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1982 Chevy Chevette - Diesel Chevette Road Test

Were '80s Diesels Really As Bad As We Remember?

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Diesels that were built during the 1980s are almost single-handedly responsible for the public's general perception of diesel cars as slow-moving, smoke-belching horrors of the road. It also didn't help that most diesel cars, fullsize or not, had roughly 12 horsepower. OK, so some had more like 100 hp, but none were turbocharged or direct injected, and some were really heavy. Can you imagine trying to get a 5,000-pound diesel Lincoln moving with less than 100 horsepower? You'd have better luck parking it in Neutral during a strong storm. To find out if our perception of these vehicles was accurate, we decided to buy an '82 diesel Chevette five-speed and give you a full report on our findings.

Mentioning the word "Chevette" to automotive enthusiasts often elicits uncontrollable laughter-add the word "diesel" and people start rolling around on the ground in hysterics. Rated at a dyno-melting 51 horsepower from the factory, it's one of the few cars that wasn't offered with air conditioning because the engine couldn't maintain the car's road speed and spin the A/C compressor.

We found this rare diesel Chevette in Wichita, Kansas, and decided it was in good enough shape to make it all the way back to California where it would become the official "parts-runner" of Diesel Power magazine. Actually, saying it was in "good" shape is a little misleading, as the previous owner practically restored the thing. Since we average about 18 miles per hour on our drive to work, and spend most of our time either driving or sitting about 6 inches from the car in front of us, we figured a diesel Chevette would be the perfect car to drive here in L.A. So, we flew out to Kansas and packed up the car with supplies and parts donated from its previous loving owners and headed out with our foot to the floor, and our naturally aspirated 1.8L diesel causing us to...well, sort of accelerate. We only made it about 70 miles out of Wichita before the transmission gave up. After a spare was installed, we decided not to give it a second shot, and instead elected to have it shipped out to California.

Associate Editor Jason Sands' California Driving Log:
Where'd all my horsepower go? Going from a 300hp Dodge to a hopped-up lawnmower engine is just no good at all, although the fuel gauge seems to be permanently glued on "full." The car actually does a decent job of keeping up with traffic as long as you let the engine wind up (apparently the little 1.8L Isuzu makes power all the way up to 5,000 rpm!). The transmission that was installed feels old and clunky because it is, and there is a healthy grinding noise that accompanies the First-to-Second shift. The brakes and suspension feel as good as any new car, and we have to attribute that to the previous owner replacing the brakes, springs, tires, and steering rack. Believe it or not, there's also enough room for a pretty big guy to drive or ride in it, although the back seat only has enough space for legless dwarves. Honestly, we're more than happy with the car's acceleration, ride, and handling-we figured a 51-horsepower car would be painfully slow, but it doesn't feel all that horrible, mostly thanks to its 2,210- pound curb weight. It'll do 0-30 mph in about four seconds, which isn't too bad, but it takes an agonizing 17 more seconds to "accelerate" from 30-60 mph, giving a 0-60 time of just over 20 seconds. The lesson? Stay in the city with this car. Once you're up to speed, the car does OK-it was even able to keep above 55 mph on a six-percent grade. Another cool aspect of this car is that you can actually idle along in First gear at about 2 mph, making it perfect for stop-and-go Los Angeles traffic. Final summation? This is a killer commuter car-just don't ask it to do anything it wasn't designed to do (like passing). Besides, we doubt we could find another reliable (we hope!) car that could exceed 50 mpg for $2,500. DP

What Really Matters - Chevette Fuel Log:

MILES DRIVEN: 239 MILEAGE: 43.8 mpg
NOTES: Some city traffic, but mostly 65-70 mph on the highway.

MILES DRIVEN: 196 MILEAGE: 42.7 mpg
NOTES: Small town city driving, some freeway, mostly 35-65 mph, hardly any sitting in traffic.

MILES DRIVEN: 239 MILEAGE: 44.3 mpg
NOTES: Constant 70-75mph freeway speeds. No city driving.

MILES DRIVEN: 106 MILEAGE: 59.1 mpg
NOTES: 55 mph, coasting down hills, drafting behind semis, anything to get the best fuel mileage possible. Could be a fluke, will try to duplicate.

MILES DRIVEN: 215 MILEAGE: 37.2 mpg
NOTES: Back and forth to work, sitting in traffic for at least two hours a day, score one for L.A. gridlock.

MILES DRIVEN: 261 MILEAGE: 56.2 mpg
NOTES: Constant 55 mph, coasting down hills, second 50-plus mpg reading!

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