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Chevette, an old-timer on road, still rates as a top performer

The Chevrolet Chevette has been around for a long time--since the mid-'70s, in fact, when it was rolled out of its packing crate in Washington, D.C., so that the politicians could see that an American automobile company was doing something about saving gasoline on the road.

It hasn't changed much in all those years except that it now offers a diesel engine under the hood.

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Plain, unpretentious, not particularly pretty-- in other words, just a car for getting from one spot to another at low cost--the Chevette has earned itself a secure spot in the annals of America's post-oil-embargo effort to provide high mileage at a price that almost everyone can afford.

It's consistently in the ''top 10'' among fuel-savers on the highway.

No frills here; just plain--that's plain--honest value in today's marketplace except when one of the cars has problems which GM had not expected.

Unlike the all-new Chevrolet Camaro, the Chevette will never turn a head on the highway nor will a pedestrian even know it's around, but that's not what a Chevette is all about.

With a Japanese-built 1.8-liter diesel engine turning the wheels, the Chevrolet Chevette will give 45 to 50 miles a gallon without half trying. That has to be impressive to anyone interested in saving money at the fuel pump. Obviously, the 1.6-liter, 4-cylinder gas Chevette gets less.

Diesel startup is almost instantaneous with the delay, even in the coldest days of midwinter, no more than a few seconds at best.

The car handles well, although the ride can be somewhat choppy on a rough road because of the short wheelbase; is comfortable to sit in--at least in front--and the visibility is good. The rear seat is a much tighter fit. Still, the car just purrs along without making any pretense for being what it is not. It isn't a shapely car, it isn't a dreamboat on wheels, it isn't a style-setter--no way.

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The Chevette comes with either two or four doors. A base two-door with a gasoline engine under the hood and 5-speed manual transmission prices out at not much over $5,000. A better-equipped car with the 51-hp diesel, however, runs up to $7,000 or so. The model I reluctantly turned back to the Chevrolet people in Boston not long ago was list-priced at nearly $6,800.

Wheelbase is 97.3 inches and the length in the coupe version is 161.9 inches. The four-door sedan has three inches more length.

What is particularly impressive about the diesel-engine Chevette is its perky performance on the road. Obviously, it isn't going to compete with a long list of other much-more-expensive cars around. But it still picks up fast and passing another car proved no feat at all so long as reasonable care is exercised by a driver. You learn to upshift fast in a diesel so as to keep up the torque so far as you can.

Obviously, a diesel is not known for being a silent performer when on the road. This Isuzu-equipped Chevette is no exception to the rule, especially at lower speed. But after a while the diesel hum just blends into the other highway noises and does not disturb.

There is, however, a lot of vibration in the gearshift lever at the lower speeds. Let it throb. Who cares?

The US auto industry is making a massive, and incredibly costly, shift to front-drive cars almost across the board--$80 billion by some estimates over less than a 10-year span. With cars getting smaller and lighter these days so as to stretch the distance between fuel-pump stops, there still is a place for a not-so-modern configuration such as the Chevette.

A diesel engine calls for, even requires, strict maintenance so as to keep it in shape.

Simply, the oil has to be changed regularly--Chevrolet says every 3,750 miles--and at every other oil change the filter should be replaced. Both fuel and air filters require changing at 30,000 miles. In total, the negatives did not overwhelm the positives in the car.

While you may not take a trip in style with the Chevette, you still should have some money in your wallet when you turn off the ignition and set the hand brake.

That makes sense to a lot of people these days.

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