The Top 10 Unconventional Sporty Chevrolets
For an automotive nameplate that has, for much of its life, been positioned as a sensible, blue collar one, Chevrolet sure has built a heaping butt-ton of performance models. Names like Nova SS, Chevelle SS, Camaro and of course Corvette are well known even outside gearhead circles. Yet this familiarity has bred ubiquity, so much so that you literally could not swing a crybaby doll at a classic car show without hitting one of the aforementioned four models. It’s gotten to be like near-as-dammit every over-the-air classic rock station under the sun: They play all of an artist’s or group’s chart-toppers and standards until you can recite the lyrics backwards, but none of the interesting deep cuts and B-sides with which only superfans are familiar.
Well we want to use this binary bully pulpit to change that. Only two of the following 10 hopped-up Chevrolets – presented in the order in which they debuted – have a V8 (and only one of them could be considered muscular), and a few of them lack a toy car version to pose with a real version, but there’s a very good chance that there won’t be enough of you rolling into the show to have your own class. And if there are enough of you then, hey, maybe y’all can come up with your own secret handshake. Those are nice, right?
Corvair Monza Spyder and Corsa Turbo
When it was introduced in late 1959 as a 1960 model, the Corvair was quite far removed from what Chevy (or any other American automaker) had produced up to that point. It was small (relative to the Impala and other full-size Chevrolets of the period, anyway), with unibody construction and an air-cooled aluminum flat-six engine mounted in the very back of the car. So when the time came in 1962 to add a high performance version, it was only fitting that it would be done via unconventional methods, as well.
Introduced in early 1962 as an option on Corvair Monza coupes and convertibles, the Spyder package featured expanded instrumentation, Spyder badges for the front fenders and a turbocharged emblem for the engine cover. A what now? Yes, the Spyder’s pièce de résistance was a turbocharger for the 2.4L boxer six, the second production car to ever receive such a device at the factory (The first? Corvair’s far more conventional front-mounted-V8 Oldsmobile cousin, the Jetfire, a few weeks earlier.). Adding the turbo bumped output to 150 horsepower and routed it through a mandatory 4-speed manual transaxle. Model year 1964 saw engine displacement jump to 2.7L, but the official power figure held steady.
Come 1965, however, there was a completely new second-generation Corvair with “pillarless” hardtop styling and a true independent rear suspension system. It was at this time that the turbo option migrated to the new Corsa trim level, and the claimed power peak rose to 180 horsepower. Unfortunately, the Corsa (and the turbo engine) would be gone after 1966 as the Corvair line was downsized in the face of plunging sales. However, the turbo Corvairs’ place as performance car innovators remains secure.
Chevelle Laguna Type S-3
Everyone knows that mid-size Chevy performance peaked in 1970 with the Chevelle SS and its King-Kong-on-bath-salts LS6 solid-lifter 454 cubic-inch (7.4L) Big Block V8 throwin’ shade of the 450 horsepower and 500 lb.-ft of torque varieties, right? From there it was all downhill for A-body Bowtie performance…but the glide path into the side of Mount Malaise wasn’t quite as steep as you might think.
The 1973 arrival of the “Colonnade” A-body saw Chevy product planners revise their lineup, with a new model – Laguna – slotting it at the top of the totem pole and easily identifiable by its exclusive body-colored urethane nosecone with integral bumper. However, the following year saw another revision, as the Laguna became the Laguna S-3, a coupe-only replacement for the departed Malibu SS. And it was the year after that – 1975 – that the Laguna S-3 became something truly special. The nose was restyled with a new sloped profile intended to help improve the NASCAR race version’s superspeedway results (which it did, garnering numerous wins and carrying Cale Yarborough to the first two of what would prove to be three consecutive Winston Cup championships in 1976 and ’77), while the continued availability of the 454 (albeit in smog-reg-neutered 215 horsepower form) for the first part of the ’75 model year kept it competitive with whatever else passed for a muscle car in the mid-1970s.
Most people, upon encountering the phrase “road car with Cosworth-developed engine,” immediately picture some high-zoot European Ford that never made it to this side of the pond. A few others will think of the 16-valve, Group A homologation Mercedes-Benz 190 Es built from the mid-‘80s to the early-‘90s. But very few people seem to be familiar with the Chevrolet Vega Cosworth; then again, that’s pretty understandable, since a) the Vega Cosworth was only produced for two model years (1975 and ’76 for a total of 3,508 examples), b) those two years were at or near the bottom of the yawning U.S. automotive performance trough that was the Malaise Era, and c) the Vega – at least in non-Cossie guise – is roundly regarded as one of the most turd-tacular machines ever foisted upon an innocent car-buying public.
