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That’s Not A Mailbox! Cold Start

Chevy Sprint Topshop
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Looking at my kid’s school picture the other day, I was pleased by something that I saw. Not just the fact that I sort of helped keep another human being alive for a decade, but there is that as well. The thing that pleased me most was that the image didn’t look like the kind of school photos people of my generation were forced to appear in.

If you grew up at the end of the last century, chances are you were dressed up for “picture day” in the “formal” styles adults wore during the era. Yearbooks were filled with kids dressed up like they were about to go sell a ’78 Cutlass later that day or in jazzy satin shirts, often posed in front of a cheesy background and perhaps behind a low Styrofoam rock so that every page had a surreal stone-wall kind of look to it.

Vidframe Min Top
Vidframe Min Bottom

Car companies are guilty of the same thing. Previoiusly, we looked at how one dressed up a poor, unsuspecting seventies coupe in disco pants. In the 80s, the same thing happened to a cute little subcompact hatch. Most of the “hot hatches” of the era from the VW GTI to the Renault 5 Turbo were not designed to be sporting propositions from the outset, but ended up working nicely in sportified trim. Less nicely executed was the 1987 Chevy Sprint Turbo, which seemed to have an especially ill-fitting sport persona.

Sprint Outside
General Motors

Beginning life as the Suzuki Cultus, the Sprint was a 3-cylinder ultra-compact that in stock form got the kind of gas mileage that many a hybrid would struggle to achieve today: a staggering 44 city and 50 highway. At just under one liter in displacement, this predecessor to the Geo Metro was possibly the smallest-engined car to bear a Chevy badge ever. If your Yugo had just expired and you wanted a better, similar-sized, bare- bones car, this rebadged Suzuki was the way to go.

Sprint Advertising
General Motors

Don’t forget though: this was the eighties. Likely some marketing exec at Chevy noted the pocket-rocket craze and decided the bowtie brand just had to be part of it. The response was two cars: the Isuzu Gemini rebadged as the Chevy Spectrum Turbo, and inexplicably, a turbo version of our little friend the Sprint. The Golf-sized Spectrum should have been the ticket but it looks like the execution was boring as hell in this video below. Not so the Sprint:

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The intercooled turbo boosted horsepower by 25% to a whopping 70, yet the Sprint still turned in EPA economy figures of 31 city and 39 highway. Available only in all white or all red, this Miami Vice-style outer makeover included a few curious details. The purposeful-looking slots on the “aero” wheel covers likely cooled the lug nuts quite well, but it’s the front of the hood that has the most notable details as on this timeworn example below (one still exists!). The external pushbutton to open the bonnet (as described by our own Jason Torchinsky a while back) is strange enough, but the intake for that intercooler is a particularly odd quirk. It looks for all the world like a place you’d insert a giant SD card or envelopes with you check to the power company.

Sprint Intercooler Detail
Bring A Trailer

Another view under the hood shows that if some kid tried to pop in a letter to Santa into your intercooler, thankfully it more than likely would end up sitting on the radiator and not clog your intake. Based on the other images in the brochure it seems like this little sub-1-liter engine has the assistance of laser beams from space or something to give it superpower:

Chevy Sprint Engine
General Motors

I bet it felt a lot faster than the 0-60 time of 9.5 seconds recorded by MotorWeek (by the way, if I ever meet John Davis I’m sure that I’ll weep in his presence like a girl at a Harry Styles concert).

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The Sprint was a successful captive import for Chevy, but the odd turbo model never really found an audience. Ward’s Automotive Yearbook reports something around 1,500 units sold in 1988, the second and last year it was offered. The Sprint was never really well suited for the hot-hatch getup. Still, as much as we giggle at it, I’m sure it was exponentially more fun to drive than any $150,000 “Turbo” or “M Sport” SUV on the market today. At least a now-forty-something Suzuki Cultus can look back at its yearbook picture with a little less than shame than Generation Xers.

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Suss6052
Suss6052
3 months ago

Yeah the thing about it getting 44 MPG city and 50 MPG highway was under the old loose EPA regulations that didn’t match the real world plus these tin cans wouldn’t hold up in an accident against modern vehicles.

The current crop of midsize CUV HEVs are already in the ballpark city mpg wise but under the current testing conditions so actually better than this. 43/37 for a Ford Escape, up to 54 mpg city on an Elantra hybrid sedan similar for the Prius etc.

