Metro Mania: Fuel Economy Trumps Common Sense
By James Grahame
Weird things have been happening across North America as fuel prices hit all-time highs. Suddenly, small cars are cool. Basic vehicles that wouldn't have received a second glance five years ago are now attracting interest like never before.
A case in point: The little 3-cylinder Geo Metro, also sold as the Suzuki Swift. This popular econobox was produced from 1989-2001. In addition to a low sticker price, it squeezed as much as 49 mpg from its 1.0L power plant. In fact, one variant -- the lighweight XFi -- featured a detuned engine capable of sucking well over 50 miles from a single gallon of regular unleaded on the highway.
It hasn't taken long for modern opportunists to realize that the Geo Metro is an ugly duckling capable of providing almost the same fuel efficiency as a sleek new $25,000 hybrid. Prices have spiked as these elderly vehicles trade hands on the basis of their remarkable (by American standards) fuel efficiency.
These subcompacts - which sold for less than $10,000 new - are now fetching as much as $7,000 on eBay. Most have lived tough lives, driven by teenagers and low income drivers. That means they might not have received top-notch maintenance and are nearing two decades on the road. Unless you're an experienced back yard mechanic, you'll find yourself forking out a small fortune to keep an old Geo roadworthy and fuel efficient. You should also keep in mind that modern vehicles are designed to be more crashworthy, and the Geo didn't excel in crash tests when new, earning a less than stellar rating from the NHTSA in the early 1990s.
As with most other crazes, the sudden interest in elderly subcompacts should be taken with a grain of salt. There are numerous modern vehicles such as the Toyota Echo/Yaris, Hyundai Accent and Chevy Aveo that get almost the same mileage. However, used examples of these miserly vehicles tend to sell at a premium these days, so your best bet might be to hang on to your rapidly depreciating SUV and drive it sparingly.
I suspect GM is paying careful attention to the sudden interest in the Metro XFi. Perhaps the recent flurry of attention will be enough to encourage them to introduce a lightweight variant of their Korean-made Aveo/Wave with a high efficiency small displacement engine in the near future. Maybe even a diesel.