By on April 27, 2012

We’ve seen a few NUMMI-built Junkyard Finds in recent weeks, including this ’87 Nova and this ’87 Corolla FX16 GT-S. However, the car that really comes to mind when you think of NUMMI is the Geo Prizm. Here’s an example of GM’s rebadged Corolla that I found at a self-service junkyard about 20 miles from the car’s birthplace. It’s the circle of automotive life!
Prizms and Corollas came down the same assembly line at NUMMI and were, for all practical purposes, the same car. Savvy used-car buyers soon learned that you could get a 5-year-old Prizm for half the price of a 5-year-old Corolla… but most car buyers weren’t that savvy.
Nobody has ever been able to explain the point of the Geo marque in a way that made sense to me. It was used as a catch-all badge for rebadged Suzuki, Isuzu, and Toyota cars (sadly, there were no Daewoo- or Opel-built Geos), and car buyers were just as befuddled by Geos as by Eagles.
By the early 1990s, the Corolla had already gone pretty far into its descent into the soporific transportation appliance we know today. Sure, you could get a GSi Prizm and a GT-S Corolla in 1992, but most of these cars were essentially treated as 3/4-scale Camrys. This one didn’t even make 200,000 miles before its general hooptieness condemned it to death in a Chinese steel factory.

Get the latest TTAC e-Newsletter!

47 Comments on “Junkyard Find: 1992 Geo Prizm...”

  • avatar

    Well, at least GM put the name on the side of the car…

    Other than that, they appeared to be quite good for what they were – a basic Corolla commuter/cheap/reliable car. Can’t really ask for more than that…uh…I guess you could, but then you’d have to buy a Celica or Camaro or Corvette.

  • avatar

    I test drove one of these in 1991. Completely dead, boring car. I thought the Saturn SL-1 was a better deal.

    • 0 avatar

      My wife and I test drove a Prizm in 1995 (we were in grad school and needed a cheap commuter car) and did in fact wind up buying a Saturn SL1.

      • 0 avatar

        I’ve owned both of these cars and I wholeheartedly disagree with both of you.

        The Geo was FAR more reliable and more fun to drive.

      • 0 avatar

        I had a 90′ Lsi. For the Lsi option on that year, I think you just got a reflector panel in between the tail lights and painted bumpers. Same red color that turned pink and interior as this car. I bought it with 160k on it, and put another 100k on it. It pulled winter beater/nightclubbing duty in Chicago well. I could park this thing in the scariest of places and not worry about anyone bothering it. One winter it got very cold, and my friend broke both inside door handle in rapid succession. No problem, just swap the fronts with the rears and tell back seat passengers to “Pull the rod”. I slid on some black ice for a few hundred feet and rear-ended a brand new Grand Am so hard that the unsecured battery flew out and ended up on the bumper hanging by the cables. A tape inserted into the cassette deck and started playing. Both the Geo and the Pontiac suffered little damage and we both went on our way. Only real repairs needed the whole time were an axle boot and the muffler, which I replaced with a free CBR600 motorcycle piece. I sold the car to a coworker who got it to 290k miles. It eventually died of cancer of the rear fenderwells.

        Farewell old friend.

    • 0 avatar

      That’s the nice thing about having choices, we all get to make them.

    • 0 avatar

      In 1993 recall test driving a used 1990 Prizm…and thinking “wow this car feels polished and smooth compared to a new Sunbird, Sundance, or Escort…” It was in those formative new-driver years that I detected that the Prizm (and Toyota peers) seemed to be carved with a sharper knife than the domestics. Boring…perhaps…but a distinctive feel in the steering, switchgear, the idle, and smooth engine sounds when nailing the gas. I quickly began to associate those elements of refinement with the storied “Toyota quality”.

  • avatar

    My best friend’s wife had a 91 Prizm, and he wished they’d not have gotten rid of it when they did, I think late 90’s.

    They ended up with two others, a pristine blue 94 Prism, base model that they’d not had long when some dingbat went too fast in their neighborhood, hit a light pole and it came crashing down on the car, totaling it as it sat parked out in front of their house one night.

    The next one, I don’t recall much about it, other than it was I think a 96 and a different color and it would, I think be replaced with a low mileaged used Dodge Caravan.

