(Note: First Looks will present initial impressions on a newly-released car, based on some limited driving time and information presented by the manufacturer. They should be considered as adjuncts to our full Road Tests, but do not replace them.)
We get together from time to time at Manney's Automotive Journalist Cafe, just us big boys, swapping stories. In one corner, there's Egan, just back from a weekend running his Formula Continental at Road Atlanta, after a hilarious misspent week towing down with Chris Beebe in a 1931 Horch. In another, David E., straight off the Concorde from Sant'Agata Bolognese, where he rendered his blessing unto the doorhandle design for the latest Lamborghini. And, over here by the video games, I sit, fresh from tootling between malls in a new Geo Metro.
All right, so life isn't fair. But think about it: what do you do in a car? During the day, I mean. It's a rare daily driver that gets wound out under the bridge at Road Atlanta; rarer still, the Lambo in line at day-care pickup.
Tiddling light-to-light up Virginia's Leesburg Pike through Tyson's Corner is the kind of driving people will do with this car. And that's what we did recently with the new Metro.
Tyson's is mall country, once-bucolic countryside now covered with Bloomie's and Nordie's and Mickey's. It's grown from agricultural-rough to flashy-modern. And so has the Geo Metro.
Remember the Chevy Sprint? A mileage champ with a 3-cylinder engine and the worst seats this side of the Iron Curtain? The Sprint became the Metro when Chevy spun Geo off to market its captive imports. The second iteration was more sophisticated, a bit more grown-up, but the car was still more transportation appliance than automobile.
Well, GM has done a lot of work on this third iteration of the M-body, and they want you to know it. Toward that end, they took the rare step of loading up a car carrier with 95 Metros, sweatshirts, and backpacks, and driving them to college campuses across the country, where local scribes were treated to a day at "Metro University." A day-long group drive of a new car isn't unusual; the half-day classroom session on the car -- featuring the head product planner and senior members of the engineering, assembly, and marketing teams -- is unique.
Herewith, the class notes; cribbing is permitted. A driving impression follows.
The Metro is still a joint project between GM and Suzuki. GM Warren (the same folks who did the Prizm) established the hardpoints and styled the car; Suzuki did the design and engineering. The Metro is built at CAMI, the equally-owned GM/Suzuki joint venture plant in Ingersoll, Ontario that also produces the Geo Tracker/Suzuki Sidekick. (Yes, the name is partially a corporate pun, folks; Ontario's abbreviation is ON, and CAMI-ON is French for truck. Maybe you have to be Canadian to get it.) The plan is to produce 120,000 M-bodies a year, split 50-50 between Suzuki Swifts and a blend of Geo Metros and the Canada-only Pontiac Firefly.
The new Metro comes in two body styles, a 3-door hatchback and a 4-door sedan, replacing last year's 5-door hatch. The sedan will be exclusive to GM. It comes in 13.4" longer than the old 5-door. The coupe's rear hatch features a three-inch lower liftover height compared to the 94. The sedan is available in three trim levels; the coupe, two.
Those of you who liked wind-in-the-hair or extra-pennies-in-the-pocket motoring may mourn the loss of the Metro convertible and the mileage-uber-alles XFi. Despite its perennial mileage championship, the XFi made up less than 10% of Metro sales, and the Metro team decided that the sacrifices made in comfort to achieve the higher mileage numbers weren't worth the candle. Also, economy numbers are now so good for all Metros that GM'll let the Honda Civic VX wear the mileage crown; the Metro coupe, with that trusty 1-liter 3-cylinder engine and a manual transmission, comes in at 44 city and 49 highway MPG. GM's professors helpfully point out that to make up the initial cost difference between the Metro and the Civic, you'd have to drive the Honda 250,000 miles.
But you don't have to settle for that 3-banger anymore. The 4-door comes with a new, 1.3 liter 4-cylinder engine, up 15 hp to 70. (It's a $360 option in the hatch.) With hydraulic lifters and lash adjusters, the 4-cylinder sports a 30,000-mile service interval instead of 10,000, making the Metro cheaper to own.
GM's market research showed cost of ownership to be the second most significant factor in the minds of those considering a Metro. The number one issue was safety, which is why the Metro development team went to great lengths to produce a small car which would be as safe as a larger car.
That effort took many forms, incorporating both active and passive safety features in the tires-up redesign. Handling was radically improved with new standard front and rear stabilizer bars, with McPherson struts at all four corners. A stiffer chassis (the sedan is torsionally 20% stiffer than the old 5-door; the coupe, 5% better than its predecessor) brought a 33% improvement in roll response. Stopping was enhanced by bigger, now vented brake discs with optional ABS. And that handling and stopping power are now transmitted to the pavement through standard 13-inch tires, up from 12. (Product planner Scott Leonard also cites this improvement as a comfort improvement, due to lowered tire noise, and boon to cost of ownership, from longer treadwear and much greater availability of 13-inch tires.) The standard tire is Goodyear's Invicta GL.
