Import restrictions put the squeeze on Isuzu/Chevrolet Spectrum

Available in 16 Eastern states, the Chevrolet Spectrum is one more effort on the part of the General Motors Chevrolet division to grab a larger chunk of the subcompact car market. In nine Western states, GM offers the Sprint. Both cars are caught up in the squeeze over how many cars the Japanese auto industry can sell in the United States. Isuzu is limited to 49,500 Spectrums through the end of March, with 28,500 going to GM's Chevrolet dealers and the remainder to the Japanese carmaker's own dealership network. As for the Sprint, Chevrolet will get less than 20,000.

GM had earlier hoped to import 200,000 Spectrums and 84,000 Sprints in the first year. If the voluntary curb ends in the spring, the only limiting factor would be the public demand for the cars and the ability of the Japanese carmakers to produce them.

The Spectrum is built by GM's Japanese partner, Isuzu, in which the rapidly diversifying US automaker has a 34 percent stake. The 3-cylinder Sprint is produced by Suzuki, the motorcycle manufacturer.

Of the two, the Spectrum is far more conventional and akin to other cars in its size class.

Available in two body styles, a 3-door hatchback coupe and a 4-door notchback sedan, the Spectrum is powered by a 1.5-liter, single-overhead-cam, 4-cylinder engine that turns the front wheels. A choice of automatic transmission or 5-speed manual is available. With the 5-speed, the top two gears are overdrive.

While the Spectrum will seat four, it's smaller and lighter than a Chevette. The Sprint is smaller still.

Despite the Spectrum's size, the 4-door sedan is sticker-priced at $6,575 and has the usual long list of options, among them air conditioning, $630, automatic transmission, $395, and AM/FM stereo radio, $292. The test vehicle retails for $8,905, including a destination charge of $290.

While the Spectrum scoots down the road with reasonable comfort and style, it can be choppy on a bumpy road because of its short wheelbase (94.5 inches) and light weight (1,823 pounds for the 4-door and 1,771 for the 3-door hatchback). But on more normal roads, any disappointments should quickly disappear.

Is it a fun car to drive? Well, it doesn't appear to have too much to set it apart from any other competing car on the road. But it is well put together and offers motorists one more option for the road.

On mileage, I was able to get between 33 and 34 miles per gallon, combining city traffic with nonstop travel on a through road.

As with other small Japanese cars, the Spectrum gives plenty of punch when you step on the gas, zipping from 0 to 50 m.p.h. in about 8 seconds.

The Spectrum, according to Chevrolet, competes with such Japanese-built cars as the Honda Civic, Toyota Tercel, Nissan Sentra, and Mazda GLC. Make up your own mind.

In total, it's a spirited little car (I believe I'd opt for the 5-speed over the automatic, but that's a matter of choice), gives excellent mileage, and is as comfortable to sit in as are most vehicles its size.

Charles E. Dole is the Monitor's automotive editor.

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