    They now drive a 01, I think Toyota Sienna van that they’ve had for years and a 2001 Ford F-150 crew, short bed 4×4 with cap, Lareat Edition with just about everything major included (bought used).

    Still see these vintage Prizm/Corollas around here, though not as much as one did 5-6 years ago now.

  • avatar
    Steven Lang

    Just bought a 92 Corolla the other day for $800 (plus $85 auction fee) with slightly lower miles.

    The Prizm versions had cheaper interiors and more wear problems within the driver’s side as time wore on. Either one of the models with a stickshift is actually pretty zippy to drive.

    I fondly recall a 92′ Prizm I got at an auction about 10 years ago for nearly $2000. That was a lot of money for an auction vehicle of that nature. It had about 90k, Pirelli tires all around, and an A/C system that took several times to get right.

    As for the powertrain, the only issue is oil leaks. These things will leak like crazy and require vigilance once they hit the decade and a half mark. Either you fix em’ and keep em’ for another 10 years… which it could easily do. Or you sold it / junked it and moved on.

    Interesting vehicle. If you get it with a 5-speed.

    • 0 avatar

      I agree, you’ll have to get one of these with a manual transmission. They are quite zippy actually (at least the ’90+ with EFI) and the transmission shifts very nicely and the clutch also feels great in my opinion.

      The oil leak issue is new to me though. My family has owned a 1992 (dad bought new), 1991 (my first car), 1996, 1997 and 1990 Corolla. We’ve driven all of them for several years, and they all had the 4A-FE engine. None of them had any oil leak issues. In fact, they didn’t have any issues to speak of. We’ve replaced fluilds, a waterpump on the 1992, struts and balljoints on the 1991 (terrible roads around here) and brake lines on the 1996 (due to salty winter roads). Great cars as long as they have the 5spd transmission.

  • avatar

    Get to know…Geo Prizm.

  • avatar

    I have a 1991 Prizm GSi that has right at about 100000 miles on it now. It is a 5 speed with Toyota’s legendary 4AGE Redtop hi comp twin cam engine in it. It is in perfect shape with all options even a factory sunroof. It never goes in the rain or snow as rust is the death of these vehicles where I come from. It has a redline of almost 8 grand and it will scream. I love this car and take very good care of it. Not hardly any on the road anymore especially the GSi’s as they were rare when they were new. I get stopped all the time and asked about the car. Almost 22 years old now with no squeaks rattles and the (AC still works and has never had to be worked on) I had a 1990 Prizm LSI that I purchased new and had for 16 years ( two of my kids drove it through high school ) niether car ever leaked anything :-) it had about 200,000 on it when I traded it in (still running fine)

    • 0 avatar

      If we had taken better care of our base model, someone in the family would probably still own it today. You’re right about the rarity of the GSi, as I can’t recall ever seeing one in Chicago; props for taking care of yours. The few that were sold here probably oxidized away by now.

    • 0 avatar

      Hatchback or notchback? I may be verrrry interested…

    • 0 avatar

      That’s awesome to hear. I own a 1990 Toyota Corolla GLi liftback (imported from Germany). I have a lot of sentimental attachment to the car, so I also never drive it in the winter and in the rain. It has about 146,000km (90,000mi) on it and is in really nice condition. Unfortunately mine has the 4a-fe, not the 4a-ge engine. You should definitely hang onto your car and continue to take great care of it. I’m glad I’m not the only one who appreciates these cars.

  • avatar

    Ahhh, the Prizm. Cheap, reliable transportation for sure. Our ’91 stayed in the family for 17 years: Mom replaced it with a Rav4 in ’97, after which it spent the remainder of its life with my grandparents. I can’t recall anything ever going wrong with the powertrain, but the interior trim got brittle after 10 years of Chicago summers spent outside. The doors were also susceptible to rust, so Grandpa ended up replacing the lower 1′ of each door with metal from an old washing machine. It sounds like a ghetto repair, but it actually looked decent once the lower part of the doors was painted to match the black plastic bumper. I still see it puttering around Rosemont from time to time, albeit under different ownership.

