In 1988 the Chevy Nova was Down but Not Out

The Chevy Nova most of us remember wasn’t built in the eighties. It was made in the sixties and early seventies. It was powered by big V8s, and they’re a desirable car today amongst baby boomers. Go to a car show after the global pandemic ends and owners of SS Novas will still insist you “don’t fucking touch it.”

The Novas of the eighties all rolled out of a big factory that said NUMMI on the side in Fremont, California. A joint venture between GM and Toyota, the factory was built in 1984 as a learning experience for General Motors and a North American production hub for Toyota. What General Motors learned was that they could just make the new Nova a re-badged Corolla. Those GM people, they learn quickly, let me tell you.

This is just like the later Chevy Prizm, which was also a Corolla. What a great name for a car about as exciting as that beige color they make hearing aids.

Initial D had nothing to do with it.

Unfortunately for drifting enthusiasts, this doesn’t mean it was based on the AE86. For anybody who’s unfamiliar with that car, it’s the 2 door Corolla in this generation that happened to be RWD (the Corolla sedan the Nova is based on is FWD). It got featured in a Japanese anime series about drifting (called Initial D), so now it’s even more popular and it gets drift-taxed. That’s the whole story.

The FWD Nova was on the AE82 platform. Base power came from a four-cylinder 1.6-liter engine making 74 horsepower. It was called the 4A-C, and importantly, it was only SOHC. I usually say ‘single jingle’ but I could understand if people thought I was strange for saying that.

The base car had rear drums, no sway-bars, and could be described as ‘OK’. It was, after all, a Camry.

The 4A-GE-powered Nova Twin-Cam

Toyota’s 4A-GE was one of the reasons why the AE86 became popular in the first place. It sounds nice, its stock redline is 7500 RPM, and it makes 110 horsepower from 1.6 liters. People in the aftermarket have revved them up as high as 11,000 RPM for race-spec cars, and they’re still very popular today.

The 4A-GE pulled the 2300lb Nova to sixty in around nine seconds. This isn’t bad, especially by eighties standards. The Nova Twin-Cam also got a stiffer suspension, sway-bars (wow) and four-wheel discs. These disc brakes managed to stop the Nova from 55 in only 105 feet, which is impressive even by today’s standards.

The Twin-Cam was only made for one year; 1988. This short run and low demand (due to its relatively high price) meant they only ended up making 3300. It came in any color you wanted, as long as that was black. A nice red stripe also festooned the bumpers and rocker trim. This would remind other drivers that you had two camshafts and were not to be trifled with.

MotorWeek and others to the Rescue

Luckily for all of us, MotorWeek did a review of this car when it came out. You can watch it below.

There’s also a current owner of one of these cars, Ethan Tufts, who has made a few excellent videos about the one he drives every day. I’m putting them below as well.

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16 responses to “In 1988 the Chevy Nova was Down but Not Out”

  1. Sjalabais Avatar

    I only watched the middle video and even though I want to be sceptical to the nostalgia, it hits me squarely in my own perception of what is cool.

    NUMMI is such an amazing story, how GM, the king of crap in the West, invites a maker of good cars into its home, and only ends up making a copy of one of their cars. Lokki’s story perfectly sums up how its system resisted that, and “cheap first” continued to dominate the company.

    1. Vairship Avatar

      Meanwhile a completely different part of GM had a great dealership experience, but old-fashioned engines and platforms.

      If only they could have figured out: “What if we combined the Saturn dealership experience with NUMMI tech?”

      Nope, that never happened.

  2. Batshitbox Avatar

    Nope. Sixteen days under Shelter In Place orders but I’m not stir crazy enough to watch videos about Reagan Era shitboxes.

    (Than sounded dismissive. I appreciate the Oldsmobile & Chevy articles, but the videos fall under, “OMG this tastes disgusting; here, have some!”)

  3. Lokki Avatar

    I had an interesting experience with a NUMMI Nova – I tried to buy one in 1986. I figured that I could perhaps buy a Toyota without paying the Toyota premium… so I went to a dealership in Atlanta where I lived at the time, approached a salesman and asked him to show me a Nova. He led me out into the lot, and we walked until we reached ….a row of Chevy Celebrity’s.

    I asked him why we’d stopped there, and asked where the Novas were. His response, “Son, you don’t want one of them. I ain’t got no room to move on the price. Let me make you a good deal on a Celebrity here.” I asked again, he refused again, and I walked.

