When and why did Chevy Stop Making the Chevette?

1995 Chevrolet Chevette
1995 Chevrolet Chevette

For generation X it’s quite familiar, but the newer generations might not be familiar with the Chevrolet Chevette. Why? because it was introduced in 1976 and Chevrolet ended its production while the millennials were still children. Considering that Chevrolet is a mainstream automotive manufacturer, the Chevette had a short life span. So let’s take a look at when and why did Chevy stop making the Chevette.

But what led to the discontinuation of this relatively common car in America? We will discuss what exactly the Chevrolet Chevette was and what led to its premature death.

Chevy Chevette history

The year is 1976 and automobile buyers are looking for a fuel-efficient alternative to the rather gas-guzzling American offerings. German and Japanese imports are gaining traction in the car market with their fuel-sipping models. American manufacturers are downsizing their current models to better compete, and General Motors is no stranger to this predicament.

The folks at GM decided to utilize their global T platform to offer an entry-level subcompact fuel-efficient model. The Chevrolet Chevette was born as a replacement for the Chevrolet Vega.

Maybe born is a wrong word because the Chevrolet Chevette used the T platform that already produced or went on to produce a number of rebadged vehicles like the Pontiac Acadian in Canada, the Pontiac T1000/1000 in the United States (1981–1987), the K-180 in Argentina, the Vauxhall Chevette, Opel Kadett, Isuzu Gemini, Holden Gemini, and as a coupe utility (pickup), the Chevy 500.

If it helps, the Chevrolet Chevette was initially available in the following trim levels over the course of its existence: The Scooter was the most basic of basic trims, with rubber floor mats, painted front and rear bumpers instead of chrome, and back seat only offered as an option.

It is followed by what most retail shoppers would consider the actual base trim, which was the normal Chevette. The following models included the Sport Coupe, Rally, and Woody (which had faux-woodgrain side panels).

The Chevrolet Chevette proved to be a partial success for GM, but it underscored the lack of commitment to this car segment because during its 12-year run it remained largely unchanged. Unlike the Honda Civic and Volkswagen Rabbit, the Chevrolet Chevette was a front-engine, rear-wheel drive hatchback.

Keeping a minimalist approach, the Chevette was a straightforward car, using an existing platform, a simple rear-wheel drive layout, and a simple four-cylinder engine that produced 53 horsepower at its introduction.

While this output was enough to power the small hatchback, it was not performance tuned in any sense. It was offered both as a two-door and later as a four-door hatchback, further adding to its appeal, and sales greatly increased as a result.

The Chevette was not only the smallest and most fuel-efficient car that Chevrolet had ever marketed, but it was also the lightest American car at the time, weighing less than a ton. The standard 1.4-liter engine’s EPA ratings of 28 mpg city and 40 mpg highway were unprecedented in previous domestic models.

But with the market witnessing the introduction of more and more advanced and fuel-efficient models from other manufacturers, Chevrolet just couldn’t keep up with the pace. The Chevrolet Chevette was painfully slow but proved reliable and was economical to run. But let’s face it, it was mechanically outdated at the time of its debut and the gap continued to widen until it breathed its last.

1981 Chevrolet Chevette Hatchback
1981 Chevrolet Chevette Hatchback

Improving over time

Modern automobile enthusiasts may find the rear-wheel drive and solid rear axle of the Chevette to be retro, yet the Datsun B210 and Toyota Corolla of today have similar construction. There were some innovative engineering innovations in the Chevette, such as the overhead-camshaft engine and progressive-rate rear springs. Chevrolet employed variants with 52 and 60 horsepower in 1.4- and 1.6-liter engines, respectively.

The basic Chevette Scooter, with a $2,899 sticker price that didn’t even include a back seat or glovebox door, was the most affordable of the bunch. Only 9,810 Scooters were produced in 1976, compared to 178,007 normal hatchbacks.

The Chevrolet Chevette’s horsepower for 1977 increased to 57 and 63, respectively. Rear seats were a regular feature of the inexpensive Scooter model, along with a few cosmetic changes. There wasn’t much Chevrolet could do besides that. In total, 12,278 standard Chevettes and 13,191 scooters were produced for the 1977 model year.

For 1978, Chevrolet added a three-inch-longer four-door model, improved the drivetrain and gearing, and did away with the pathetic 1.4-liter engine, making the Chevette a little more pleasant prospect. The public definitely desired those extra doors because sales in 1978 more than doubled to 299,000, which was more than Omni, Horizon, and Fiesta combined.

