DETROIT -- The Geo Metro XFi has been the nation's reigning fuel economy champion for three years running. But not many people know that's because of a deal between General Motors and its Japanese affiliate, Suzuki.
A 'corporate decision' was made preventing Suzuki from selling an equally frugal model under its own name in the United States, a GM vice president revealed recently.
This way, he said, GM could claim the top fuel-economy spot, which would help the top U.S. automaker erase the perception that the Japanese build more fuel-efficient cars than the Americans.
Yet the Geo Metro XFi, which can squeeze between 53 and 58 mpg according to EPA estimates, is a virtual clone of Suzuki's Swift, offered since 1989.
And although it is now being assembled in Canada under a $500 million joint venture between GM and Suzuki, the Metro XFi's engine and other major components still hail from Japan.
Sold by GM's Chevrolet division, the XFi starts at $6,795 and comes only in a truncated three-door hatchback style similar to the Honda Civic. Bright blue or white are the only colors offered.
Placed sideways under its sloped hood is a one-liter three-cylinder engine not much larger than the battery beside it. In the interest of fuel economy, a 5-speed manual transaxle is the only gearbox available.
It cost $7,716 as tested, counting a $285 destination charge and some extras like a rear window defogger ($150), AM-FM cassette stereo ($441), rubber floor mats ($25) and dual sideview mirrors ($20).
Those seeking fuel-drinking amenities like air conditioning must choose another Metro model, like the five-door sedan or convertible versions that return between 36 and 50 mpg.
Still, the Geo Metro XFi evaluated was not at all uncomfortable despite some uncharacteristically warm weather for a Michigan spring. And one week of commuting yielded an average 48.3 mpg -- less than its EPA ratings but still commendable.
The 1,616-pound XFi is surprisingly sprightly despite its tiny engine, which musters a mere 49 horsepower at 4,700 rpm and growls loudly when flogged. Yet its shifter is smooth, its gearing nicely spaced and engine noise is acceptable at highway speeds.
An independent rear suspension and coil springs behind each wheel give the XFi a smooth, supple ride for a car whose wheelbase spans a mere 89 inches. Its manual steering is light at low speeds, yet tight on the freeway.
But its tiny P145R radial tires and 12-inch rims keep it from being a slalom champion when twisty roads are encountered.
The Metro XFi's cabin, although replete with hard plastic surfaces, is sensible and spacious, but sparse.
Its large speedometer is flanked by fuel and temperature gauges. Buttons for the lights and wipers rim the instrument pod and can be reached without taking one's hands off the steering wheel, which also is made of hard plastic.
Its cloth-and-vinyl bucket seats are comfortable, but the XFi is cursed with GM's 'passive' three-point belts, best used in the conventional manner. Its rear seat folds flat to increase cargo space or provides ample room for two adults, in fact more than in many larger cars.
But forget the optional stereo because it is cheap sounding and buzzy. That extra $441 would go a long way toward a superior aftermarket stereo.
Access to routine maintenance items like the oil filter on its tiny engine is excellent.
Although the Geo Metro XFi's doors have a hollow ring to them, fit and finish on the vehicle driven was very good. But the test car, which had about 2,400 miles on it, regularly leaked a small amount of oil even after after obvious items like the oil filter and drain plug were checked.
Despite the XFi's aversion to gas stations, Chevrolet expects the majority of Metro sales to be other models, simply because of a wider array of options and choices.
Still, the Metro XFi is no cramped, rough-riding econobox. In fact it is rolling proof of just how comfortable subcompact cars have become -- and just how frugal small cars can be.
Each Geo Metro comes with GM's three year/50,000 mile warranty, with a $100 deductible per repair visit after the first year of 12,000 miles.NEWLN: