Weekend Edition: On 1997 Chevrolets

For the past weeks, I’ve been scratching an itch that doesn’t go away until I get to experience something. For the life of me, I can’t wrap my head around why I would really like to drive a Chevrolet Cavalier or a Lumina for the coming winter, to get behind those somewhat horribly shaped steering wheels, feel the Scotchgard-treated velour seats, really get into the 1990s feeling of it all.
Is it because those swoopy, rounded things are rarer here than Peugeots in the States? Is it because I want an awesomely terrible cassette stereo with enormous buttons? Is it because I would be trying to make an ironic statement, turning a Lumina into something cool?

With the latter, there’s something there, as I grew up watching The X-Files, and a grey Lumina was seemingly featured in every episode, with a made-up rental car agency sticker on the rear bumper. It would take no time at all for me to print out a matching sticker, to really get into that Mulder feeling.
And with the Cavalier, I would happily resort into prying off the Chevy badges and replacing them with Toyota silverware – because of course, there was a Toyota Cavalier and it’s the most left-field thing I can think of. Sadly, it was Japanese market only.
I’ve been looking at new car price lists from 1997, and a Lumina cost 199 900 Finnish marks back then, which puts it squarely into the same market as the Lancia Kappa and the Ford Scorpio, costing exactly as much as a last-year Mazda MX-5 NA did. Isn’t it wonderful that all of these cars were sold alongside each other?
The Cavalier wasn’t imported here officially, but a few have come here later on. A Chrysler Neon cost 119 900 in 1997, whether you wanted the automatic or not, and that would have gotten you a 1.8-litre Escort Ghia. Not the kind of screaming deal that the Neon was in the States at the time.
Bench seat. A lot of Luminas here have bucket seats and the shifter on the floor.
Looking at the used car market here right now, you can pick up a road-legal Lumina for 750 euros, because of course you can pick one for 750 euros. Everything ends up costing 750 eur here, and that can get you an absolute beater or something saveable, depending of your world-view among used cars. It’s the true Beaterland price, and one that is easily swallowed if things go south.
There’s a purple Cavalier in Helsinki, for the same amount of money, and there’s some vague celebrity value in it – hah – as it’s being sold by a somewhat famous Finnish Volkswagen hotrodder.
I don’t have a lot of faith into the dynamic abilities of either car, but then again – if I want to experience a direct manual gearbox feel, I drive the MX-5. If I want to throw around a simple, light car with a peppy engine, I go for the 205. Neither car can offer me the Chevrolet brochure feeling of a prairie road continuing far beyond the horizon, neither can make me feel like a Wichita lineman like a 3.1-litre Lumina would. And Chevrolet doesn’t sell new cars here anymore, either.
What can I tell you? The Heartbeat of America is 1997’s Chevrolet, not today’s.

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22 responses to “Weekend Edition: On 1997 Chevrolets”

  1. NapoleonSolo Avatar

    I bought a 100k plus 1995 Lumina from a friend for $600 after a dealer offered him $350 as a trade-in. I was going to grad school full-time and had limited means. I have to report that this car was an exemplary appliance for getting from here to there in comfort. Handled well enough, consumed highway miles with ease and returned 30 mpg while doing it at 65 mph. Based on my experience with this car and it’s 3.1 V6, I told my son to go ahead and buy a Corsica he was looking at. Slightly smaller than the Lumina with the same drivetrain, this car was nothing but trouble. Seems as if I do very well selecting new cars for myself, but I cringe when helping a friend buy a used car. Always a bit of a crap shoot, and you need to be willing to deal with the issues that pop up.

  2. Drives Dead Marques Avatar
    Drives Dead Marques

    I was thinking/hoping the Beretta, a coupe model that didn’t have a sedan counterpart, was made in 1997. Sadly, it’s run ended in 1996. Coolest thing about these were the door handle. It’s up in the B pillar, and you pulled it down, like a beer tap. They also came with a digital dash in some models, which I thought was cool at the time.

    1. cronn Avatar

      An old schoolmate friend of mine had a Beretta. Well, his family did. A 3.1 GT, no less. This was in Finland around the turn of the century when we just got our driving licenses. Everyone my age was driving Kadetts, 205’s and Escorts. I had a piece of crap 1.3 liter Escort. The Beretta might only make some 140-odd hp but my Escort made like 50.

    2. ptschett Avatar

      I was a very young, but avid, PBS MotorWeek fan in the late ’80’s and early ’90’s [magazines came once a month but MotorWeek was on every Saturday at 11 AM!!!], and I remember being deeply confused at the report in 1988-ish that some gun company named Beretta was unhappy with Chevrolet using that name for a car.
      Much later in life, I have a current cow-orker who has still managed to hang onto his Beretta (car, not gun) though his DD has transitioned from the Beretta to a recent W-body Impala.

