Lamest Classics: 1995 Geo Metro

It was 15 years ago — hi, hello, that’s merely 2005, my fellow olds — that Hurricane Katrina hit the United States Gulf Coast and flooded huge sections of New Orleans and the rest of the area. Between the natural disaster itself, the lack of preparedness and maintenance of the city’s levees, and the disaster of government response in the aftermath, resulted in more than 1,800 people dead, millions homeless, and billions of dollars in damage.

For you youngs wanting to read about how an underprepared and slow-acting administration resulted in the massive and disproportionate impact of a natural disaster, go look that up. In case you’re not depressed enough already.

The fuel connection

It’s also the historical milestone in my mind of when gas prices really went up since it caused a lot of refineries in the south to shut down for a period of time. Though prices did come back down from their more-than-$4-per-gallon peak (about $5.50/gallon today, adjusted for inflation), they never really returned to the pre-Katrina lows that drove the SUV boom. The Iraq War’s impact on oil production didn’t help either.

I remember the panic around fuel prices at the time was driving manufacturers to rush to make their cars more economical, but that kind of development takes time. New powertrains take years to come to market. The Prius had just barely come out of its Toyota Echo phase and VW’s diesels were always a niche-market car. There just weren’t a lot of hypereconomical new vehicles immediately available, and most of the old ones went out of production in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. They were all junk.

This meant one thing in particular for the post-Katrina era of the Iraq War: Some people were going to great lengths to reduce their fuel consumption costs. Old VW and Mercedes diesels started commanding a premium. Justin Craven started selling more of his Greasecar veggie-oil conversion kits for weirdos with old diesels. (I was always a weirdo, but I eventually became one of those weirdos too.)

 

Miserly gas-burners

The gasoline corollary to the sudden diesel resurgence was that old Geo Metros were suddenly in high demand. The lighter, less-equipped, and most efficient models fetched the most money. Judging by what I’ve found for sale, square sealed-beam headlamps were still standard equipment well into the late ‘90s on these cars. They were the definitive misery box.

But circa 2005, you couldn’t touch a broken-door disaster smelling of old rat decomp for less than two grand, with or without a Shatner Christmas cassette. Prices for clean ones rivaled new cars.

In 2009, Car and Driver even published a comparison between the new Toyota Prius and Honda Insight, and a 1998 Geo Metro (written by my favorite autojourno/satirist, John Phillips). The Metro and its measly 55 horsepower matched the Prius for 42 mpg.

That was only one of two positive traits in the comparison — it also had proper independent suspension, unlike the Prius and Insight with their torsion beams in the rear. As a vehicle, it did also meet the basic requirements of four round wheels wrapped in four black and round rubber things, and an ability to move under its own power.

Even when expensive, it was still lame

That expensive-gas era would’ve been the mainstream high point for the Geo Metro. They were 10 years old at the time, far from classic car status, and many had been abused or left to die in junkyards after minor repairs proved too costly. It was just that cultural point, when people were sticker-shocked at spending $90 at the pump, that made the Metro desirable.

Fuel economy was literally the only thing they were good at. Though they were made in the GM/Suzuki CAMI plant in Ontario alongside its sibling Suzuki Swift, the Metro was no Swift GT. The latter actually has some merit as an enthusiast’s car.

The Metro does get credit as the recipient of probably more Lemonsgrade engineering than any other single model. That’s more because it’s very light, usually very cheap, and the hatchback shape together with rear strut towers (from that aforementioned suspension layout) makes it easier to fit an entire front subframe from a front-wheel-drive car in the back.

It helps that the original 1-liter engine (or the optional 70-some-horsepower 1.3) isn’t really worth keeping if it’s broken.

But just because the SHOgun was interesting doesn’t mean the Festiva was good.

So set aside half of your government rescue check and, once you’re able, go find yourself a rough one. Sure, you could get your spouse to go in with you on a premium, rust-free Florida example, a hatchback with a 5-speed. But a sedan with the 3-speed automatic is the choice for maximum lame.

With any luck, you’ll return home as healthy as when you left, and with enough cash left over to buy a case of Coors and pay your classic-car registration — assuming you can still go to the DMV where you live.

If there’s an upshot to the current global crisis, it’s that gas is cheap. That means fuel-efficient cars are, too.

(Seriously though. Now’s not the time to buy a car. Especially not a lame-ass classic. Stay home.)

The Geo Metro gets an 8 on the Lamestain Index.

About Alan

I'm a giant nerd and lifelong iconoclast who happens to like cars, especially terrible ones. I've built many low-budget race cars, driven in many Lemons races, worked at a Real Deal Print Car Magazine, and gave up that lifestyle in the interest of life balance. I also wear khakis and ride bicycles, though rarely at the same time.

22 Comments

  1. The messenger service I worked for in the late ’90s had a fleet of these things, in addition to the fleet of Tomos mopeds that I rode and some Astrovans and Aerostars. To keep up with all that they had some pretty decent mechanics on the payroll.

    The Metros had a high mortality rate from crashes. One of the best things I ever saw was the mechanics sawzall the entire left rear quarter, literally 1/4th of the car from the B-pillar to the center of the roof and back through the hatch, and weld it into another Metro. The drivers reported the car drove better after the transplant. (Previously it had a high speed shudder in the rear.)

