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Tested: 1977 Chevrolet Chevette Puts Price Before Performance

Car and Driver logo Car and Driver 8/17/2020 Patrick Bedard
a car parked on the side of a road: From the Archive: Detroit's first import fighter is down on power but its highly affordable entry point helps make up for its lack of excitement. © Eberhard Luethke - Car and Driver From the Archive: Detroit's first import fighter is down on power but its highly affordable entry point helps make up for its lack of excitement.

From the November 1976 issue of Car and Driver.

Those of you who have been sitting forward in your chairs waiting for the word on the Chevette, wondering if it has a chance against the Rabbit and all of those other big-selling foreigners, can relax a little. The Chevette is going to make it, at least in the short term. More than anything else, the basic car offers good value for its price, and that should be enough to keep the majority of small ­car buyers from defecting to the imports.

We've been closely following this car since its introduction to the long-lead press last July. Late in the summer we accompanied a number of high-ranking Chevrolet engineers on a one-day road evaluation of three pre-production models, and now we've just finished a thorough examination of a production 1.6 Rally model (unfortunately loaded with options) under our own testing conditions.

By now everybody knows that the Chevrolet Chevette is the American version of the General Motors T-car first built by Opel in Germany and then picked up by GM subsidiaries in England, Japan, and Brazil. It's an utterly conventional design with a front-mounted four-cylinder engine driving a solid rear axle. A two-door hatchback coupe is the only body style available. The American version is 3.4 inches longer, 1.6 inches narrower, and 3.2 inches lower than a VW Rabbit on a nearly an identical wheelbase. The base Chevette is about 120 pounds heavier than the Rabbit; the available options add even more. Our test car with air conditioning (an extra 71 pounds) rolled across the scales at 2220 pounds.

a car parked on the side of a road: 1977 Chevrolet Chevette © Eberhard Luethke - Car and Driver 1977 Chevrolet Chevette

Viewed as a total package, handling is the Chevette's most attractive feature. This is followed by the delightful accuracy and responsiveness of its controls, its relatively quiet interior, and the potential of very comfortable seats if you are willing to pay extra for certain options. The biggest deficiency, on the other hand, is its lack of engine power. We were also disappointed by the stopping ability of the standard-equipment unassisted brakes (power assist is optional). Interior room for luggage and passengers falls into that vast middle rating of "acceptable." The Chevette will carry four adults in reasonable comfort—which is a laudable performance for a car this small and certainly a first for Detroit—but its usable space falls short of the high standard set by the Rabbit.

If you were to drive a Chevette blind­folded, chances are great that you would assume it to be an import. Unlike Vegas and Pintos, which seem large and lethargic by comparison, the Chevette is nimble and direct. The sound it makes is that of a typical import with a small, high-­revving engine. But when you peel off the blindfold and take a look, particularly at a heavily optioned model, there is no longer any doubt that it is a Detroit car. The trim is more abundant and more consciously applied than that found in any foreign car. Some aspects of it are very well done. The wooly herringbone cloth (optional) on the seats is exquisitely soft and at the same time highly resistant to showing dirt. The rubber floor mats, also optional, are heavy, finely detailed, and well-fitted; Rubbermaid couldn't have done better.

a car parked on the side of a road: 1977 Chevrolet Chevette © Eberhard Luethke - Car and Driver 1977 Chevrolet Chevette

Beyond this, there are two convenience items that even Detroit's big cars can't match. The Chevette has inertia­-type locks on the front seat backs that allow them to be folded forward without fumbling for some hidden lever. And the retractor mechanisms for the front shoulder belts operate like window­ shade rollers—after you've fastened the buckle, a slight pull on the shoulder strap will reposition the retractor to give you a bit of slack, removing the belt tension from your chest.

Yet these few functional and tasteful items are overwhelmed by the garish. The Chevette's Custom interior is heavily accented with wood-grained tape applied to flash-chromed plastic moldings. All too frequently the tape is cut short or mislocated so that its edges are visible, informing you graphically that your simulated luxury is only a few microns thick. This is the sort of flash and filigree that is shunned by Volkswagen and most other small-car builders.

a car parked in front of a mirror posing for the camera: 1977 Chevrolet Chevette © Eberhard Luethke - Car and Driver 1977 Chevrolet Chevette

We've asked certain Chevrolet officials about their preoccupation with imitation wood, particularly when the cost target of the car apparently doesn't allow the job to be done in a quality fashion. They are uniformly reluctant to talk about it but generally concede that Chevy general manager Robert Lund feels that the American public associates wood grain with luxury. So, by executive decree, all optionally trimmed Chevrolets right down to the Chevette will be accented thus. Our argument is not with wood grain itself, which can be attractive if properly done, but with Detroit's practice of providing those garish trims that somehow promise to lift the stigma of a cheap car. The Chevette's equipment list contains a number of these "sucker options": body side moldings, side window reveal moldings, door edge guard moldings, custom exteriors, woody decor packages, various combinations of wheel covers and trim rings, sport mirrors, deluxe seat belts and consoles. And they are frequently tied into inter­locking packages. For example, you can't have the optional sound-deadening unless you opt for the Custom interior, which includes the bogus wood.