    Oddly enough, I ended up with an Acura Integra: Acura hadn’t started advertising yet and nobody knew what they were. I am probably only one of maybe 100 people in America who paid less than list for an Acura in the 1980’s. I loved that car. For comparison purposes, it also had a DOHC 1.6 liter four, rated at 113 HP SAE net. A tiny but mighty engine; I banged shifts at the 7K redline every time I drove it, and it just begged me, “Oh, daddy, let’s do that AGAIN!”

    1. 0A5599 Avatar

      I went out with a woman who had a NUMMI Nova that was new at the time. She told me her negotiation experience:

      “I walked up to the salesman and asked for the price. When he told me, I let him know that for [MSRP+dealer add ons], I was NOT taking a red car. And that’s how I got this white one.”

  4. Zentropy Avatar

    This an example of how good model names are devalued by sticking them on crapcans. Nova, Malibu, Impala, Cutlass, 442… all at one time adorned good cars, but in the end were sullied.
    If GM ever decides to re-use Chevelle, it better be on a damned good vehicle.

    1. Fuhrman16 Avatar

      Since when was the classic Nova not a crapcan?

      1. Zentropy Avatar

        Hmm… I guess that’s a matter of perspective. I like old cars in general but I’m not much of a GM enthusiast, so I would say 1967. Chevy fans might suggest 1974.

        My automotive interest began wrenching on cars that many people would call “crapcans”, so perhaps my views are skewed. I look at cars relative to their potential. A ’64 Chevy II, despite modest American production standards at the time, has huge potential as a fun ride, IMO. Despite its comparably high production quality, an ’85 Nova (again, from my perspective) maxes out at “I really wish I were driving something else”. To each his/her own.

        I will admit that within the Chevrolet model hierarchy, the Nova was at or near the bottom when originally introduced. In that respect, using it on an entry-level Corolla clone does make reasonable sense.

  5. salguod Avatar

    When we were dating I helped my wife buy a used 1988 Nova 5 speed. It was a fantastic, but bland, vehicle. Back when getting over 100K miles was still considered an accomplishment, it was still driving like new at 125K. Of course we assumed that it was near the end so we traded it for a 1992 Saturn SL2. A nicer, but less refined, vehicle.

  6. Maymar Avatar

    Memory is a funny thing. Most Chevy Novas were staid commuters powered by a solid, wheezy six. But throw it on the template of 80’s economy car rather than 60’s economy car, and you piss some people off.

    1. Fuhrman16 Avatar

      Right? The Nova whole purpose was to be a cheap, small(ish) commuter to compete with the Falcon. The early ones could even be available with a 2.5 liter 4 cylinder engine!

  7. Tomsk Avatar

    GM was fortunate that Toyota went to the trouble to differentiate the JDM Corolla and Sprinter sedans with different greenhouses (four sidelights on the former, six on the latter). Pity they never did a Nova TC 5-door, but at least they rectified it with the Geo Prizm GSi that followed.

    1. Zentropy Avatar

      I don’t understand why it wasn’t more financially (and logistically) sensible to just sell these cars as Toyota Corollas in both the U.S. and Australia. Why go to the trouble and expense of badging and marketing them differently? I’m sure training the Chevy and Holden technicians wasn’t cheap, either. No one bought one of these “Novas” thinking they were designed by Chevrolet or Holden anyway. What was the point? (I was trained in science, not business or marketing, so really, can someone enlighten me on the strategy behind this?)

  8. Pinkerton9 Avatar

    I had two of these Novas (the regular version). The first one I got from the original owner in the mid 1990s. He worked as a contractor for GM. He told me that if he showed up to work in a Japanese car, it would have been vandalized by his co-workers. He didn’t particularly love driving a subcompact. It was simple, the Nova was the only GM car he would spend his own money on in 1986.

    This is the weird thing about GM and small cars. Whether or not they are making the small cars themselves, or putting their badge on someone else’s creation, it’s all just bullshit marketing smoke and mirrors, and it’s been that way as long as I can remember. Since disappearing from the US in 1988, the “Nova” platform has been developed through seven further generations as the Corolla, and Toyota has been at it with the Corolla since 1966. How many different names has GM slapped on a subcompact car since 1988?