Dr. Asteroid
Dr. Asteroid
3 months ago

I love it everything about these.

Last edited 3 months ago by Dr. Asteroid
CrystalEyes
CrystalEyes
3 months ago

Drove a number of these back in the day. Plenty of torque steer but quickest car ever across the intersection.

Jim Grossman
Jim Grossman
3 months ago

I HAD one! It was glorious. So light, so simple, and that turbo would kick. I had just come out of a 61 Mini Cooper 850cc with bad drum brakes, and that Turbo Sprint felt like a rocket sled on rails. I was living on the coast side of the SF penninsula, with no shortage of awesome twisty roads. (Ever been to La Honda!) It was EXACTLY what a sall car should be: light, nimble, and quick, if not overall fast. Sadly, it died, (but I didn’t) n a head-on collision in a Wisconsin snowstorm. I was hit by a Dodge Aspen wagon, and we were both going around 40 MPG. I walked away, but he drove away.

Jim Grossman
Jim Grossman
3 months ago
Reply to  Jim Grossman

Damn tablet. Meant 40 MPH

Hotdoughnutsnow
Hotdoughnutsnow
3 months ago
Reply to  Jim Grossman

If you do the math, it was probably the Sprint going 37MPG and the Aspen doing 13MPG… so a total of 40MPG.

Guillaume Maurice
Guillaume Maurice
3 months ago

Honestly at first I thought the pictures were a bad rendering mix between a Citroen Visa and a Citroen AX.

But then most of the 80s/early 90s small hatches more or less looked the same. ( at leat in Europe )

Piston Slap Yo Mama
Piston Slap Yo Mama
3 months ago

I’m used to finding astonishingly valuable or rare street parked cars around the world, but I still stop in my tracks when I see a forgotten and vanished example of cars formerly common, now gone.

Few cars embody this more than a Turbo Sprint. Seen here on a San Francisco street some years ago.

Jim Stock
Jim Stock
3 months ago

I graduated high school in 1987 and would not have kicked one of these out of my driveway. This was a good car for the time.

Col Lingus
Col Lingus
3 months ago

Drove one of the Swift GT when they were brand new. It was surprising for what it was. Wish I could have bought one way back then. A lot of fun.

Andy Individual
Andy Individual
3 months ago

Thanks for reminding me of my 91 Swift GT. 100HP in a car so light you didn’t have to start the engine if you had a tailwind. That would be a pity though, that little 16V motor was a work of art.

The Bishop
The Bishop
3 months ago

Yes. And the Swift had the decadence of an extra cylinder.

Steve Gray
Steve Gray
3 months ago

I’m proud to say I worked for PBS for 20+ years and got to know John Davis – he even advised me on a few auto purchases. He is as nice as you can imagine.

Bdot
Bdot
3 months ago

As a teen in the mid/late-90s (the Sport Compact Car tuner era), I drove a Geo Metro which is a badge-engineered version of this. I quickly learned that there were no bolt-on parts to make my Metro go faster until I heard about the Turbo Sprint and the Canada-only variant, the Pontiac Firefly. I wanted to find a junkyard or import a version of this motor from Canada to swap into my car to be a part of the tuner scene, but never found one. All I could do was weld on a 2″ Flowmaster muffler and installed a round K&N air filter. The car was never fast, but from all the NVH it certainly felt like it.

Jnnythndrs
Jnnythndrs
3 months ago

When I was an apprentice mechanic in the later-80’s,one of the first jobs they gave me was a clutch in one of these, what an utter PITA that was. Drove great though for such a tiny thing. Later I thought “Huh. Why did an 18-month-old car need a clutch already?’

Last edited 3 months ago by Jnnythndrs
Andy Individual
Andy Individual
3 months ago
Reply to  Jnnythndrs

Must have been an anomaly. I had the next gen in Suzuki form with even more power. The clutch survived both my complete disregard for it and my very impatient wife learning to drive a manual. The brakes, however, were notoriously short lived. My indie mechanic even joked he would do so many rotor swaps on these that he could do them with his eyes closed.

Carguy2219
Carguy2219
3 months ago

True fact: I met John Davis many years ago at the New York Auto Show. I was so enamored by his presence that instead of the proverbial meet and greet handshake, I full on bro-hugged the guy. My girlfriend at the time, now my wife, still reminds me of the awkwardness of the whole situation. In full disclosure, I may have also shed a tear or two out of sheer happiness. Who knew John Davis could have such a profound impact.

