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The Chevrolet Prizm is similar to the Toyota Corolla, and for good reason. Not just because it is a comfortable little car with a gentle ride, hiding a fast, powerful four-cylinder engine; but because it is the same car, with very minor differences. The key difference is the inclusion of a very good Delco radio, far better than Toyota's standard fare. On the other hand, that radio, being much larger than Toyota's, takes up the storage compartment underneath the vent controls.
The Prizm is built in a GM/Toyota joint venture factory in California which also makes the Toyota Corolla.
The Prizm sells against the Chevrolet Cavalier, and there is room in the lineup for both. The Cavalier is torquey and gruff, the Prizm quiet and refined. With a five-speed transmission, it can get 35 mpg without much effort. On the road, the Prizm is nimble, but limited by poor tires; fortunately tires are easy to replace. Though the Prizm's handling is no match for the class-leading Neon, most drivers will not test its limits. It does feel somewhat unstable at high speeds and in heavy winds.
Not much engine noise comes through; like bumps in the road, it's very muffled. There is wind noise at higher speeds, but on the whole it feels much quieter than its competitors. The ride is a pleasant cross between luxury and sport, which means you can feel the road but you aren't jarred by it.
The headlights are well focused, making them seem more powerful than most American cars and trucks. However, they come on automatically, and have a hair trigger. A daytime running-light system runs the high beams at slightly reduced intensity, annoying other drivers.
Interior lighting is also automatic, but is logically designed. You can unlock the electric doors from the outside, and whenever you unlock the door the interior lights come on. They go back off again when you start the ignition, after you've stopped the engine, when you shut the door. There is a ring around the ignition switch which lights up when you open the doors. The power window lockout, on the other hand, makes no sense; it prevents the driver from operating the windows.
Trunk space is on par with competitors, but the 70/30 fold-down seats allow you to put in a child seat without losing the fold-down seats. The child seats, which are special order item only, also let you fold down the non-child-seat seat.
The radio is quite good, and at least the premium versions come with a control that automatically raises the volume as you go faster and interior noise rises.
The engine barely notices the operation of the air conditioner, probably because there is very little to notice. The heater is good, but the air conditioner is often barely noticeable. Even on relatively cool days, the interior tends to heat up quickly.
The interior is small compared to other cars in this price class. There are some useful places to store things, though the cupholders are flimsy. The coinholder only holds a few coins, which rattle as you drive. The moonroof is set too far back. Access to the spare tire or jack requires the removal of a large cardboard piece, which in turn requires the removal of every single item from the trunk.
This car is fast and fun, yet economical and comfortable. It's very easy to make smooth shifts - we recommend the manual transmission for everyone. The only problem is price. The resale value is not in the same class as the nearly-identical Toyota, and the initial price is nearly as high. The 2000 Neon offers a far better suspension an stereo, with much more space, for less money. So drive both before making a decision.
As for the Civic - well, there's no contest. The price is similar, but the Prizm beats the Civic in just about every category we can think of. Don't even bother going to the Honda dealer, unless you want to get a pleasant feeling of superiority when driving around in your shiny new Prizm.
If you believe in driving an American car, well, the Cavalier is truly American. The Prizm is sorta-kinda. But it's pretty close, and we'd be willing to forgive you, especially if you want a good stereo.
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