The most visible change on the passive side is the addition of daytime running lights, which will be standard across all GM lines, but appear first in the Metro. The Metro's DRLs are Canadian-spec, reduced-intensity headlamps burning at 40% of the standard low beam intensity. The lights cost .2 MPG, and raised a concern among engineers that some drivers might drive into night with their DRLs on, neglecting to switch to full headlights. But the potential safety benefits, coupled with an order from the highest level at GM, made DRLs a reality. (For a totally unauthorized tip on how to run without them, see the On the Road section.)
As we noted, DRLs are the most visible safety improvement. But the most significant is the cage construction of the new chassis, including five structural crossbars engineered to spread side impact loads throughout the car's structure. This makes the Metro the smallest car in the world to meet 1997 side impact standards. Add designed-in crumple zones and standard dual air bags, and it's obvious the Metro team left no stone unturned in their quest to make their vehicle a car in which you can feel secure.
While the clinics indicated a need to target safety, competitive pressures and the marketeers dictated improvements in the comfort of the Metro. A major effort was made to cut noise levels, both through good design and the use of noise absorbing materials, similar to the asphalt sandwich construction used in the Prizm.
A new, one-piece instrument panel was mounted to one of those five crossmembers. (The engineers want to call it a "bazooka bar," due to its design; GM's lawyers won't let them. Presumably someone out there will sue if they can't shoot down MiGs with the structural crossmember of a subcompact car. But you can call it anything you want.)
A new, full seal fills the gap between the instrument panel and the dash. What's that, you say? Aren't the instrument panel and the dash the same thing? Not in GM-speak. The lawyers won't let GM staff use the word "firewall" anymore, for reasons you could probably guess. So the metal panel between the engine and the passengers is now the "dash," and the plastic bit with gauges in it is the "instrument panel."
The seat cushions in the Metro are all-new, and anyone who has sat next to the Splendid Co-Driver for a 300-mile trip in a Chevy Sprint will appreciate the contribution better seats make to reduced interior noise. (Now watch, she'll hire GM's lawyers.)
A molded headliner, deeper carpeting, rear door dome lamp switches, and available power seats and locks on the sedan add to the luxury touches.
Ten automotive writers lined up in brand-new cars for a run through the Northern Virginia suburbs. Fewer than half had GM chaperones in the right seat. Can you say, "Traffic nightmare?" Actually, everyone was well-behaved. David E. would have been disappointed.
Our first turn came in a 4-door LSi. The first thing you notice, settling in, is that the GM Warren stylists used rounded, full forms on the interior for that higher-priced look. It's the same principle as the Prizm and Nissan Altima exteriors: it doesn't cost much more to mold a rounded dash (er, instrument panel) than a squarish one, and it raises the perceived value considerably. The shapes are simple, but the car has clearly been styled, not just screwed together from a kit, as some of its predecessors seemed to be.
Interior fabrics are pretty good, especially for this class of car, with decent quality moldings and good plastic textures. The molded headliner was actually nice, and if you want to understand how anybody can say that, look at the headliner in a Ford Aspire or any VW Squareback.
Large buttons and switches make controlling the radio and ventilation system easy. And the air vents are commendably large and easily directed.
The HVAC switches are textured plastic, and the steering wheel is padded; they've gone to some lengths to ensure that everything you touch feels more expensive than it is.
Map pockets in the doors are a bit shallow but they're there, which isn't too common in this class. Absent is a tilt wheel, presumably for airbag-aiming reasons. The interior also features a couple of bins, but no flocked change compartments.
Fire up the new 4-cylinder and marvel at how quiet it is inside compared to the Metro's former days. The sound level seemed very similar to that in my CRX, except the Metro's suspension doesn't squeak.
The seats are, in a word, much much much much more comfortable than before, with decent fabric and grip. They'd certainly do for a long trip.
Looking in the mirror, it's easy to pick out the Geos. Having driven extensively in Canada, I can tell you that the intensity of GM's DRLs is good; they're noticeable in the mirror without being as bothersome as full-intensity beams used by other manufacturers. One is compelled to wonder, though, whether the visibility advantages will be as significant when most cars have DRLs, but that's a different debate for another time.
Geo has obviously done some serious NVH work on this car, but the 4-cylinder still hammers when pushed. On the plus side, it also goes when pushed, and with a bit of zip; that zip is much less evident after the automatic transmission kicks down. It's not a torquey motor, but has a broad range.
The a/c compressor comes in with a noticeable power loss, but not a drastic one.
