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The Chevrolet Corsica Made It Bearable to Work for a Rental Car Company

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author photo by Aaron Gold September 2016

Ah, the Chevrolet Corsica, darling of the rental fleets and symbol of all that was wrong with General Motors. The Corsica has the distinction of actually being born as a rental car. GM first circulated the cars to fleet customers in 1987 before inflicting them on the general public. If you owned a Corsica, chances are Avis or Dollar owned it first.

Of course, it was the Corsica's hot sister, the 2-door Beretta, who got most of the attention, and deservedly so. With rakish-for-the-time shape and door handles concealed in the B-pillars, the Beretta was the coolest thing this side of a Camaro. Chevy produced some surprisingly credible performance versions of the Beretta, including the GTU and GTZ, the latter of which featured Oldsmobile's hot Quad 4 engine and a Getrag manual that would actually go into the gear you wanted, which at the time, was quite the novelty for an American car.

The Corsica and Beretta were signs of a budding internal revolt against GM's badge-engineering badness. While other divisions shared the cramped N-body cars (Grand Am/Calais/Somerset Skylark), Chevrolet did their own thing with the L-body Corsica, reportedly an N-body with a few J-body (Cavalier, etc.) bits out back. The Corsica and Beretta even received different taillights. How that made it past GM's fastidiously parsimonious bean counters is beyond me.

None of this changed the fact that, as a family car, the Corsica was useless. It had a small trunk and a back seat with virtually no legroom whatsoever. Notice the plain grille and the complete lack of body adornment, which made the body panels easy to stamp, cheap to repair and forgettable to look at. Once you experienced their stupid door-mounted seat belts (set way too far forward, due to the Corsica's short doors), you understood why GM was in trouble.

There was, however, one thing setting the Corsica apart from other rental cars, one very, very awesome thing. You expect rental cars to have the cheapest powerplants offered, and usually, you'd be right, but the Corsica was the exception to the rule. Every Corsica that came through my rental agency and, as far as I could tell, every Corsica owned by other chains at the time had the optional 3.1-liter V6 engine.

I can't even begin to tell you the joy this engine brought to the otherwise dreary lives of rental-car lot-monkeys, like my colleagues and me. One hundred and forty horsepower wasn't much, but these engines produced one hundred and eighty-five pound-feet of torque, enough not just to chirp the tires but to leave actual streaks of rubber on the pavement. A skilled lot-monkey could, in theory, write their name on the pavement using only a Corsica and a stooge to distract the rental agents. (I always chickened out halfway through the G.)

The Corsicas also taught us the joys of computer-controlled multi-port fuel injection. This was our first experience with a rev limiter, and we took great joy in flooring the cars in Park. Furthermore, if you cranked them at full throttle, they would not fire (the engine control unit was assuming, I assume, that the engine was flooded, and you were attempting to clear it), which was always good for nailing the rental agents with the ol' some-guy-left-a-car-in-the-red-zone-and-now-it-won't-start gag.

Invariably, 95 percent of the Corsicas we received were painted white. They often shared door keys, as well. (These were the days when the term "car keys" was still properly phrased in the plural.) We once mixed up the keys on three truckloads of new Corsicas and discovered we could usually get the doors open, but the ignition keys wouldn't work. It took us the better part of half a day to sort out which keys went with which car. Nonetheless, we were happy as could be; any diversion from vacuuming cigarette butts out of ashtrays for five bucks an hour was welcome.

In the past 10 years, I've seen maybe two Corsicas on the road, and both times, I felt like I was greeting an old friend. If you ever have a chance to drive one of these pathetic gems (maybe your grandmother is a retired Alamo manager) do a burnout for me. Finishing off the G is the trickiest part.

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This image is a stock photo and is not an exact representation of any vehicle offered for sale. Advertised vehicles of this model may have styling, trim levels, colors and optional equipment that differ from the stock photo.
The Chevrolet Corsica Made It Bearable to Work for a Rental Car Company - Autotrader