Detroit — Its small size, light weight, and snappy performance make it a standout on the road and a surprise to drive. Indeed, the new Chevrolet Sprint, a 3-door, 3-cylinder hatchback built by Suzuki of Japan (no, it's not a motorcycle), is the only car of its kind in the United States. It is an example of some of the small vehicles yet to come, not only from domestic companies and the Japanese, but from the Koreans as well.
Whether being piloted around the General Motors Proving Ground in nearby Milford, Mich., or on the road, the super-small car lives up to its name. It's zippy, maneuverable, and fun to drive, but it is being marketed in only nine states - Alaska, Arizona, California, Hawaii, Washington State, Idaho, Nevada, Oregon, and Utah, plus Puerto Rico.
Why? Because GM will get its hands on only 17,000 Sprints in the next year because of voluntary restraints on the number of cars Japanese carmakers ship to the United States. In the 12 months ending March 31, 1985, the Japanese can export 1.85 million vehicles, plus station wagons and trucks, up from 1.68 million in the 12 months that ended March 31 this year.
If the voluntary controls end next spring after four years on the books, GM can then ship the Sprint nationwide, assuming that US motorists will buy this size vehicle in volume.
The Sprint's wheelbase is a scant 88 inches and the engine under 1,000 cc. It is, in fact, about 20 inches shorter and almost 540 pounds lighter than the subcompact Chevrolet Chevette. At 141 inches overall, it is nearly four inches shorter than any other car now sold in the US.
Despite its limited distribution, Chevrolet says that nationwide service will be provided through the car division's 35 local offices. Each office will have a trained service technician on hand to assist any dealer in the zone.
The 5-speed manual transmission operated without a hitch, even though the car I drove a few weeks ago was not a fully prepared production model.
The way the car scooted around the track, braked swiftly without deviation from the path, and picked up speed again with a hard push on the accelerator indicates that GM is right on target as it pursues the American car buyer.
The Sprint, as well as the Isuzu-built Spectrum (to be sold on the East Coast) and GM's 12-year deal with Toyota to build a Chevette-sized car in a GM assembly plant in Fremont, Calif., are part of the company's ''Japanese strategy ,'' in which the world's biggest automaker is buying time until its own developmental and production facilities can come up with the cars it wants for the marketplace.
Base price of the peppy little Sprint is $4,995.