All of that is rather unfortunate, because the Vega Cosworth (which, like all Vegas, was rear-wheel-drive) had many of the ingredients to become this continent’s ur-hot-hatch the same way VW’s Mk. 1 GTI of the same era became the Continent’s ur-hot-hatch. The all-aluminum DOHC, 16-valve 2.0L inline-four (based on the standard Vega’s 2.3L SOHC 8-valve unit) featured an electronic fuel injection system, forged aluminum pistons and a forged steel crankshaft. Initial testing saw it produce 140 horsepower, but as time passed, tightening emissions regulations necessitated changes that saw the final figures sink to 110 horsepower and 107 lb.-ft of torque, which were a bit flaccid even by the low standards of the time. Still, with a sport suspension, radial tires, aluminum wheels, an optional LSD and, for 1976, an optional 5-speed manual trans (a 4-speed stick was standard in ’76 and the only one in ’75), it was a willing backroads dance partner. Plus you could get a freakin’ tent for it!
Heralded as the thoroughly modern, space- and fuel-efficient front-drive replacement for the Nova upon its introduction as a 1980 model, the Chevrolet Citation was the right car at the right time…on paper, at least. A litany of engineering kerfuffles and quality control snafus would soon give Chevy (and GM as a whole, thanks to the Citation being fundamentally the very same car as the also-all-new-for-‘80 Pontiac Phoenix, Oldsmobile Omega and Buick Skylark) yet another black eye. Yet there was a silver lining to the cloud that was the X-body debacle, and that was the Citation X-11.
Offered on the three-door hatchback and two-door sedan bodystyles (though the latter was on hiatus in 1981 and ’82), the X-11 package initially combined a performance suspension package with sportier interior and exterior appointments. Beginning in ’81, however, it became a proper performance package, with front and rear anti-roll bars, revised steering, alloy wheels wearing high performance summer tires, unique gear ratios for the final drive and the two transmissions (standard 4-speed manual and optional 3-speed automatic, the auto sadly becoming mandatory for the final year) and, to cap it all off, high-output versions of the standard Citation’s 2.8L pushrod V6 producing 130 or 135 horsepower, depending on the year. Also, ’81 through ’85 X-11s had dual exhaust tips (but not a true dual exhaust system) and a functional cowl induction fiberglass hood, so it’s fair to say this limber lemon (which won the SCCA Showroom Stock B National Championship in 1982 and ’84) had at least a sprinkling of Chevy muscle car DNA in it.
Okay, we’re cheating slightly with this one seeing as the Sprint was really just a federalized, Japan-made Suzuki Cultus, but the fact remains it was sold with Chevrolet badges at Chevrolet dealerships. And the Turbo Sprint was a very compelling reason to visit your local Chevy dealer in 1987 and ’88. The slick aero body kit (which matched the body in either red or white, the only Turbo Sprint exterior colors officially offered) announced this pipsqueak’s sporting intentions to the outside world, while the turbocharged and intercooled (The intercooler was fed fresh air via the distinctive “mail slot” at the top edge of the grille area.) 1.0L inline-three – rated at 70 horsepower and 79 lb.-ft of torque and matched exclusively to a 5-speed manual – moved the three-door subcompact’s 1,633 lbs. of mass (which is nearly 600 lbs. less than the current smallest Chevy, the Spark) with gusto that, like the Turbo Sprint’s fuel economy, is admirable even in 2016.
Another captive import interloper on this list? Well, yes and no: The most recent U.S. market production Chevy to wear the Nova name was indeed based on the contemporary AE82-chassis Toyota Sprinter sedan and 5-door, a restyled JDM derivative of the front-drive Corolla sold through a different sales channel. However, the Novas (like most U.S.-bound Corollas of the time) were made at NUMMI, the jointly owned and operated GM-Toyota factory in Fremont, California that’s now home to Tesla. The NUMMI Nova that we’re interested in, the Nova Twin-Cam, was only offered in 1988, only with a black exterior, and only in the sedan body style. Under the hood resided Toyota’s venerated 4A-GE 1.6L DOHC 16-valve inline-four, rated at 110 horsepower and matched to your choice of a 5-speed manual or a 4-speed automatic which, while possessing one gear more than the base Nova’s automatic, is most definitely not in keeping with this car’s character. The Nova Twin-Cam also came with sport suspension, four-wheel disc brakes, aluminum wheels, power steering, and a leather-wrapped steering wheel.
Approximately 3,300 NTCs were made before it (like the rest of the Nova line) went away at the end of the 1988 model year. However, the concept of a hotted-up, NorCal-made, 4A-GE powered Corolla cousin lived on in the form of the 1990-’92 Geo Prizm GSi (Geo being the Chevrolet sub-brand established to serve as the Bowtie’s all-captive-imports-all-the-time clearing house.), which added a choice of sedan or 5-door hatchback body styles to the mix.