  • avatar
    Educator(of teachers)Dan

    Toyotas for recovering GM addicts. (Don’t tell my Pontiac Vibe driving fiance that… :) )

  • avatar

    There were no Daewoo built Geos, but later GM would later rebadge Daewoo’s as Suzuki’s, that being the Suzuki Forenza.

    That horrific car has probably done more to tarnish the reputation of Suzuki than the stupid Consumer Reports Samurai rollover incident of the early ’90s did.

    • 0 avatar

      Don’t forget the compact Reno, and the mid-sized Verona. Also Daewoo’s re-badged as Suzuki’s. I may be wrong, but I think the Verona came with a Porsche-engineered transverse straight-6.

      Bizarre naming fact. All Daewoo-built Suzuki’s, have the letters R-E-N-O in their name…

  • avatar

    A cousin of mine bought one of these brand new, the total base model, without power steering, for $7,500 on a MSRP sticker of $10,125in late August of 1992.
    At the time I was impressed. Twin cam 16v motor with EFI, very cushy comfortable seats, surprisingly quiet interior. She installed an after market AC and drove it for ten years.
    On a road trip with her once, we consistently got mid 40’s mpg.

  • avatar

    Captive imports selling at domestic dealerships dates back to the mid-1950s when some Buick dealers sold Opels that looked like miniature tin Chevrolets. GM used Opel to counter any market interest in small Hudsons, Ramblers, Willys, Kaisers and Nashes. America discovered that the ships that carried armaments into WWII battle, could ship back new European and Japanese goods as well. America wasn’t isolated anymore, except perhaps in Senator Robert Taft’s mind.

    GM continued selling Opels right up and past the point where Buick dealers offered small Buicks alongside Opels in their showrooms. Other captive imports came along in the 1970s. Detroit discovered imports and often affixed their names upon them. Using giant rusty bolts, rivets, and tenus shots.

    So what we have here is a captive import from Toyota made in California for GM using entirely new manufacturing processes. NUMMI, which was named to reflect this newer approach. The first NUMMI Corolla was sold as a Chevrolet Nova. It was a very good car, far better than the domestic offerings at the time found leaking upon the Chevrolet showroom floors. It appeared to many of us at the time that GM was rediscovering how to find it’s mojo, thanks to Toyota, and that GM was going to join it’s competition in offering better small cars. Honestly – back then, a lot of us still believed GM could actually do that.

    Then there was Saturn. CEO Roger Smith’s brand. It was another entirely new vehicle made in a specialized modern automobile plant in Tennessee. It cost billions at a time when GM had billions. Smith fought for Saturn as his legacy, but nature took him before it finished that legacy, which peaked when the first UAW built Saturn L Job Number 1, stalled at the end of the production line and then recalled. I expect him in the hereafter to keep promising that cool Saturn S convertible that never happened, to St. Peter. You just don’t cross Ross Perot, Roger.

    So, anyway, GM was forced to make a decision, and we all have seen how well they do that, don’t we? Back then, they needed to decide whether to back their Chevrolet Corolla, their profitable J car line, or their new Saturn line. They decided to back all three. This was like deciding all we have to do today to balance our federal deficit was borrow $17,000,000,000.00 from Greece. Yup, GM decided to have it all! I heard a couple of their accountants threw themselves upon their slide rulers when they heard the news.

    GM “decided” to launch the new NUMMI Corolla as a captive import sub brand for Chevrolet. That would be like telling Al Pacino his new movie role would be as a stand in for Ron Jeremy. When it was decided to go with Saturn as a stand alone brand without badge engineering for the other divisions, this left Chevrolet without a new small car, hence the GEO sub brand. The J cars were already at the end of their first generation and needed a replacement, but the Market was still buying them, keeping the J cars profitable, especially for Chevrolet. Expecting that to end before a domestic small car could replace the J car, GM needed something. Backing that sub brand up, GM decided to expand GEO with other captive imports from Suzuki, Isuzu, Schwinn and Playskool. So, using our metaphor, Al Pacino’s role in the Ron Jeremy movie involved Japanese sex robots built in California by the UAW. Using giant rusty bolts, rivets, and tenus shots.

