When was the last time you heard someone talk about the Chevrolet Lumina? I can’t even remember the last time I’ve seen one. These family cars of the late 1980s and 1990s are largely forgotten, with most examples likely having long been crushed and disposed of. But at one point, these were among best-selling Chevrolets, and with the Lumina Z34, GM even made a performance version perhaps worth a spot in a modern garage.
Last time on Holy Grails, our Daydreaming Designer, the Bishop, informed us that BMW sold a rare spec of the E61 5-Series. In the short time between the 2008 and 2010 model years, you could buy a BMW 535xiT. It’s very nearly the perfect car that car enthusiasts love to talk about online. The BMW 535xiT is a wagon with a striking design, all-wheel-drive, and a twin-turbo straight six making 300 HP. This wagon was nearly as fast as a BMW 550i and only sweetening the deal is the fact that you could get it with a manual transmission.
A number of readers have asked for today’s grail. This car isn’t a hot rod or a super obscure spec that only hardcore enthusiasts know about. Instead, we’re going to talk about the best version of an arguably forgettable car.
Today, we talk about the era shortly before Bob Lutz arrived at General Motors. In the 1990s, General Motors had some awesome, sometimes ambitious ideas. This was a time when you could buy minivans with composite panels that looked like shuttlecraft from Star Trek. Over at Oldsmobile, the Aurora pumped some much-needed energy into a stagnating brand. The Corvette C4 hit its stride before morphing into the C5, and who can forget the GMC Syclone pickup and the GMC Typhoon SUV? There were a lot of fun and sometimes oddball developments at General Motors in those days.
However, not everything was a striking flagship or a pickup truck with muscle. Some of the cars of the day were boring people haulers that dutifully served families for a decade or two before getting sent up to a farm upstate. That is where you will find the Chevy Lumina. There’s nothing wrong with a Lumina, but it’s probably not a vehicle that most readers here will remember for its excitement. The most vivid memory of my own comes from about 20 years ago when I rode in one that was rusty, clunky and smelled terribly of gas.
GM’s Poorly-Timed Answer To The Ford Taurus
When the first-generation Ford Taurus launched in the 1986 model year, it stunned the automotive press and buyers alike. Ford’s design was fresh and futuristic, while the driving experience was impressive enough to make Car and Driver call it “the shape of tomorrow” before placing it on the magazine’s 10 Best list. The publication wasn’t done, and in 1989, the magazine proclaimed the Ford Taurus SHO to be “America’s Best Sedan!” in all capital letters. In 1986, Motor Trend nominated the Taurus “Car of the Year.”
General Motors didn’t really have a direct competitor. Sure, it had the fourth-generation Chevy Monte Carlo and the Chevy Celebrity, but neither of those cars had the styling and the design of the Taurus. As it was, General Motors was dealing with a disaster of its own. As CNN wrote in 1992, in 1982, GM started development on the GM-10 program. This $7 billion program was intended to replace the Chevrolet Celebrity, Pontiac 6000, Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme, and Buick Century. Each brand would get a coupe, a sedan, and a wagon that were largely the same underneath but with differences for their respective brands. GM’s plan was to outfit seven plants to produce 250,000 cars a year each. CNN notes that such output would have equaled 21 percent of the total U.S. car production, which would have beaten Ford’s output.
During the GM-10’s development, General Motors was losing a ton of ground. In its 1984 reorganization, GM’s brands held 44.6 percent of the car market. By GM-10’s launch in 1987, GM struggled with a 36.6 percent market share. CNN explained that in the early 1980s, GM had redesigned its cars to be smaller, more fuel-efficient, and front-wheel-drive. It was a case of bad timing as fuel got cheap again and buyers weren’t all that interested in slow, small cars.
After the 1984 reorganization of GM, the GM-10 program moved to the Chevrolet-Pontiac-Canada group and funding was so tight that the GM-10 cars had to be rolled out over the course of a couple of years. To make matters worse, GM had taken such a long time to get GM-10 cars to market that Ford got an early lead. When the Lumina finally hit the road in the 1990 model year, the Taurus had enjoyed the market for nearly four years without much challenge from General Motors.
The Lumina launched during a continued bad time for General Motors. The GM-10 program, which produced first-generation W-body cars like the Buick Regal, Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme, and Pontiac Grand Prix, cranked out lots of cars that weren’t making money. In 1989, CNN reports, GM lost more than $2,000 on every GM-10 car built. In 1990, GM sold 537,080 GM-10 cars across four brands, inefficient compared to the 410,077 Tauruses and Mercury Sables Ford sold out of those two brands.