a bag of luggage sitting on top of a car: 1977 Chevrolet Chevette © Eberhard Luethke - Car and Driver 1977 Chevrolet Chevette

We are not opposed to options—they give a basic car great latitude. But it appears that too much of the Chevette's development time was spent working out appearance gimmicks and not enough was spent on basic engineering. The engine is the most notable case in point. Compared to the garden-variety small imports, the Chevette's power­plant is in a primitive state of tune—and performance suffers accordingly. Flat out, the test car was capable of only 81 mph. In acceleration, it required 19.8 seconds to complete the standing quarter-mile, with a finishing speed of only 66.3 mph. Certainly the extra weight of the air conditioning penalized our test car's acceleration, but even without it the Chevette could not match the pace of the Honda CVCC and the Datsun B-210, generally considered to be the slowest of the imports. A good indication of the Chevette's available power comes from comparing its top speed to those of the Honda (93 mph), Datsun B-210 (88 mph), and VW Rabbit (97 mph). Keep in mind too that we are speaking of the Chevette with the optional 1600cc engine. The standard 1400cc version should be even slower.

a car parked on the side of a road: 1977 Chevrolet Chevette © Eberhard Luethke - Car and Driver 1977 Chevrolet Chevette

The basic design of the Chevette's engine is widely credited to Opel, even though it was built only in Brazil before Chevrolet picked up the blueprints. It is a reasonable engine, compact in size and light in weight despite its cast-iron block and head. The head is a cross-flow design with all the valves in line, operated by rocker arms off a single belt-driven overhead camshaft. We have not examined the ports, but conversations with Chevrolet engineers indicate that they are not unhappy with them. These same engineers justify the use of the Brazilian engine rather than designing a new one because it saved time: At least one division of General Motors already knew how to manufacture it, and the engine had proved that it worked (new designs don't always work on the first try). But it would appear that Chevrolet did not put all of the time it saved to good use. The Chevette engine went into production with a very unsophisticated four-into-one exhaust manifold. Common import practice is a four-into-two-into-one system that, when properly tuned, produces a substantial increase in torque and horsepower and in no way conflicts with the catalytic converter for emissions control. It is also common for imports to be equipped with a progressive two-barrel carburetor, but the Chevette has only a one-barrel. It's little wonder the Chevette ends up a weakling.

a car parked in front of a mirror posing for the camera: 1977 Chevrolet Chevette © Eberhard Luethke - Car and Driver 1977 Chevrolet Chevette

We asked Robert Stempel, recently named director of engineering for Chevrolet, why the Chevette couldn't match the Rabbit's performance, and he admitted that Detroit small-engine technology lags behind that of the foreigners. Chevrolet examined the VW engine and was impressed by the careful design of its combustion chambers and the efforts directed toward the reduction of parasitic losses—for example, not only does the Rabbit have a highly efficient water pump, it also uses an electric cooling fan instead of a belt-driven fan to save power at high engine speeds. Since small engines are expected to turn higher revs than typical American sixes and V-8s, these detail improvements have a substantial effect on both output and fuel economy. Chevrolet is well aware of the potential but just hasn't engineered it into the Chevette yet.

a car parked in a parking lot: 1977 Chevrolet Chevette © Eberhard Luethke - Car and Driver 1977 Chevrolet Chevette

The rest of the car is a good deal more successful. Chevrolet picked up the suspension design originated by Opel with only subtle revisions. So the Chevette rides and handles very much like a smaller, lightweight version of the Opel Manta, a car that has always found favor with this magazine. Rather than the simple small-car expedient of MacPherson struts in front, the Chevette has a pair of control arms on each side. The rear uses a solid axle with a short torque tube for excellent wind-up control plus a single trailing link on each side and a Panhard rod to positively locate the axle in all directions. The front and rear anti-­roll bars on our test car are optional. All of this in conjunction with the standard­equipment 5.0-inch-wide wheels provide a basis for good handling. Even with the limp, 80-series GM-specification radials, our example pulled 0.70 g of cornering force on the skid pad. A set of tires with more handling potential, such as the Continentals now used for Showroom Stock racing, would certainly bring that up to a sporting level. As expected, the Chevette understeers considerably at its limit, and there isn't near enough power available to bring the tail out. There is adequate wheel travel to keep the suspension from bottoming out, so the car remains manageable at the limit. The high caster angle in the front suspension, however, requires a fair amount of muscle on the steering wheel. For normal motoring, the caster produces a strong centering action that feels great. But when you're flogging it, the aligning torque trying to straighten the front wheels is more than you need or want.