    Surprisingly, to nobody but GM, selling captive imports as a sub brand under the Chevrolet name wasn’t a winner. Chevrolet buyers didn’t embrace GEOs as expected. For some odd reason, Chevy buyers couldn’t understand why there was a Toyota parked next to their Suburban in Chevy showrooms. So, Cavaliers kept selling, making far more profit than expected. The small car market cooled, making the J cars more attractive for GM than either their new Saturn line or their GEO sub brand. The expensive gambles with NUMMI and Saturn could not continue. The writing was on the GM Executive Men’s Room wall had any of these people stopped peeing on their assistants long enough to use the men’s room, that is.

    Saturn sold like crazy, but didn’t earn a profit during it’s entire run, except in 1996 when they sold the Pentagon a SW2 wagon to hold NASA toilet seats for $315 million dollars. Roger Smith retired and did not have enough clean dry friends remaining to protect Saturn from market realities. The J cars kept selling and brought in needed profits which reaffirms an old adage that Miss Kitty could have keep swinging it at the Longbranch if she found enough drunk cowboys. And if she used giant rusty bolts, rivets, and tenus shots – had they been invented by Doc.

    GM’s investments ended up being much longer term than anyone imagined a decade earlier. That’s a polite way of saying GM screwed up. Happily GM sold thousands of trucks and SUVs for every NUMMI Corolla.

    This lack of success with NUMMI and Saturn kept the UAW from being forced to implement NUMMI and Saturn standards and reforms at other GM plants – take for instance one idea, not building car while drunk or on crack. Or, not smuggling guns on the manufacturing floor, or requiring factory workers to keep their bong water clean. The UAW felt threatened by NUMMI and Saturn, but allowed GM to do it’s thing until the NUMMI Corolla and the Saturn line lost their new-car smell. With GM HQs in disarray after Smith, the UAW filled the vaccum left within both new manufacturing plants. The Saturn L line exposed the inability of GM to take a rotten manufacturing plant in Delaware, take and gut an Opel to make it a Saturn, and expect the UAW to make it using more traditional union rules. Consequently, the Saturn L ended up being assembled with axes, crack pipes and spit. The Delaware plant ended up being used as a Fisker Karma stunt prop for federal government monies. That makes the plant more profitable empty, then when building Saturn Ls!

    GEO needed to succeed based on a future foreseen in 1985, not reality in 1995. America was supposed to roll around in economy cars, paying $9 a gallon for gas, and live with their testicles shoved into their body cavities. “A kinder, gentler, America”, is how future president Bush squeaked. Reality turned GM’s crystal ball into a bowling ball and by the time the end came for GEO, Saturn and the J cars, a lot of the soothsayers, Alvin Toffler futurists, and alternative energy gurus, were no longer employed at GM. They left Detroit and turned out the lights when they did so.

    GEO demonstrated that even when GM was given the opportunity to make a high quality small car, it couldn’t. It seems they ran out of rusty bolts after all.

    • 0 avatar
      Educator(of teachers)Dan

      And as a student of a Systems Approach and Continuous Improvement, one of GMs aims was to study the Toyota Production System (TPS) and “steal” it so they could implement it. They thought that the Japanese were hiding a magic bullet somewhere to slay all of GMs dragons.

      Instead leaders who got trained at NUMMI came out raving about how the whole freaking culture of GM needed to change. These people got quickly frustrated and left GM for other automakers. Could GM have learned AMAZING lessons from NUMMI? Yes. Did GM learn any? Not really.

      • 0 avatar
        Athos Nobile

        In general the thing with TPS is that you can’t actually “steal” it. It is a philosophy that runs deep into Toyota’s corporate culture. It is what makes it “tick”. And to compound the problem, you’d be trying to copy an “alive” and always evolving target… good luck at that. There are other cultural related issues that I’m not even remotely qualified to discuss, so I won’t go there.

      • 0 avatar
        Educator(of teachers)Dan

        @Athos Nobile, That’s what I’m saying GM didn’t “get it” they thought you could steal the system. They didn’t realize that the whole GM system is rotten to the core.

      • 0 avatar
        Athos Nobile

        Dan, GM actually “got it”, like all the other OEMs. They realized that the “Toyota Way” was the way to go. That’s in part the “why” of NUMMI.

        The other side of the coin is that Toyota thought (and rightly so) that GM had stuff they could learn and use.