The Chevrolet Lumina
When the Lumina launched in the 1990 model year, you were able to pick it up as a sedan or as a coupe. The Lumina name was also applied to Chevy’s flavor of GM’s distinctive “dustbuster” vans, which have their own development story of trying to be high-tech vans to outclass Chrysler. Of course, for this piece, we’re focusing on the W-body Lumina cars.
The Lumina was an instant hit right out of the gate, with The Truth About Cars stating that Chevy sold 300,000 Luminas in 1990. Of those, 278,000 Luminas were sedans and nearly 46,000 of them were coupes. When the first-generation Lumina tapped out after 1994, Chevy managed to sell over a million of them. Why were buyers just scooping these up? Sadly, I couldn’t find any written reviews, but I’ll let MotorWeek‘s John Davis show you around a Lumina in a fantastic review from 1989:
A highlight of that review was Chevy’s marketing ploy. Chevrolet pitched the Lumina as the value-oriented family car and GM teamed up with Disney for adverts showing Disney characters riding in Lumina sedans and APV vans. In fact, when Disney opened up the MGM Studios theme park in Florida (now Disney’s Hollywood Studios), the Lumina was the official car of the park.
In terms of performance, the review noted that the largest engine was a 3.1-liter V6 making 135 HP. This was good for a 60 mph sprint in 9.8 seconds, or slightly faster than a Ford Taurus with a 3.0-V6. In the end, MotorWeek concluded that with the coupe and minivan versions on their way, GM was set to have a solid lineup of affordable family cars with few compromises.
What if you wanted a car to take the kids to school and have a little fun along the way? Readers ColoradoFX4, greatfallsgreen, and Jack Trade all nominated the Lumina Z34 as a bright and rare spot in this era of General Motors. Honestly, those were just the comments that I was able to find. I remember seeing the Lumina Z34 suggested a couple of more times in non-Holy Grails articles. In fact, Jack Trade and greatfallsgreen also nominated the Chevy Corsica LTZ and the Beretta Z26. Those latter two might be worth a retrospective of their own. Clearly, a number of our readers like these cars!
In 1990 for the 1991 model year, Chevrolet rolled out its performance version of the Lumina.
Available in just the coupe, Lumina buyers could opt for the high-performance Lumina Z34. In opting for the Z34, you got the FE3 sport suspension package, a body kit, sporty, overstuffed seats, and a dual exhaust. Under the hood sat a 3.4-liter V6 making 210 horses and 215 lb-ft torque. That was bolted to a standard five-speed Getrag manual or to an optional automatic.
Regardless of transmission choice, shifting a Z34 was handled from the floor. Normally, saying something like that would be weird, but standard versions of the Lumina had automatic transmissions shifted from the column and no center console.
What did this give you? Well, Car and Driver performed a shootout of the Lumina Z34 against its biggest rivals, the Dodge Spirit R/T (a previous Holy Grail entry) and the Ford Taurus SHO. The Lumina reached 60 mph in 7.1 seconds, making it slower than the 5.8-second Dodge and the 6.6-second Ford. However, it was the only coupe of the three and finished second overall. I’ll let Car and Driver take the mic:
Okay, so close only counts in horseshoes and hydrogen bombs. But Chevrolet deserves a chorus of applause for its new Yankee clipper. The Lumina Z34 finished a mere two points overall behind our winner. And it’s a bargain to boot.
There’s a lot to like about the Z34, beginning with its new 60-degree 24-valve V-6. At 3.4 liters, this is the biggest engine of the group. It churns out 215 pound-feet of torque at 4000 rpm and 210 horsepower at 5200 (the horsepower drops to 200 at 5000 rpm with the optional automatic transmission). This is a flexible powerplant: It pulls strongly from rest, revs smoothly to its 7000-rpm redline, and makes the kinds of exciting mechanical sounds that immediately cause a first-time passenger to ask, “Hey! What kind of car is this, anyway?”
The Z34’s fully independent “Sport” suspension is as adept as its engine. Wearing 225/60R-16 Goodyear Eagle GT+4s (which help deliver 0.79 g of grip), the chassis showed us nothing but impressive, predictable moves on the Ohio twisties. And it tracked down the Interstate so cleanly that we didn’t miss a joke on the Pryor tapes cackling away on the stereo.
