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Forget Ford GTs and Ferraris; the ultimate everyday speed machine is the Geo Metro

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On: Tue, Apr 5, 2016 at 9:45AM | By: Andrew W Davis

Forget Ford GTs and Ferraris; the ultimate everyday speed machine is the Geo Metro

Among the longest-standing debates between car nuts is whether it's better to drive a slow car fast or a fast car slow. My patented response is “Which costs more?”

This may seem like a dodge (lowercase), but it's the truth. See, I've topped 140 in a clapped-out supercharged IROC-Z Camaro ($13k) and a real-deal Shelby continuation Cobra ($300k), and the fact that I was constantly terrified of harming the Cobra made the MUCH cheaper Camaro the better—or at least the more enjoyable—ride. And given the fact that fast cars are almost always more expensive than slow ones, the “slow car fast” option is usually the way I vote.

After all, you're never scared of scratching a “beater.” That's why they call them that. But when you're behind the wheel of a car that costs more than double what your house does, you spend more time worrying about damaging the thing than enjoying it, which—in addition to the negative attention of law enforcement—practically forces you to drive it slower. Thankfully there are a few cars out there that are dirt cheap but still fun and as fast as you can go ANY car on today's roads. Case in point: the humble Geo Metro.

Yes, if you really, really want to have some carefree fun in a car, the Geo Metro is hard to beat. OK, it's very easy to beat it PERFORMANCE-wise under most circumstances, but where the Metro truly shines is the Parking Lot Grand Prix/slalom/gymkhana around the light posts because there’s no beating the reckless abandon with which you can pitch a car you're not worried about balling up because you know you'll get paid more in scrap value for the wreckage than you paid for the car.

Now while I can't remember a three-item grocery list given to me three hours before, I can point to the exact moment that this revelation took hold of me. I'll sum it up this way: Take one “underaged” (I was 18, and the rule was rental cars should/could only be operated by 25-year-olds and up) car nut in charge of a rental car fleet, apply just enough of the first rain of the year (and oily wet pavement it creates) to make things interesting and add a co-worker more daring than I in terms of vehicular stunt driving and Bingo! you have the recipe for either a terrible disaster or—just about—the most fun I have ever had in a underpowered, undersized and undersupervised vehicle.

Despite our being in manual-transmission, three-cylinder (and -door) Geo Metros, we treated every corner like we were battling for the world championship on the last lap at Le Mans. We did everything short of bang doors or rub off bumpers, and it was GLORIOUS.

There are few things (professionally, at least) more wonderful and beautiful to experience than having an employer who hates doing the part of the job you love the most to the point that not only do you get to have all the fun, but you're actually given praise and bonuses for "taking it off their hands". Well, my boss was so desperate that he was willing to ignore little things like your being seven years too young to legally do the job and caring only that the work got done, regardless of what you did with the rest of what was ostensibly “his” time.

There was nothing—I mean NOTHING—about this job I didn't love. Washing and vacuuming cars? It's like a treasure hunt wherein you are as likely to find a “roach” in the ashtray as you are a loaded 9mm Beretta—honestly—in the trunk. Checking fluids? Pumping gas? Driving cars to the shop to get worked on? It was heaven!

[The worst part was dealing with customers, but that happened very rarely. “Repos” happened with a similar frequency, but were infinitely more fun.]

Fortunately—or unfortunately, depending on which side of the business you're on—we were given free rein over our “fleet” (probably 50 cars) and, for the most part, our time. If we said we had to take a car in to get its engine, brakes or muffler bearing checked, nobody questioned us.

[If you didn't laugh at that last one you must be a managerial-type like our bosses...]

Now "back then" we had V8-powered T-Birds, Mercury Cougars, Lincoln Town Cars, and the like—not to mention 10- to 15-passenger vans and everything in between—but my co-conspirator and my favorite cars were a pair (one greenish/aqua and one bluish) of Geo three-door hatchbacks. And if both of those cars were on our lot at the same time, well, you could count on one thing: we'd be out scouting for deserted streets and parking lots where we could stage our own versions of the Daytona 500 or 24 Hours of Le Mans when we should've been doing, well, anything else.

Thanks to having a one-liter (not kidding) 55-horsepower/58-lb.-ft. of torque (again, completely serious) inline three-banger and nothing in the way of safety or infotainment equipment, Metros weighed just 1,620 lbs. And if you were lucky—like we were—they came equipped with a five-speed manual transmission (oddly, as most renters either didn't want to or couldn't drive "stick") so you could wring out every drop of performance they could offer. Add to that its good old-fashioned center console handbrake and you had the perfect recipe for shenanigans.

Don't take my word for it: lots of people put Geo Metros on their best cars list, including my fellow scribblers. Even eco-weenies like the Metro, thanks to its ability to get hybrid-level MPG figures (the Metro XFI gets 47 mpg combined, without any of a hybrid's heavy electrickery). Toss in a Metro's miniscule price tag and you'd have to be fact-blind not to see the appeal.

I wish I had one right now. My kids are at driving permit-getting age, and a Metro'd be perfect for training purposes. It was a milestone car for me, for many reasons:

First off, it was the first car in which I learned what “drag limited” meant in top speed. On open stretches of freeway, no matter how hard you held down the accelerator, you were going to get 100 mph or so, tops. Wanna learn how to make “J-turns” and pull 360s? How about handbrake-induced oversteer? Our Metros did all that and more. Despite the ultra-low price of the car—and its parts, I hear, as I never damaged one personally—those damn things were fun on a bun, believe me.

In short order we were doing Chitwood-worthy stunt shows every time we got that pair of Geos together, and those Metros never made a peep the whole (mandatory) 35k miles we had them. They taught us the answers to some of life's most profound questions: Can you do a donut in a front-drive car? (Yes, you can.) Can you do a 50-foot burnout in a Geo Metro? (Again, yeppers.) Can you exceed 60 mph with the rear wheels locked because you have the handbrake on? (Well, I'm sad to say I know that this is indeed possible thanks to an idiot renter who proved that bit for us).

People always ask those in my profession what the best car is, and, for the most part, they don't have an answer. Well, I do. My advice? Go out and buy a Geo Metro, Ford Aspire or any other '90s rental-type subcompact and start perfecting your driving skills in one of the few kinds of car you can walk away from—literally and euphemistically—if everything goes wrong. They're the perfect combination of cheap to buy and plentiful enough to easily repair or replace. Cook a few engines, blow a few clutches, and ruin a couple transmissions (if needed) to teach your kids—or yourself—how to REALLY use a manual gearbox, run a rally stage or just "hoon" for the hell of it.

[In fact, an entire car is often cheaper than major components if you factor in the locating, shipping, and labor costs.]

Or, as the pics below show, there’s another option: Make your Metro both cheap AND fast. Want to rip off nine-second quarter mile times? Add a massive turbocharged mill or just shoehorn a big V8 into the bay where the three-banger used to be. Or, if road racing is your thing, why not mount the powertrain where the back seat used to be for better balance? These folks did it, and there are few cars as easy to Frankenstein together as a Metro.

Regardless of which route you choose, you could end up with a real-deal RWD racer that can show its taillights to machines that cost many multiples of a Metro’s MSRP while bringing a smile to the face of everyone you meet—even those you beat. Oh, and did I mention they made convertible Metros, too? Boy, just imagine stuffing an LT1 into a Metro convertible. How awesome would that be?

And that’s what this is all about, isn’t it?

Photo Gallery (click a thumbnail to enlarge)


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