Andy Farrell
Andy Farrell
3 months ago
Reply to  Carguy2219

You have lived the dream, my friend!

Col Lingus
Col Lingus
3 months ago
Reply to  Carguy2219

I once met Farrah. My wife had to pull me away before I humped her leg.
Not awkward at all.

Last edited 3 months ago by Col Lingus
MATTinMKE
MATTinMKE
3 months ago
Reply to  Col Lingus

You were going to hump Matt Farrah’s leg?

OH! Farrah Faucett….yeah, I probably would have too.

Last edited 3 months ago by MATTinMKE
Piston Slap Yo Mama
Piston Slap Yo Mama
3 months ago
Reply to  Carguy2219

I did the same thing to Jean Jennings, formerly Lindamood. My wife understood my ardor but in retrospect maybe I was out of character for that hug.

Vetatur Fumare
Vetatur Fumare
3 months ago

I never knew the reason these were sold here, but a lightly used Turbo Sprint was my first car (in 1996, IIRC) and I bought another one fifteen years ago.
Amazing fun, and in Colorado the turbocharger compensated for the thin air and I would easily beat six-cylinder Mustangs between the red lights. I’d buy another one tomorrow if my wife and my mortgage weren’t both glaring at me.

getstoneyII (probably)
getstoneyII (probably)
3 months ago

The odd thing about this car was how long the throw was to shift gears. It felt like driving a Peterbilt. That said, it was fun to live dangerously and go 150 miles on $1.25 and have a true sense of mission accomplished. Great little car to drive.

UnseenCat
UnseenCat
3 months ago

I’m pretty sure this package was a carryover from Suzuki’s JDM market, where Kei cars and other small cars were getting the fashionably sporty treatment.

They weren’t going to win any races against American iron, except perhaps against some of Detroit’s best glorious garbage go-fast sticker-emblazoned “sport” packages of the malaise era. But they were still cute and fun little cars that made a decent attempt at doing slow-car-fast antics. And they were part of the move toward smaller, more efficient engines with turbocharging that we’ve refined in modern cars.

Andy Individual
Andy Individual
3 months ago
Reply to  UnseenCat

70HP would have put it outside Kei regulation and it’s possible it was just slightly too big as well. I think this was probably more of an example of JDM bubble era crazy (in a good way).

Canopysaurus
Canopysaurus
3 months ago

Suzuki Cultus? That name is disturbing on so many levels. I have known a few Suzuki worshippers, though.

Toecutter
Toecutter
3 months ago
Reply to  Canopysaurus

During a blood moon, they sacrifice children to the Samurai!

Canopysaurus
Canopysaurus
3 months ago
Reply to  Toecutter

Haha! That’s what Consumer Reports would have us believe.

Larry B
Larry B
3 months ago
Reply to  Canopysaurus

When it breaks down is it called Cultus Interuptus?

Jnnythndrs
Jnnythndrs
3 months ago
Reply to  Canopysaurus

Blue Oyster Cultus

Vetatur Fumare
Vetatur Fumare
3 months ago
Reply to  Canopysaurus

Mighty Boys on Every side of the Equator are Swift to Hatch Twins! We Dzire to Esteem the Suzuki Hustlers.

It’s Alto easy to make Fun of Suzuki model names – especially in light of how many odd rebadges there have been. I haven’t even touched the made-up names like Landy, Ciaz, Liana, Ertiga, or Baleno.

Canopysaurus
Canopysaurus
3 months ago
Reply to  Vetatur Fumare

And now they’re all gone here. Guess that SX4 U.

Vetatur Fumare
Vetatur Fumare
3 months ago
Reply to  Canopysaurus

I used to have an SX4, too! My wife is still pushing to have us replace it with another, once the Caldina gets too old.

Erik Hancock
Erik Hancock
3 months ago
Reply to  Canopysaurus

“Cultus” is Latin – meaning protected, or nurtured. As in, cultivated or cultured.

Ow, that’s my book bag! Not in the face! Not in the faaace!

Mike Harrell
Mike Harrell
3 months ago
Reply to  Erik Hancock

In Chinook Jargon it means “worthless” so it’s probably just as well it wasn’t sold under that name in the Pacific Northwest. Cultus Bay is right next to Useless Bay on the south end of Whidbey Island, WA, with both names being fairly candid admissions that neither was suitable for development into a harbor.

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