The Z34 is an easy car to drive hard; the chassis signals its limits with lots of safe, steady understeer. And almost nothing upsets the suspension’s composure. Stab the brakes or lift off suddenly in the middle of a turn and the Lumina just tucks itself in neatly. (Such poise helped the Lumina win the slalom test decisively.)
Car and Driver‘s testers also adored the Z34’s style, describing the coupe as something of an antidote to Europe’s conservative aerodynamic designs. Basically, the louvers and spoilers all over the place screamed “America!” to the testers and apparently, one stranger even said, “Damn, that’s a beautiful car!” Unfortunately, the Lumina came crashing down when it came to the interior; none of the testers liked it in there. The cabin was described as “aberrant,” and the buttons were described as feeling like they came from a hobby shop model. And yet, it still scored better than the Dodge.
Here’s how MotorWeek felt about the spicy Lumina:
Just Common Enough To Find Today
The Lumina would get a second generation in 1995 which lasted until 2001. That car would be a sedan only and would not see a performance version. Well, that would be only technically true. The coupe version was renamed the Monte Carlo. The Z34 did make a return and in its best form, you scored a legendary Buick 3800 V6 making 200 horses, but a manual transmission wasn’t available at all.
In terms of rarity, there were more of these produced than most of our other featured Grails. General Motors produced 1,055,795 Lumina sedans and coupes between the 1990 and 1994 model years. Of those, enthusiasts estimate that there are between 38,753 and 46,037 Z34s built. Put that as a percentage and it’s between 3.6 percent and 4.3 percent of total production. So, a fraction of Luminas ever sold is one of these.
The good news is that while there’s no telling just how many of these are left, some people are preserving them. I’ve found a couple near me and one that’s in good shape won’t cost you anywhere near $10,000. I suspect that after my wife and I move into a house you will see one of these in our expansive fleet.
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There is a pretty clean one of these in red that I see at my grocery store every once in a while. It’s pretty sweet. I had no idea these were even remotely rare, especially now that there’s probably 1/10 of the original Lumina production on the road.
I preferred the Grand Prix over the Lumina myself, but I thought the Lumina Z34 had a great look of its own.
agreed, I almost bought a ’92 GP with this motor and 5 speed, I was in college and having a car payment was a bad idea so I backed out of the deal. Do wish I had bought it tho!
The sported-up Luminas were nice, but they really couldn’t hold a candle to the Beretta sport models, or the even rarer Corsica LTZ / later Z52 in ’92-’93.
The “large compact” L-body cars were head and shoulders above the ubiquitous J-cars which they were sometimes mistaken for, despite allegedly sharing some platform components. It did help that GM’s platforms of the time had a lot of mix-‘n-match componentry and things like changing up spring rates and shocks/struts seemed to be pretty trivial for them to implement.
I owned a ’93 Corsica Z52; there was no badging, just the nice alloy wheels and wider tires from earlier model years and the orange accent trim as opposed to the standard chrome bits. It was a fun sleeper. Still ran the 3.1L V6, but GM must have pulled some quiet magic with the ECU programming to get a bit more out of it, though I’ve never seen exact figures. All I can say is that I’d driven rental V6 Corsicas and the Z52’s power came on considerably harder its pedestrian kin.
The Beretta sport versions are pretty well-known, but I’d but the Z52 Corsica in the “Holy Grail” category since they were relatively unknown/unnoticed but were probably the best of Chevy’s sport sedan aspirations.
Some of my earliest driving experiences were behind the wheels of a quartet of ’92 Chevy Luminas that one of the local dealers lent to my school for Driver’s Ed. These were of course baseline models with the 3.1L V6’s that were assembled just a few miles up the road at the Tonawanda Engine Plant in Tonawanda, NY. IIRC one of the fleet was the maroon with maroon interior, two were navy blue with blue interior, and one was gray/gray. I have to say I do miss colored interiors.
A couple years go I was rather blown away when this extremely clean ’93 Lumina sedan rolled into the Rad Days of Summer ’80s & ’90s car show I host every August in Raleigh, NC.
My parents bought their first brand new car in 1991. it was a Lumina Eurosport with the 3.1. while my dad argued hard for the Z34, my mom hated the idea of the big heavy coupe doors. predictably, they compromised on the Euro sedan. it was in the very menacing black with red badging, and the bordello red velour interior.
my mom adored that car, and I remember it being very comfortable and roomy( as a 7 year old). I don’t recall it being terribly unreliable in general, but living in Wisconsin the salt caused a lot of rocker panel rust. we owned it until 1998 when my parents downsized a little into a Pontiac Grand Am, which i learned to drive on.
