Buyer Beware

Just a quick note to get a couple of things out of the way – we are under no delusion that the Geo Prizm GSi is some sort of ultra-desirable status symbol that is a prime example of rampant car fakery. It’s not a rare muscle car, a one-of-a-handful brass-era machine – it’s an early 90’s subcompact that happens to be built in relatively few numbers.

That said, there is still opportunity for people to take advantage of an uneducated public. In a quest to make this site the central place for Prizm GSi knowledge, we present the following.


This is almost certainly not a Prizm GSi. It’s quite likely that it is also not an LSi. Why is it listed as both?  A spammy list of key words?  The seller doesn’t know?  The motive is uncertain – though the reference to the “same engine as the Toyota Corolla GT-S” would indicate to many readers that the sought-after GSI-specific 4A-GE resides under the hood.

So how can we tell exactly what it is that’s being presented here? Unfortunately, the seller has failed to provide the Vehicle Identification Number (VIN), which identifies the engine type via the eighth number in the sequence.  ‘5’ indicates the 130-horsepower 4A-GE found only in the GSi; while ‘6’ would reveal the vehicle to have the 102-horsepower 4A-FE from the base and LSi trim levels.

A real GSi will have '5' as the eighth number in the VIN.
A real GSi will have ‘5’ as the eighth number in the VIN.

But if you don’t have that information? A few visual clues will help you out. Let’s start on the exterior.

  1. Usually the quickest to spot in a tiny online thumbnail picture – the bumpers. On all base model Prizms (those not LSi or GSi – a NOsi if you will), the bumper covers are black plastic. No matter the body color. Spending the extra dosh on the LSi or GSi packages would net you body colored bumpers. As with most of these exterior clues, these parts may have been replaced with cheaper substitutes in the intervening 25 years, but taken with the following clues as a whole, unlikely.
  2. A trunk- or hatch-lid spoiler was specific to the GSi. And being a trim-specific part, pretty hard to find due to the rarity of the GSi. The factory spoiler is a true lip design – there’s no air space underneath. If you see a spoiler with risers, it’s not factory.
  3. The window frames are blacked out on the GSi. Depending on the date of manufacture, this may be the case on the base and LSi models, but if the window frames are body-colored, it’s either not a GSi or has been repainted.
  4. Badging. All Prizms had badging on the front doors and trunk or hatch identifying the model and the trim line. Granted, not the most foolproof method for confirmation, but combined with these other clues, useful.

Moving to the inside:


5. The GSi was available with one interior color and fabric – gray tweed and velour seats with charcoal plastics on the door cards and dash. Early production models had charcoal vinyl on the front seat backs, but at no point did they have vinyl head restraints.

The interior fabrics on the GSi were a mix of velour and tweed in this pattern.
The interior fabrics on the GSi were a mix of velour and tweed in this pattern.

6. All Prizm trims were available with various power options. The LSi had an available tachometer as an option, while that was standard in the GSi. If there’s no tach, it’s not a GSi. The LSi gauges featuring the tachometer were so infrequently specified that I have no photos to determine if there were differences between the LSi and GSi versions.

The GSi instrument panel. Note tachometer, 120 mph speedometer and oil pressure gauge.
The GSi instrument panel. Note tachometer, 120 mph speedometer and oil pressure gauge.

And finally, the reason we are here at all – mechanical:

7. The 4A-GE engine was only available in the GSi. If the car in question doesn’t look like this under the hood, it’s either not a GSi or a GSi with the wrong engine swapped in.

Prizm GSi engine

For reference, here’s what the 102-horsepower 4A-FE available in lesser Prizms looks like:

Prizm Base and LSi engine
Prizm Base and LSi engine

8. Automatic transmission – the GSi was the only first-generation Prizm to offer a 4-speed auto. The others made due with a 3-speed. In the GSi, you can easily spot the difference on the shift handle – look for the OD on/off switch and the Normal/Power switch at the base of the shifter.

Of course, this not an exhaustive list.  There are many performance improvements that were offered with the GSi – 4 wheel disc brakes, suspension pieces, shock tower brace, etc. But with all of the ways to buy a car without seeing it in person, hopefully these hints will assist in thinning the herd and perhaps helping you find a real live GSi. They’re quite rare out there, but can be found.

Back to the advertisement presented above.  While this ad provides a decent amount of information and photos, the information is conflicting in the text, and seemingly inconsistent with the vehicle pictured.  Is it possible that the car for sale is a true GSi? Sure, but someone went to a lot of trouble to replace GSi-specific parts with those from base model cars.  Why?  Or were the photos swapped out with another Prizm?  This is a more likely scenario if a GSi is actually on offer here.  Dealerships with significant inventories can get hectic and mistakes happen.  The moral of the story here is to do your homework.  Get that VIN – it’s probably as bulletproof of an answer regarding your potential GSi as any.

If you’re shopping for a GSi or any car, buyer beware and good luck.

Leave a comment below if you’ve seen a confusing or misleading ad, or have more information to share on GSi-spotting.

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