All Prizms were built at NUMMI (New United Motor Manufacturing, Inc.), a joint venture company between Toyota and General Motors in Fremont, California. The NUMMI plant at Fremont had manufactured the Prizm's predecessor, the Chevrolet Nova, and would later manufacture the Pontiac Vibe, one of its replacements. The last Prizm was built on December 13, 2001, resulting in a brief 2002 model year.
The Prizm was introduced in February 1989 for GM's then-new Geo brand of import cars, for the 1990 model year. The hatchback version sold through 1991 was a rebadged version of the Toyota Sprinter Cielo, although unlike the Sprinter (and Corolla liftback) it received the same front clip as the sedan. The sporty GSi model of 1990–1992 was notable for its 130 hp (97 kW) twin-cam engine, sport suspension, disc brakes, and 14-inch wheels, a successor to the 1988 Nova twin-cam but less of a limited edition, available in both body styles and a full array of colors in contrast to the earlier model's black sedan only. They were the only four-door models offered with the 4A-GE engine in America, no Toyota model ever offered that combination. The regular engine offered 102 hp (76 kW). In addition to the base and the GSi, there was also a better equipped standard-engine LSi model. In addition to more equipment, the LSi also received body colored bumpers.
In 1991, the lettering of the car's name was changed to "Prizm" in italicized and capital letters (although the steering wheel continued to use Prizm), and the B-pillar and door frames on base models were body-colored instead of black. The Prizm was not sold In Canada, with GM offering a sedan version of the Geo Metro instead. The Geo Metro sedan was not available in the United States until 1995. Design patents were filed by the Toyota Motor Corporation on December 6, 1985 using a final design 1:1 representation, under application number 1985-051078 and registered on July 13, 1988 under registration number 0718088-005.
The Prizm's second generation, and the last under the Geo brand name, debuted in 1992. The Prizm gained more room (resulting in an upgrade to United States Environmental Protection Agency "compact" car status), a driver's-side airbag, and a new 1.8-liter four-cylinder engine optional on LSi trim. With the larger engine came a rear stabilizer bar, wider tires, and an optional automatic transmission with four speeds instead of three. A second airbag became standard in 1993; leather seats were an option on the LSi between 1993–1997. In contrast with the Sprinter, this generation Prizm lacked a front stabilizer bar in its suspension.
The Prizm's 1998 redesign coincided with the conversion of all remaining Geo models into Chevrolets, as General Motors made the decision to discontinue the Geo brand entirely after 1997. The most notable change was the new 1.8-liter engine, which was now all-aluminum, driven by a timing chain (instead of a belt), and making more power (with the same fuel economy) than the engines from the Geo years. The new all-aluminum 1ZZ-FE engine powered all Corollas, Sprinters, and Prizms, making this generation lighter than its predecessor. This new engine incorporated laser-etched valve guides directly in the block, rather than the old shrink to fit valve guides in the previous Corolla motor (4A-FE & 7A-FE). This prevented oil burning and valve guide failure.
The Prizm, alongside the Corolla, became the first car in the compact class to offer optional side airbags. All 1998 Prizms without the LSi's optional handling package (containing a front stabilizer bar) were singled out by Consumer Reports for having sloppy emergency handling; Toyota addressed the problem for 1999 by making the handling package standard. For 2000, the engine gained variable valve timing for five extra horsepower (to 125).
The Prizm along with its Geo siblings suffered severe sales loss when the brand denomination changed from Geo to Chevrolet in 1998. The Geo models outsold the rebadged Chevrolets three to one.
Trims & options
base • 1998-2002
LSi • 1998-2002
Comparison to Toyota Corolla
In any of its three generations, the Prizm was virtually the same car as the Toyota Corolla. It has more similarities with Toyotas of the time period it was produced than it does to other cars from Geo and Chevrolet. Its distinctions mostly came down to minor cosmetic differences, a GM Delco radio after 1992, and the non-availability of a wagon in all three generations, and the availability of a hatchback for the 1989-1992 model years (the Corolla was not offered as a hatchback in North America for those years). The third generation Prizm also featured a Delphi air conditioning system instead of the Corolla's Denso air conditioning system.
All Prizms are powered by engines from their contemporary Toyota Corolla models:
1990–1992 Geo Prizms are powered by a 4A-FE or optional 4A-GE engine
1993–1997 Geo Prizms are powered by a 4A-FE or optional 7A-FE engine
1998–2002 Chevrolet Prizms are equipped with Toyota's 1.8 L1ZZ-FEinline-four engine; 2000–2002 models include VVT-i (variable valve timing with intelligence).