For all the changes made to the Prizm for 1998 - new sheet metal, new engine, optional seat-mounted side-impact airbags - the most noticeable one is the division badge, a Chevrolet bow tie.
Nine years after the division created its Geo subfranchise, the import-fighting Prizm, Metro and Tracker are now Chevrolets.
For the Prizm, that change could help its showroom visibility. For the first six months of this year, Prizm sales are down almost 18 percent to 33,862 units. Its prime competitors - the Honda Civic, Nissan Sentra and Toyota Corolla - are up.
The Prizm's new identity coincides with some new styling for 1998. Styling changes also are in store for the 1998 Toyota Corolla (see photos on Page 2), which is mechanically identical to the Prizm. Both are built at New United Motor Manufacturing Inc., the General Motors-Toyota joint venture in Fremont, Calif.
But the casual observer may be hard pressed to tell the difference between the 1998 and 1997 Prizms.
According to Chevrolet's 1998 Product Information Guide, there are still two trim levels, standard and LSi. The most noticeable exterior change is the hood and front fenders, which are more steeply sloped toward the front bumper. The hood also wraps over narrower headlamp units.
While the Prizm's wheelbase remains at 97.1 inches, the 1998 version is 2 inches longer, 0.4-inch wider and 0.2-inch taller. Chevrolet has not released the curb weight of the new Prizm. The 1997 model weighed 2,359 pounds.
But engineers were mindful of weight. All 1998 Prizms will be equipped with a new, aluminum, double-overhead-cam, 1.8-liter, four-cylinder engine.
The new engine weighs 66 pounds less than its iron block/aluminum head 1.8-liter counterpart in the 1997 Prizm. The 1.6-liter engine that had been the base offering has been dropped.
The new engine also is more powerful, rated at 120 horsepower, vs. the 100-hp rating of the 1.6-liter unit and the 105-hp rating of last year's 1.8-liter engine. Torque also is up, to 127 pounds-feet at 4,400 rpm, vs. 117 pounds-feet in last year's 1.8-liter unit. A five-speed manual remains the standard trans-mission, with options of a three-speed and four-speed automatic.
To increase rigidity, cross-car braces have been added under the engine cradle. The 14-millimeter rear stabilizer bar that had been optional on last year's LSi model is now standard on all Prizms.
The fuel system incorporates an on-board vapor recovery system.
Inside, the Prizm emphasizes safety. Buyers can opt for side airbags, mounted in the outer cushions of the front seatbacks. The Prizm, and the 1998 Toyota Corolla, will be the first cars in their price class to offer the safety feature.