turbo Sprint back inthe late 1980s. I recall it to be peppy, but also to have quite noticeable torque steer.

  • avatar

    Was the Optima from around the early 90’s the same car? Was it a Pontiac or a Geo?

  • avatar

    “And it was the first car to be sold here with a three-cylinder engine since the DKW in the fifties.”
    Didn’t Saab sell some 3-cylinder cars here in the Sixties? I remember a road test in C&D with the subhead, “Hey there fella, your engine’s only running on three cylinders!”

  • avatar

    Nice find!
    This takes me back, I lusted after these little buggers back in the day and recall when they first came on the scene, small, practical etc. I never got to own one back in the day but if my situation then had been much different where I could’ve bought a new car, this would’ve definitely been on the short list, if not the actual car I bought, it, along with the Honda Civic, the VW Fox and surprisingly the Chevy Chevette (yes, I have test driven them in the early 80’s and found them to be right decent cars for what they were).
    Part of it was I loved the look, especially the facelifted 87-88 variants and last spring spotted a 4 door version of this veritable Sprint not too far from where I live on Seattle’s Capitol Hill, in rough shape but we just don’t see too many of this generation anymore, the later versions, yes, but the 84-88, hardly 25 or so years on.

    And I have to agree with you on another thing Paul, the Fiat 500 may well be the closest thing to this little bugger and others of that ilk back in the day as in Euro trim, it’s just over 2K Lbs and with the 1.4 pumping out 100HP, should be more than sprightly, now replace that motor with the little turbo 900cc twin air, yeah, I can definitely see it, but having read up on that motor, running flat out is not its forte tho but still a very good motor overall and I’m intrigued enough to hope they bring that baby over here stateside as a stand alone motor, not just as part of a hybrid system.

    But knowing Sergione and how he loves to keep things close to him until time to reveal, he may well have a surprise or two up his sleeve and the 900 turbo twin pot may be one of them. The thing is I just hope they keep whatever weight increase to a minimum, like Ford did with the Fiesta, it’s US curb weight is slightly more than it’s Euro counterpart and if Fiat can do that (and I think they will), then the 500 should be a hoot to drive in more ways than one, just like my old 83 Civic was a hoot and a half to drive, and drive that thing I did – for 6 years I might add during most of the 1990’s.

  • avatar

    Ahh, the Suzuki Swift.
    In Europe it was equipped with a na 16valve 1,3 litre engine with 101 bhp.
    I took one for a testdrive.
    It was fun but the gearing was to low for me.
    I remember a magazine called it “fun as a gocart, and refined like a chansaw”.

  • avatar

    Proof that you don’t need alot of power to have fun. Even the NA version I drove(88 Firefly) was a hoot.

  • avatar
    Ian Anderson

    I want that car’s turbo bits and gear box for a later four banger Metro. Then my dad’s Metro would be fun to drive due to handling and performance.
    Screw it give me the whole car!

  • avatar


  • avatar

    “… but I don’t have the Canadian Pontiac Firefly.”

    Pretty sure I know where I can find a Gen II and Gen III hatch; unfortunately, that “where” is about 800km away.

    I’ll keep my eyes peeled.

    Edit – And who is “Garet Livermore”, and why did TTAC say I was logged in as him?

    • 0 avatar

      re. g livermore, take your pick:

      If you’re forced to be re-branded, guess being an active academic historian isn’t all that bad.

      I wonder if he even reads ttac, or if this is some kind of f.u. by facebook… since livermor has several email addresses on the web, just for kicks, you could ask them all to see what else you have in common.

      btw, ttac had a similar problem of mis-identifying users, about a year ago, but that problem was supposed to be long-solved…

  • avatar

    Back in the day, I borrowed an ’87 [?] Geo Metro 2Dr – 3 cylinders, factory air; the doors auto-locked when you started moving; and 45 mpg on Florida’s Turnpike at 70mph with the A/C cranked!Imagine how good a modern version would be…

  • avatar

    The 1st post by Dan, the link from the owner… that is my story. :)
    Still have the car, bought in 92.
    Gettign ready to re do the driver’s seat, detail it, and take care of a minor idle issue soon. It is a very fun, reliable, fast, efficient vehicle.

  • avatar

    ///would love to meet the woman with the red one featured in the photos. Is that Portland?

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