Ride quality depends on the road surface. On relatively smooth pavement—the type traveled by Detroit executives to and from the office—the Chevette's soft radials do an excellent job of absorbing the shock of expansion strips and various other small bumps, and we would judge the ride equal to the best of the compact imports. When the going gets rough, the Chevette turns choppy and is distinctly less comfortable than the Rabbit, Renault 5, and Fiat 128.

Out on the freeway, it's easy to believe that the Chevette was developed for the era of the 55-mph limit. Below that speed, it's a quiet and relaxed cruiser. Sensitive drivers will notice a few vibration periods at various operating speeds, but this is not uncommon for four-cylinder cars. Once you go over 55 mph, however, the engine assumes a busy, almost frantic tone. The faster you go, the more you feel as if you're abusing the machinery. Much of this has to do with the selection of axle ratios. Chevrolet has decided on a 4.10 as standard equipment with the 1600 engine. This helps acceleration, but a more powerful engine with the optional 3.70 axle would be a calmer choice. On the other hand, the Chevette's lack of power is not as bothersome as it might have been. At wide-open throttle, our test car was substantially quieter than any other small import we've tested. So it doesn't strain audibly when accelerating.

a car parked in a parking lot: 1977 Chevrolet Chevette © Eberhard Luethke - Car and Driver 1977 Chevrolet Chevette

In fact, there seems to be more strain associated with braking. Without the optional power assist, pedal pressure is higher than would be expected in a small car, and you really have to lean into it to lock the front wheel. Unfortunately, one of our test car's rear wheels locked readily, which compromised the overall performance. The Chevette required 232 feet to stop from 70 mph, an unacceptably long distance.

The Chevette's modest performance is offset to a great degree by its particularly well-laid-out driver's compartment. The Rally option includes special instrumentation (tachometer and temperature), which is grouped directly in front of the driver, clear of the steering-wheel rim. Also a part of the Rally equipment is a "sport shifter" option. This moves the base of the lever farther back along the tunnel so that the knob travels in a horizontal path. While the relocation is a small contribution to "sport," the action of the shifter itself is crisp and direct, one of the best in the business. Its only flaw was a tendency to rattle in sympathy with engine vibration at certain speeds.

Detroit usually builds its cars with lower rooflines than those from other parts of the world, and the Chevette is no exception. Yet it has very good headroom without the unpleasant feeling of sitting flat on the floor. Apparently the rather deep "pans" in the footwell area (both front and rear) create the impression of seats being higher than they really are. Even the rear passengers have reasonable headroom without finding their knees poking into their chins. And if the front seats are pushed forward a few notches, there is adequate knee clearance behind. The Chevette is far more comfortable in back than larger cars such as the Vega hatchback, Monza, and Camaro but inferior to the Rabbit (the VW's three-inch-higher roofline allows a more chair-like seating position that is as comfortable as that of many American intermediates).

a pile of luggage sitting on top of a car: 1977 Chevrolet Chevette © Eberhard Luethke - Car and Driver 1977 Chevrolet Chevette

The Chevette's trunk space is some­what smaller than the Rabbit's, and it lacks the hinged cover bridging the gap between the hatch door and the rear seat back that keeps potential burglars from scouting the contents of the Rabbit's trunk. Additionally, the Chevette's spare tire and fuel tank have not been integrated into as small an area as they should have been, so the trunk floor is a bit high. This point becomes moot, however, when there are no rear passengers. The seat back folds down, creating a small station wagon that will carry more luggage than most families own.

Passengers in our test car were invariably impressed by the front bucket seats. The Custom interior ($152) and the cloth covering ($18) combine to provide a softness and degree of comfort beyond what you'd expect in a small car. They offer no lateral support in cornering, but for normal driving they are comfortable indeed.

a car parked in a field: 1977 Chevrolet Chevette © Eberhard Luethke - Car and Driver 1977 Chevrolet Chevette

Overall, we find the Chevette to be a car well suited to American conditions. It's happy at the 55-mph limit, nimble in metropolitan traffic, and offers its driver a fair amount of pleasure. The only category in which it really falls down is performance. The poor acceleration is accompanied by less-than-stunning fuel economy—our test car achieved 27.5 mpg in the urban section of the Car and Driver mileage cycle, 29 mpg on the highway. A similar 1600cc, four-speed Chevette without air conditioning bettered these figures by 1 mpg, which puts it ahead of a Toyota Corolla but behind the Honda Civic, Datsun B-210, and Rabbit. Even though the Chevette handles well and is expected to be accepted by the SCCA for competition in the Showroom Stock Sedan class, we see little hope for it being competitive. It just doesn't have the necessary power.

For competition in the sales charts, however, the Chevette has one ace in the hole beyond its appeal as the only American-built small car: price. For those on a low-calorie budget, the no­-back-seat Scooter at $2899 matches the cheapest stripper imports head on. And the regular Chevette coupe at $3098 is a solid $400 under the base Rabbit. If price is the sales incentive that Detroit has always claimed it is, Chevrolet will hold the line against the imports.


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