Geo Metro Madness Hits High

Posted: May 22, 2008

As gas prices spike and consumers increasingly look for ways to get to work more efficiently, heavy media coverage has spurred interest in one particular old car: the Geo Metro.  Reports of Metros selling for more money than they cost brand new fifteen or more years ago have appeared in many media outlets, and Google has reported a spike in searches for the little hatchbacks.

But what exactly is a Geo Metro?

Winding Road explains, "The decidedly simple base model of the Geo (and later Chevrolet) Metro hatchback coupe of 1989-2001 got an amazing 46 miles per gallon, all on good old gasoline, from a three-cylinder engine designed by Suzuki."  The engine "wasn’t a technological wonderment, nor did it have current EPA-dodging trickery like disablable cylinder banks or first-to-fourth shift patterns. It was just a very lightweight car with a very simple engine."  The car was sold as a two or four-door hatchback, and (though very few were made), a convertible.  "In 2001 the car was discontinued and 2003 saw the advent of the Daewoo-sourced Chevy Aveo."

Most Metros never achieved the highly-touted fuel efficiency so many articles cite.  In base and LSi trim, they were too heavy for their four-cylinder engines to carry them 50 miles on a gallon of gas.  However, according to Edmunds, in 1990 GM introduced an even more stripped down version of the Metro, the XFi, specifically intended to be a high-fuel-economy car.  According to EPA estimates at the time, it managed a combined fuel-efficiency rating of 55 mpg.  Under the EPA's new, more accurate formula, it should manage about 46 mpg combined if in perfect condition.

South Carolina's Anderson Independent Mail adds, "The entire vehicle weighed an anorexic 1,600 pounds -- half the weight of most compacts now. Even the engine weighed less than most drivers at 130 pounds."  GM went so far in its attempts to lighten the little car and the passenger-side mirror was sold as an extra-cost option.

XFi metros were available with only a manual transmission, and they made up less than 10 percent of the total number of Metros the GM/Suzuki partnership ever made.  Now, they are hot commodities. 

U.S. News & World Report columnist Marianne Lavelle reports, "a kind of cult [has] formed around the high-mileage Metro."  Among other finds on the web, "a New York man dedicates a website to his experiment of cutting his Metro in half to achieve 75 mpg fuel economy," and a Google search reveals several websites maintained by auto tuners attempting to turn ordinary Metros into XFi models with aftermarket modifications.

They can make a fortune doing so, at least at the moment. 

Brenton Netz told Minnesota CBS affiliate WCCO that, "For the past couple of years, he's been traveling the country in search of the economical efficient cars. He's got about 10 Geo Metros.  He sells them on the internet and with high gas prices he can hardly keep up with the demand."  Netz adds, "You can stretch that mileage by changing a few things.  You can gut the interior and save 50 or 100 pounds. You can lower them a couple of inches."

But is it worth $7,200 for an old economy car with no side mirror?  That's the price a '92 Metro XFi fetched on Ebay just last week. 

Motor Trend cautions that many of the Metros for sale at high prices now "require repairs worth almost as much as the car itself.  Even if buyers do find a Metro in good shape with a spiked price or maybe a 1993 Ford Festiva, it's worth noting that both cars are less than 1900 pounds, a light weight made possible by U.S. safety standards not as stringent as they are today."  Most Metros lack even a passenger's side airbag.

Automobile Magazine cautions that "The three-cylinder mills were prone to compression problems unless the EGR system was religiously cleaned." 

Consumer Guide Automotive looks at the reliability history of 1990-1994 Metros -- and finds $5,215 worth of common repairs needed.

So, to sum up, that's $7,200 for a very unsafe car that could barely accelerate to highway speed when brand new and will probably cost you thousands in repairs as it approaches twenty years old.  The current Toyota Prius, we'll point out, gets a better combined fuel economy rating from the EPA.  The current Civic Hybrid gets similar fuel efficiency numbers while achieving excellent crash test scores -- and managing zero-to-sixty every time -- an unlikely feat for a 1990 Metro XFi.

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