I have to admit it was a sharp looking car ( in the Euro or Z34 trims), but ultimately forgettable performance-wise.
Mercedes, please do a writeup on the Pontiac 6000 STE with its very rare AWD system. Pay special attention to the bespoke gas tank they used (with a hole through the middle). It’s an interesting rendition of an otherwise forgettable car. Perfect for this series!
These weren’t bad looking, but I preferred the Cutlass Supreme and Grand Prix of the era if I was going for a GM.
I had a 1993 Z34 in gray. It remains one of my favorite cars I’ve ever owned
Fun story: One night when I got off work I walked to my car, unlocked it with the door key, started it with the ignition key, then wondered why my stereo was blasting Michael Jackson and my seat position was way farther back than I normally had it. To make things even stranger, there were a bunch of nursing program textbooks from the local community college in the back seat. As I puzzled over this, I happened to notice another gray Z34 parked to my right. I had gotten in someone else’s car, that was identical to mine, and MY OWN KEYS worked on it. (This was back when most GM cars had two keys, one for the doors and one for the ignition.)
I never found out whose car that was, because I never saw it again after that day.
I hope you did something like left a package of Skittles on the pile of textbooks just to rattle the owner a bit.
We did this back in the 90s with a Celebrity wagon. But in our case, the ignition key didn’t work. Otherwise we probably would have driven home without even noticing.
Something similar happened to me in the early 90s. My wife and I were in Florida and had gone to GatorLand. Coming out we got into one of the white rental Chevys and I looked in the mirror and wondered why we rented the car seat. Turns out our car was the third white Chevy over.
This is a disturbingly common occurrence with cars of this era in general. Back in high school I discovered that I could easily open the door of my 88 Accord, which used a double-cut key, with the key to my mother’s 88 Plymouth Voyager..which used a single-cut key!
The Accord could also be opened in a pinch with a suitably-modified salad fork.
“Why were buyers just scooping these up?”
Back then, there were a lot of people who would just buy one Chevy after another without doing any real homework. I personally knew people like that.
Also, that quad cam 3.4L V6 in the Lumina was a steaming pile of crap from a maintenance, repair and reliability perspective.
Kind of crazy they sold so many all the way up to 2001. At least in California these things are absolutely gone. Seeing old 80’s/90’s cars still in use is an everyday occurrence here since there’s no rust.
There is an abandoned house near me with one of these parked outside, on plates which expired in 2001 or 2002. This sounds par for the course for many places in the country, but this is in Queens, NY – the cheapest houses in the area are going for $650K. Mysterious.
probably caught up in a property dispute, or the owner is in long term care and still paying their taxes.
The SHO was by far the better car but MAN the Z34 looked amazing. In my younger teenage life, I even kinda wanted one. Not more than a Corvette (was and still is my preferred car) or something Italian, but it was the realistic dream car and as a GM guy I felt no guilt for it like the SHO lol
My grandparents had a burgundy Lumina non-Euro sedan. I did always like the look of it in Euro trim. In that MotorWeek review of the sedan they have favorable comments on the styling too. (Yeah I know, it’s MW and they never say anything really negative, but still.)
I do wonder what the original W designs look like, before changing to not copy the Taurus.
Perhaps the truly rarest W-body would be the Cutlass Supreme with the high output Quad 4/manual, I believe only for 1990 before the 3.4 arrived. MotorWeek had a test of such a combo in the sedan for their initial review. Heck, that could be the only one that ever existed.
I remember these things being ugly. But seeing the pictures of a clean one? It’s a damn nice looking car. This with an LS1 converted to RWD would be dope.
That’s because many of the early ones were ugly-looking base or low trim non-Euro models.
I love reading all of the production history in your stories, Mercedes!
I will note that the Lumina coupe is listed as ELEVEN inches longer than the Taurus SHO of the time. Like the dustbuster van, that styling did not lend itself to maneuvering around town.
I chuckled at the phrase “sporty, overstuffed seats”. This sums up GM styling quite effectively! Every GM car from the 80’s-2000’s which I sat in felt more couch like than sporting.
In contrast, my ’89 SHO with adjustable side bolsters would actually squeeze you into place. It was a very different experience.