Sales increased to 369,109 in 1979 as a result of the second oil crisis. Nevertheless, it received just cosmetic improvements and remained basically intact. With 451,000 sales, 1980 was Chevette’s best-ever year, but Chevy’s subcompact remained substantially unmodified.

It retained rear-wheel drive as more and more competitors in the economy car segment switched to front-wheel drive. The Chevette struggled to create even mild acceleration despite its recent power increase, but its economy was excellent and that’s what a lot of people thought mattered most at the time.

Beginning of the end

The Ford Escort, which debuted in 1981 and had a front-wheel drive layout, further devalued the Chevrolet Chevette. Compared to every other player in the market, it began to appear archaic. To make matters worse, GM’s own ground-breaking, ultimately disastrous front-wheel-drive X-cars were beginning to make the Chevette seem antiquated in terms of low-cost transportation.

Even though Chevrolet tried to salvage it by introducing a diesel engine, it was too old and Chevy was powerless to stop the decline. GM concentrated on switching its huge and sluggish offering to front-wheel drive alternatives rather than improving the Chevette. With little more than a cosmetic update and the installation of an unpopular and even slower diesel engine, the Chevette persevered.

The Chevrolet Chevette desperately needed an improvement, but it seemed unlikely to happen anytime soon. In 1982, it saw a decline in sales, and for the first time, the Ford Escort surpassed it as the most popular subcompact in America. In 1983, the Chevrolet Chevette was unaltered again, although the price was held constant in an effort to boost sales.

It obviously had little effect, as sales continued to drop. Customers could add accents and decals to their Chevette with an optional new $95 Sport external decor package. However, production decreased by almost 27% to 169,565, the lowest level since 1977.

Chevy had maintained its price point, and a Chevette starting at $4,997 in 1984 was starting to seem like a good deal; after all, the starting price of a Ford Escort was more than $5,600 at the time. Changes? As you may have imagined, there were none apparent.

The situation was different in 1985 than it had been previously since there was a new competitor and two imports from Japan joined it in the competition for compact cars: the Suzuki Sprint and the Isuzu Spectrum. The rest of the narrative will be revealed by the sales figures.

A sporty Chevy Chevette
A sporty Chevy Chevette

At 123,500, the sales total for 1985 decreased by almost 50%. Even for Chevrolet, those sales were still reasonably impressive, thus the Chevette earned the right to make a comeback in 1986 to begin its second decade.

The 1987 model year would be the last for the vintage Chevrolet Chevette. Everyone knew it would die, so expectations were not high. Chevrolet further reduced the sticker price, giving customers a simple, dependable vehicle for a low cost. Buyers in the compact car market flocked to much better competitors than this bare-bones Chevette.

Due to poor sales, the diesel engine was removed from the powertrain options. Sales were barely above the 46,000 threshold, and there was no path forward because the Chevette already had one foot firmly in the grave.

Lessons learned?

At least for Chevrolet, the Chevrolet Chevette was a lesson for life. The fundamental error was a lack of product planning, along with its repercussions, which GM discovered the hard way. Conclusion: It undoubtedly had advantages, but those advantages were monumentally overshadowed by its disadvantages. It satisfied the population’s fundamental motoring demands, but it didn’t go any further than that.

It was inexpensive, and it could transport the passengers and driver, but that was about it. It was merely a compact automobile. Because humans are about progress, its tight cabin, poor ride and handling, slow acceleration (by any standard), and general lack of refinement didn’t make it a desirable option.

The Suzuki-built Geo Metro, which replaced the preceding Suzuki-built Chevrolet Sprint in 1989, was deemed to be at least a spiritual successor by Chevrolet officials because the Chevrolet Chevette had no heir.

Although the Chevrolet Chevette was unable to have an impact on the history of automobiles, it did demonstrate that cars must offer more than just a comfortable ride. It was a necessary evil because, if not for Chevrolet, other automakers would have seen how terrible an automobile might become.

Today, an old Chevette with its rear-drive format can be a cheap and easy project car for those who want to try their hand at tuning. It’s still not a particularly desirable car, even when tuned nicely. However, there’s still that nostalgia factor for some people. It may have been their first car or the car where they first, well, you know?

1981 Chevrolet Chevette after some work
1981 Chevrolet Chevette after some “work”

The Chevette now qualifies as a classic car, so prices might not be as cheap as you’d like or expect if you want to buy one. Because they’re so basic, there isn’t too much to worry about, but it would still make sense to get a vehicle history check before committing to buy one.