Chevette diesel makes a perky bid to top its class

A few months ago, when the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) listed the best-mileage cars on the US road today, only one American car, the diesel-engine Chevrolet Chevette, made it to the ''top 10.''

The Chevrolet Chevette is the lowest-priced diesel car on the road today. Based-priced at under $7,000 for the 2-door, including freight, the oil-burning Chevette is a very snappy performer when the accelerator pedal is hit.

The high-mileage, 1.8-liter diesel engine is built by Isuzu, the Japanese ally of General Motors in which the US automotive giant has a 15 percent financial stake. It proves at every traffic light that a non-turbocharged diesel-engine car doesn't have to be poky and an also-ran when the light flips green.

Indeed, the Chevrolet Chevette has been around since the mid-1970s and was showcased in Washington, D.C., to show what the US auto industry could do at the time when the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries was snapping at the wheels of the American motorist.

So, while its front-engine, rear-drive setup is hardly the state of the art in small cars today, it nonetheless is a low-cost way, by today's standards, to get from Point A to Point B with reasonable performance en route.

Chevette visibility is high, including the view of the instrument cluster in front of the steering wheel. In fact, with the two wheel spokes running southeast and southwest of the center post, the driver gets a full view of the dash, a feature too often missing on some cars these days when the wheel rim or spokes cut across the field of view.

Also, the car is really quite roomy - that is, for its size - and highly comfortable to boot. But a Caprice it is not, nor does it purport to be one. Obviously. It competes in the same general league as the Volkswagen Rabbit diesel, although the Rabbit costs more money - $7,140 base, plus $270 for freight - and Isuzu's own entry into the US marketplace, the I-mark sedan.

The Isuzu engine, rated at 51 horsepower at 5,000 rpms, is a quick performer all the way. The Rabbit diesel is a 1.5 liter and it, too, can leave a cloud of dust if the driver is in a mind to do so.

It's clear that the Chevrolet engineers have gone to a lot of work to make the oil-burning Chevette perform as close to its gasoline-engine counterpart as they could; and overall, they've done a good job of it. Under way the car gives a smooth, comfortable ride at highway speed, but at low rpms the gearshift lever vibrates with unending determination. As the car picks up speed, however, the vibration tones down fast.

Maybe surprising to some people, the Japanese-built Chevette diesel engine, when warm, is extremely quiet on the road. With the exception of reverse, the shifting pattern is easy and precise. Too, depressing the clutch calls for little muscular effort.

Shifting, I found, was a problem in only one gear, reverse - at least in the car I was given to drive. The reverse gear was extremely hard to locate as I fumbled around for the correct path with the shift lever.

No matter, a slight adjustment was perhaps all that was required.

Quality was generally very good, although I kept pulling off the pulse wiper switch knob on the dash; and then had to replace it when I slowed down the car.

While the EPA rates the Chevette diesel at 55-mpg on the highway, I got about 45 on a 60-mile daily commute to the office and with no time on an Interstate.

In total, the diesel-run Chevrolet Chevette was a happy car to be inside and the performance trouble-free during the time I drove it.

GM calls for the engine oil to be changed every 3,750 miles and the oil filter every 7,500 miles. I'd probably do it even more often. Fuel and air filters require replacement every 30,000 miles. Water and dirt are bad news to a diesel. Thus, don't slip up on the service calls.

Certainly, the small Isuzu-built diesel burner would be a good option on the eight-month-old General Motors J-cars, but unfortunately, it will not fit.

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