    3. Charles Strosnider Avatar
      Charles Strosnider

      There actually was a sedan counterpart to the Beretta: the Corsica. My father bought a brand new one in ’95 and my 10 year old self grew to love that thing as we took countless road trips around the country in that thing.

      1. Drives Dead Marques Avatar
        Drives Dead Marques

        How could I forget the Corsica? (cue the it’s easy, just drive one jokes)

  3. Drives Dead Marques Avatar
    Drives Dead Marques

    And this was the direction Chevy was going in 1997. More modern, but not at interesting as the Lumina and the Cav. This is the new for 1997 Chevy Malibu. It also killed the Beretta.

    1. JayP Avatar

      I made the mistake of walking into a Chevy parking lot in 1996. A cute saleslady came out to talk up the new Malibu so I stayed. The highpoint was- the new location for the ignition key. An all new car and that was what was going to sell it on me?

      1. Sjalabais Avatar

        The irony of a GM ignition key getting too much attention before they got…too little of it?

  4. wunno sev Avatar
    wunno sev

    it may be something to do with my teenage fascination with police cars, but i always thought the policey Luminae were cool. in my high school years i would see a University of Chicago Police Lumina around from time to time, years after the model had fallen out of vogue, and think it was the bee’s knees. something about a spotlight and blue vinyl interior makes me want cars i shouldn’t want.
    these days, i can say pretty confidently that i don’t want a Lumina, but i still turn my head when i see one. i wouldn’t call the styling European, but it looks a good deal more lithe than its contemporaries, especially those from the General. it’s a curious mix of late incompetence-stage GM and modern, if anonymous, car design.

  5. nanoop Avatar

    We didn’t know what car that was in the X-files, we called it just a Mulder-mobile. Now that I know so much more about US cars I’d wish it was a Fox body car.

  6. Van_Sarockin Avatar

    I thought the X-Files’ primary car was a Ford Taurus, of the 1st gen, jellybean configuration. I’ve never had much use for the Lumina, but it doesn’t offend me that others might like them.

  7. Rust-MyEnemy Avatar

    All my Lumina experiences have been in Florida, and they were all Alamo Rental Red. I came home wondering why red velour interiors had disappeared outside the USA.
    Also remember being somewhat surprised by the bass response of the Delco 6x9s in the rear shelf.

  8. Guest Avatar

    “And with the Cavalier, I would happily resort into prying off the Chevy badges and replacing them with Toyota silverware – because of course, there was a Toyota Cavalier and it’s the most left-field thing I can think of. Sadly, it was Japanese market only.”

    I’ve been trying to convince my Cavalier Z24 owning friend to do that for awhile now. I also think he should find one of the dealer-installed supercharger kits, and install that too.

    1. Vairship Avatar

      And then take it to the local Toyota dealer for parts…

  9. Maymar Avatar

    I put about 60-75k on a ’97 Cavalier, and while it may not have been a classic by any stretch of the imagination, it was a great student beater. It predictably understeered (but whatever minimal dynamic issues I could’ve had with it were likely from cheap old tires), but it was pleasant enough to drive, the 5-speed wasn’t garbage, and I got about 35mpg highway out of it. It was cheap, it was easily fixed (although only a couple things went wrong), and as a coupe with a sunroof, it did a decent imitation of a nicer car.
    I’d put it this way – shortly after I got rid of the Cavalier, I got a new 2010 Civic. The new car was absolutely better, but the difference wasn’t as revelatory as you’d expect (except for interior quality).

  10. hubba Avatar

    I’m a devotee of the period bench-seat Buicks for reliable, comfy, inexpensive cruising. They go to the junkyard for minor reasons because they’re worth more dead than alive.

  11. Sjalabais Avatar

    You can tell from Antti’s choice of photos that it’s the rear design that is “the chocolate side” of this car. Actually pretty elegant and it’s uncommon for the front to be the letdown. So…you have somewhat decided to get yourself such a winter beater?

  12. mr smee Avatar
    mr smee

    Not 1997, but I had a ’91 Sunbird 3.1 that was unkillable. I could let it sit for a month or more, turn the key and it would start instantly. In 430,000KM I replaced the O/drive lockup switch, ignition module, a couple sets of plug wires, starter and of course a set of intake gaskets. Not bad, actually, and was only stranded once by the lockup switch.

  13. Preludacris Avatar

    Imagine you’re being relocated to a small Midwestern town as part of a witness protection program. Your case agent helps you select appropriate clothing from a local thrift store, hands you the keys to a weathered rental house on the edge of town, and leaves you with this advice. “Don’t do anything that will draw attention to yourself.”
    That’s the most interesting scenario I could come up with that might involve buying a Lumina.

  14. Ben Avatar

    I bought this 1997 Chevrolets. The insurance agent for the dealership was its first owner. I was
    very skeptical about buying a vehicle with this many miles, but I knew the dealership in Minnesota and the price I paid for a fully loaded Chevrolet, was unmatched here in Washington. More about cars on essaycool.