While the need for Chevrolet to add yet another coupe to its lineup in 1987 was questionable on the best of days, the brand nevertheless added the Beretta – a two-door companion to the Corsica sedan, which also premiered in ’87 – to its fleet of two-doors. And it didn’t take long for an extra-perky version to come along, with the Beretta GTU arriving in 1988 with sport suspension, 16” alloy wheels and a snazzy body kit. Unfortunately, the GTU’s powertrain menu was the same as that of lesser Beretta’s meaning a 90 horsepower 2.0L inline-four with a 5-speed manual or 3-speed automatic or a 125 horsepower 2.8L V6 with the 3-speed auto. Not particularly awe-inspiring, even in its day.
Thankfully, that disappointment was mitigated in a very big way for the 1990 model year, when the GTU was replaced with the visually-similar GTZ. Out went the ho-hum OHV lumps, and in went the high output version of Oldsmobile’s 2.3L DOHC 16-valve Quad4 inline-four. It tickled the dynamometer to the tune of 180 horsepower and 160 lb.-ft of torque, while a Getrag 5-speed manual was the only transmission to be had.
Beretta GTZ production continued through the 1993 model year (during which horsepower and torque both dropped by five due to a change in emissions regulations), while an even weaker Quad4 served as the base engine in the GTZ-replacing Z26 in 1994 before being dumped altogether for the Beretta’s last two years. If you can deal with front-wheel-drive, scattershot early-‘90s GM fit-and-finish and the Quad4’s rowdy nature, the Beretta GTZ is a hidden gem.
When Chevrolet dumped the G-body Monte Carlo in favor of the Lumina coupe at the end of the 1980s, there was a great deal of displeasure from enthusiasts as it meant the brand’s NASCAR homologation model now deviated from the racecar’s V8, rear-drive formula. But the changeover wasn’t all doom-and-gloom from a performance standpoint; beginning in 1991, the production Lumina coupe was offered with the Z34 package.
Besides a slick body kit, vented hood and dual exhaust, the Z34 boasted a sport suspension package, four-wheel disc brakes with ABS, a sport steering wheel and bucket seats and, to prove Chevy wasn’t messing around, the new Oldsmobile-developed 3.4L DOHC 24-valve V6 (codenamed LQ1) teamed with a Getrag 5-speed manual transaxle. Output was 210 horsepower (or 200 if you ordered the optional 4-speed automatic) and 215 lb.-ft of torque, sums which were sufficient to yank the Z34 to 60 mph in 7.5 seconds and up to an electronically-limited 130 mph top speed. None of those numbers would warrant a second look today, but in the early-‘90s they were pretty respectable, particularly from a front-drive, mid-size family car.
Although it’s frequently disparaged as the “Me Too Cruiser” (a reference to its status as a cover band rendition of the Chrysler PT Cruiser, performed by the very same designer), the Chevrolet HHR – shorthand for Heritage High Roof – was a pretty neat little station wagon-ish whatchamacallit. For one thing, it was offered as a sans-rear-side-windows panel version (though there were still rear doors, so it wasn’t quite true to the classic panel delivery formula). For another, it was offered in ‘roided-up SS form, with the same 260 horsepower turbocharged, direct-injected 2.0L inline-four as the updated version of its fellow Delta platform occupant, the Cobalt SS. However, both of those factoids are completely overshadowed by the fact that you could get them together. A retro mini panel truck with no-lift-upshift capability from the standard 5-speed manual (The optional 4-speed automatic dropped peak power to 235 horses.)? Be still our fluttering heart…
When Chevrolet replaced the long serving S-10 with the Colorado in 2004, it armed the new mid-size pickup with a pair of equally new engines: A 2.8L inline-four and a 3.5L inline-five (enlarged to 2.9L and 3.7L, respectively, in 2007) derived from the 4.2L inline-six that, frustratingly, was only ever installed in GM’s GMT360 mid-size SUVs (Chevrolet TrailBlazer, GMC Envoy, Oldsmobile Bravada, Buick Rainier, Saab 9-7X and Isuzu Ascender). However, beginning with the 2009 model year, the Colorado (along with its GMC doppelganger, the Canyon) got a Mack Daddy of a motor in the form of the LH8, an aluminum 5.3L version of the General’s Gen IV (i.e. second-generation LS-series) V8 rated at a hearty 300 horsepower and 320 lb.-ft of torque. Granted, it wasn’t available in regular cab form, and the only transmission was a 4-speed automatic, and it didn’t have a sporting name suffix like SS, but the Colorado V8 could really scoot. And because there’s no shortage of hop-up parts for LS engines from both the aftermarket and GM itself, you could conceivably build one into an even hotter hauler.