  2. That R&T article is kind of the holy grail of automotive journalism: Comparing new cars to old, hilariously written so it feels like you’re having a conversation with a like-minded gearhead, and it nonetheless conveys all the important info. We almost bought an Insight last spring, it was snatched away in front of us and we went for the EV Leaf instead. Insights are rare here, cheap, yet also kind of sought after by what appears to be a special subset of car nerds. Also, fun fact, in Norway, Honda as a brand has the decidedly least occurence of car crashes and, thus, the lowest insurance premiums. What I consider the Japanese BMW is a pensioner’s brand here.

    Ah, the Metro…eh…yeah.

  3. I don’t know if it’s good or bad I never drove one of these although a 1987 Ford Fiesta with an 850cc engine I did drive is probably close. FWIW a friend had one in the early oughts which he replaced with a Scion XA which was equally dinky but more powerful. Personally if I was shopping super economy in the US right now I’d look for either a Mazda2 or a 1.0 Ecoboost Fiesta to get something small cheap and fun,

    I remember “cash for clunkers” and $4 gas and realizing that A. both of my cars got 25-30mpg on the road and B. replacing either of my fully paid off 4 cylinder compacts would cost me more in car payments and insurance than I could possibly save on gas.

    1. Sadly, the Mazda2 isn’t that exceptional on gas – I’m leadfooted and almost only urban driving, but average about 30. Realistically with just highway, I might see 36-37, but it takes a 55mph Malaise to break 40.

      1. That’s disappointing, my only experience with a Mazda2 was a rental for a few days in DC so I wasn’t watching mileage. With those numbers a newer Mazda3 with a Skyactiv engine would be a better buy. Our CX-5 does 25-30 in suburban service with a 2.5 and automatic.

      2. When I was dailying my 2005 Mazda3 I averaged about 30 mpg. My commute was probably close to 90%highway which probably boosted my average quite a bit.

    2. Yes, the Mazda 2’s gearing is more tuned to sportiness than economy. That makes it peppy and fun to drive, but at the expense of fuel mileage. Couple that with the fuel drinking VVT cam change at around 3100 rpm, there’s a fairly limited window for max fuel economy. Getting over 40 requires quite gentle acceration, lunging for top gear by 35mph, and limiting max speed to no more than 60.

  4. The messenger service I worked for in the late ’90s had a fleet of these things, in addition to the fleet of Tomos mopeds that I rode and some Astrovans and Aerostars. To keep up with all that they had some pretty decent mechanics on the payroll.

    The Metros had a high mortality rate from crashes. One of the best things I ever saw was the mechanics sawzall the entire left rear quarter, literally 1/4th of the car from the B-pillar to the center of the roof and back through the hatch, and weld it into another Metro. The drivers reported the car drove better after the transplant. (Previously it had a high speed shudder in the rear.)

    1. Sounds like a good place to be for a mechanic. Shenanigans like that are usually not paid for.

  5. For the “youngs” wanting to read up on Katrina, don’t assume that the author’s liberal bias when he mentions “administration” means only President Bush. Both Katherine Blanco (governor of Louisiana) and Ray Nagin (mayor of New Orleans) famously refused national assistance at first. Not to mention that Ray Nagin is a convicted felon.

  6. I had a 00 metro with 3 cyls of death on the highway, but at 65 I made 70mpg. I traded it for a volvo s60 after about a year.

  7. I’m just going to say it, the smart investor is going to go heavy on the Metro’s modern equivalent, the Mitsubishi Mirage (a car I genuinely want to try driving).

    1. Wouldn’t a used Fiat 500e or first-gen Leaf make more sense? Cheap used and miles per kW costs much less than miles per gallon.

      1. Diversify the portfolio then?

        We effectively don’t have 500E’s up here, and Leafs aren’t that cheap yet, but I like the idea.

  8. I bought one of these in 2009, to learn how to drive stick. The seller said it was the 3-cylinder, but when I got home and flipped through the pictures in the manual I recognized it actually had the big 1.3L 4. After a couple weeks, driving to work it made a noise and all the warning lights came on, turned out the water pump had seized and thrown the serpentine belt. Fixed it, drove it for a few months, sold it at I think a $300 loss but I don’t really hold any ill will towards it. It was… completely adequate?
    https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/fc7f3328a1fb727c1e6236e18f6e8423ca73e3959a2cbe1830b0f73c498a09de.jpg

    1. i think car enthusiasts sometimes have a tendency to idealize things that are very good on paper without having experienced them. a lot of us in the USA, for example, idealize little European diesels that get 55 mpg, but i was cured of that by driving one around England for a week. so i think it is with the Metro: once you experience one, it’s fine, but it turns out getting good mileage isn’t really *fun* per se.

      1. I replaced the Metro with a series of cars that made about the same horsepower while getting even better fuel economy, so ¯_(ツ)_/¯
        My Insight was… built in the same factory as fun cars like the NSX and S2000? It’s light?

        On my France trip in January, I booked an “Opel Corsa diesel or similar” and they gave me a Fiat 500X (not quite the one pictured). It did get the quoted 40 MPG, but it turns out those are Imperial gallons, so it was only like 33 MPG US.
        https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/48eaa70afe72a5913ee5969e3d594329fc4dc1246a6be1ee3bd131f78cbcb5bd.jpg

        1. the Insight is legit special, though. early hybrid, awesome aero, aluminum chassis. i don’t know if it’s fun to drive or not, but one couldn’t call it pedestrian.

  9. Not really lame, just not really suited or understood by its market. I’d wager you’d build a good autocrosser out of one.

    1. You could do alright with a Swift GT. I previously wrote about those when I worked at a print mag. But the Metro? No way.

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