As with other GM vehicles we've recently driven, there's enough brake, but it doesn't come on until you're deep into the pedal. The car doesn't like to slow down, either; freewheeling is high.
The structure feels very tight, and you notice the chassis' stiffness when you throw the car around a little.
The Metro's suspension soaks up irregularities with a fair bit of dexterity. Unlike some of its ancestors, you don't feel every pebble. Is it a small car? Yes, quite obviously. But the ride is much better than the competition. Those big tires help a lot.
Wind noise is well-controlled, even at 65 MPH. The Metro uses flush-fitting windows with a guide pin in the upper channel, resulting in very solid and smooth operation.
When we stopped to switch cars, I hopped into the back seat. At 5'11", I was surprised to find a decent amount of room in back, especially for the legs. I couldn't wear a hat, but I could certainly ride comfortably back there.
The trunk isn't huge, but a split rear seat allows stowage of larger items.
The 4-door LSi, with automatic transmission, came to $12,896 including a/c and power steering ($1045); ABS ($565); and an AM/FM radio.
Next was the base 4-door. While the interior fabrics are different from the LSi, materials are of a similar quality. There's no remote trunk release in the base car.
Pedals are decently placed for heel-and-toeing, but throttle effort is kinda light. Not that this matters much; even more than the LSi, the base car is not a performance ride, due in part to those long-wearing but not-too-grippy Invictas. But on twisty roads, the Metro is very stable in transition; that new-found platform solidity comes through, bazooka bars or no.
Product planner Scott Leonard rode along for this portion of the trip, and aside from general observations on the joy of automotive fatherhood (he got to make most of the decisions about direction of the vehicle and specific features), he noted that there would not be a pocket-rocket model (like the old Suzuki Swift GT) in either the GM or Suzuki lines. As with the XFi, demand just wasn't there. Besides, he noted, GM was trying to take a more-luxury-than-you-pay-for approach with the Metro (like the Prizm before it), and an emphasis on performance would dilute that message. He sounded a little sad. Before fathering the new Metro, he'd been part of the team that produced the Geo Storm, and it seemed he wanted another crack at the CRXs of the world.
I didn't tell him what I drive.
We traded Scott for the 3-cylinder base hatchback. Ah, yes, that 3-cylinder. Still buzzy, after all these years. Indeed, the car had far more noise inside than the 4-cylinders, base or upscale. Interior materials and appointments are identical to the 4-door base car.
Stand on the loud pedal and it gets even louder, although the exhaust note is much nicer than the 4-cylinder. Because of a different torque profile, the 3-cylinder actually seems to have more grunt down low, but you feel those 15 fewer horses out on the highway. Still, if you wind up in too high a gear, the 4-cylinder bogs down while the 3 pulls you through.
The hatch body is very modern, with no blind spot and lots of glass.
The base cloth, while less plush than the LSi, is grippy. The LSi's velour door inserts are noticeable by their absence.
The rear compartment doesn't seem to have much room with the rear seat up, but with the seat down it's pretty large. And rear seat roominess is similar to the 4-door.
The manual shifter is clean, not at all vague. Handling is lively; over bumps, the rear kicked out more than most. Mirrors on the base car require sticking your hand out the window to adjust. Whatever would John Dinkel say?
The base 3-door stickered at $10,601, including a/c ($785); ABS (565); and radio (521).
The most significant discovery of the trip in the 3-door LSi (merits of the 4-door LSi, less 15 hp, plus a few dB) was the following Unauthorized Tip (do not try this on public roads, okay? Nuff said.) If you pull up on the parking brake one click, it doesn't put the brakes on, but it does switch the DRLs off. (You can hear an audible click under the instrument panel as the relay trips.) Why you'd want to do this, I'm not sure.
Oh, also the 3-door LSi was the PURPLEST car we've ever driven. And, unlike the base 3-door, it has a parcel shelf covering your belongings in the rear area. This is now our motto: If you're going to drive a purple car, cover your rear.
You might guess that 41% of Metro buyers are first-car buyers. You might even guess that 62% of the buyers are female. But, especially given the figure for first-timers, you might not guess that the median age of a Metro buyer is 37(!)
That's because three kinds of people buy Metros and their competitors. The first is the aforementioned first-time buyers (including graduation-present cars). The second is commuters who have a primary car or two, but just want something reliable, efficient, and reasonably comfortable to get to work in. And the third -- and a major Metro market -- is senior citizens looking for a car to tow behind their Winnebagos.
In our judgement, for the first-time buyers, the base car is perfectly serviceable, even without ABS. It's plenty of car to get you where you're going. The LSi has everything you'd need to appeal to the daily commuter -- enough comfort, a good sound system, and high economy.
As for what you look for in a car to tow behind a Winnebago, I haven't the foggiest idea. You'd have to ask David E.
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