    • 0 avatar

      When I took a business and economics class in the late 80’s we were required to read excerpts translated from a Japanese engineer’s book about his experiences with GM. I assume he was part of the NUMMI project.
      He described discussing ideas with his counterparts as “Explaining philosophy to a rock. What you said and how you said it didn’t matter, it was still a rock.” GM was GM and for better or worse it would remain GM.

    • 0 avatar

      It’s the early 1980s and GM decides to supplement Chevy’s disappointing lines of small cars (Cavalier and Chevette and maybe even the larger Citation)with captive imports from Japan. The small Chevys didn’t sell as well as anticipated because they weren’t that good and Chevy’s reputation as a purveyor of smaller cars was badly damaged by the previous Vega and Monza.

      So Chevy starts selling a new Chevrolet Nova (Toyota Corolla/Sprinter) and the Chevrolet Spectrum (Isuzu I-Mark) and Chevrolet Sprint (Suzuki Cultus). While these cars were a step above the Cavalier and Chevette, they still didn’t sell as well as expected and it was felt by GM that the reason was because of Chevy’s poor reputation for small cars.

      So someone at GM came up with the bright idea of creating a new make from scratch and re-branding these cars. The Chevrolet Nova became the Geo Prizm, the Chevrolet Spectrum became the Geo Spectrum (which would only last a single year before being replaced by the Geo Storm, a mildly restyled version of the Isuzu Impulse), and the Chevrolet Sprint was replaced by the Geo Metro (there had been a version of the Sprint called the Chevrolet Sprint Metro which was either the high gas mileage version or else the stripper version, I forget which).

      But Geos still didn’t sell all that well. As I’d mentioned before, the Geo Spectrum was replaced by the sportier Geo Storm and a small SUV, the Geo Tracker (Suzuki Sidekick) was added to the lineup. And sales were still disappointing. Partly this was due to the difficulty of creating a new make from scratch and a series of rather poor marketing and advertising campaigns, as well as a lack of comittment by Chevrolet and GM and a certain bias from sales people that hurt sales. (Hey, you don’t really want one of those small cars, for just a few dollars more a month I can put you in a new Citation, Celebrity, Lumina, Camaro, S-10 Blazer… )

      Anyway, the Geo Storm was discontinued when Isuzu stopped manufacturing conventional automobiles (Isuzu sold rebadged Suburus and Hondas in other [not U.S.] markets for several years, but eventually discontinued them and though they left the U.S., they continue to manufacture and sell light trucks under own name in other markets.)

      The Geo Prizm became the Chevrolet Prizm; the Geo Metro, the Chevrolet Metro; and the Geo Tracker became the Chevrolet Tracker. And then they were all discontinued. (Well some say the Metro was replaced by the Chevrolet Aveo and the Tracker was replaced by the Equinox.)

  • avatar

    In 1995 I bought a used red Prizm hatchback. Most useful form-factor car ever owned. Great rear visibility, cargo space, light clutch and smooth stick. A bit under-powered (max speed 85mph) and dismal road holding. Clocked 35mpg solid. And I loved the automatic seat belts, it took 2 seconds from opening the door to getting going!

    • 0 avatar

      There was something wrong with your Prizm – mine would do 100 pretty easily. Yes, the speedo only went to 85, but me and a high school buddy worked out a little basic geometry to figure out what the angle of the needle would have read were there numbers.

      The carb’d ’87 Nova my mom had however… 76 mph in 5th gear – downshift to 4th to get into the upper 80s. It was a dangerously underpowered car.

  • avatar

    Back in ’98 we bought my wife a lease returned ’95 Prizm. Other than looking pretty nice for what it was, it was the biggest money pit I’ve ever owned (and this was after owning a ’91 Jetta GLI).

  • avatar

    Drive by NUMMI every day on my way to work. Not just on the freeway, on Fremont Blvd. Great Mexican food place across the street.

    I have a feeling my commute wouldn’t be as quick if that place was still in operation (Tesla notwithstanding).

    “Getting to knoooowww youuuuuuuu…”

    Guess we never did.

  • avatar

    The emblem in front has the tiny Chevrolet bow tie in the middle. Maybe saying Geo is only a distant relative.

  • avatar
    Volt 230

    When new, Prizms was more expensive than Corolla, I should know, I priced a new Prizm in 98 and ended up with the Corolla, except at the end of the model year when GM would usually give back either $2 or 21/2 grand as a rebate, yet they lost a lot more value as they aged because they were Chevys after all. However interior was a lot cheaper than the Corollas in models up to 1997.

    • 0 avatar

      Don’t know about the Prism/Corolla price discrepancy. When they were called Chevy Novas, they were definitely discounted and cheaper than a Corolla.

      But then, maybe GM was pulling the same old chicanery they would do later with the Vibe/Matrix. GM would jack up the MSRP of the Vibe, then offer big rebates so it looked like you were getting a deal.

      But when you checked out a Matrix that didn’t have any rebates, the price was almost identical to the deeply ‘discounted’ Vibe with the same equipment.

  • avatar
    I've got a Jaaaaag

    Back in the 90s Consumer Reports ran a comparison test of the Prism and Corolla if I remember correctly they taped over the badges and asked people to rate the car and it was a pretty even 50/50 split then they had them do the same thing telling the testers what they were driving and the Corolla won hands down.

  • avatar

    Had a friend with one of these in the nineties. We combined the names Geo and Prism to make it easier to say. It was reffered to as his Jism. The girls did not care much for his jism.

  • avatar

    Hatchtopia, it is a notchback I am always scouting for a hatchback GSi. They are unfortunately the rarest of them all. They also dropped the hatchback in 92 so it only had a 3 year run. Intersesting point about the GSi is it is the only 4 door or hatchback offered in the US with the 4AGE motor. Toyota only put it in 2 doors in the US. I have to watch it driving mine on the highway. There have been too many times when I have looked down and it is doing 100 mph. (cruise control is so boring with these motors :-) I have no dought with the weight of the car it could hit 150 no problem. I am 50 years old and drive the car responsibly, but if it needed too it could smoke many off the line, but that is hard on a car. It is much easier on them to test there potential on the highway. The sound these motors make when revving high ( which they love to do ) is bueatiful! The GSi’s and Corolla GTS’s of (1990,1991,1992) no GTS in 1992) had the last version of 16 valve 4AGE and it was the most powerful and best one. Many do not know that the NUMMI plant for one year 1988 made a Nova SS with the 4AGE. I have only seen pics of one never on the street.

  • avatar

    “this American Life” did a great piece on NUMMI two years ago. The talked a lot about GM’s intent to learn how to build cars from Toyota and about Toyota’s intent to learn how to operate a factory in the US.

    • 0 avatar

      I had a 05 Corolla made at NUMMI. The spark plugs cracked after 10k miles, and the dealer said they had put in the wrong ones at the factory.

      After replacing with the correct ones, nothing else broke other than a leaking wheel bearing (which Toyota paid 1/2 of the repair costs post-warranty after some bitching from yours truly).

  • avatar

    Geo was to sell to “I can’t buy a Chevy badged car”. But, dealers didn’t care, called them “Chevy Geos”, and promoted cheap rebated Cavaliers. Then sell the GAP, extended warranty, ‘paint protector’, etc, etc.

    “For 20$ more a month you can add…that’s like a take out pizza”.

  • avatar
    Andy D

    After over 30 yrs driving bugs , my folks bought a 86 Nova and a Tercel. My brother had a Metro and my DIL had a 93 Prizm. . Compared to other bottom line GMs, they lasted quite well.

Read all comments

Back to TopLeave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.

Recent Comments

  • dal20402: It was the 2002 concept that had suicide doors. The 2015 concept was nearly identical to the production...
  • Jeff S: The late night comedians do miss those late night tweets of Trump as he is sitting on the can. Never was that...
  • Jeff S: Very true you cannot have a mineral lease into perpetuity if you have not exercised the option to extract the...
  • Jeff S: @EBFlex–Now we both agree on something that Putin is full of it. See there is some room for...
  • Jeff S: @EBFlex–Again you are looking for an argument I said the car was not feasible until the Model T. Early...

New Car Research

Get a Free Dealer Quote

Who We Are

  • Adam Tonge
  • Bozi Tatarevic
  • Corey Lewis
  • Jo Borras
  • Mark Baruth
  • Ronnie Schreiber