The Chevrolet Cavalier has been around since the spring of 1981, and somehow, year after year, General Motors keeps coming back with more - interest in this car has never waned enough to cancel the Cavalier. Despite a glut of reasonably-priced compact sedans on the market, the Cavalier - in both coupe and sedan form - is a common sight on America's highways. This is partly due to rental car fleets (we rented an inexpensive Cavalier coupe just last February), but a fair share of Cavaliers actually end up parked in people's garages. Excuse our stupefied expression.
Our test car was painted an awful shade of blue which Chevy calls "Aquamarine Blue Metallic." As if the car were not homely enough on its own merits, this color ruined it for good. Aside from the exterior color, the sedan suffered from black plastic door handles and side mirrors, and one serious underbite of a front fascia: the squinty headlights are set well aft of the front bumper structure, and the abridged hood doesn't quite form an even seam at the front. As a whole, this car's appearance isn't much improved from the 1982 model year Cavalier.
The drive is memorable because it was the worst we've experienced in a long while. The ride is choppy, the engine's hoppy and the transmission's droppy. Overall, we'd call it sloppy, but that's too many rhymes. Let's just say that the car is unrefined.
The engine needs to redline to find any power, and when it does, it sounds as if it's about to push its way through the firewall and land in your lap. Our test car came with the optional 2.4-liter DOHC four cylinder, which makes 150 horsepower at 5600 rpm and 155 foot-pounds of torque at 4400 rpm. That's an extra 35 horsepower and an extra 20 foot-pounds of torque when compared to the base 2.2-liter engine, which is considerable for a 2,630-lb. sedan. But this is by far one of the noisiest motors on the market. Even at idle, we witnessed the little engine shaking like a caffeine addict going through withdrawal.
The LS sedan comes equipped with a four-speed automatic transmission. The tranny performed adequately under light acceleration, but when we stepped on the gas, the car would run to redline and then heave itself into the next gear. While the motor, thankfully, was not powerful enough to create whiplash, the transmission's behavior is not one of this car's highlights.
The seats are uncomfortable for any length of time due to a lack of thigh or lateral support. That includes the rear seats, though they provided more legroom than we had expected. Up front, tall people will fit surprisingly well, but there's really not enough room in the footwell to rest a big left foot. The rear seatback can be folded flat with a simple tug on a strap, and that makes for plenty of cargo space - enough for a few golf bags, skis or whatever bulky items you'd care to haul around.
Noise is abundant in all directions, and comes from all the elements: earth, wind, water and fire. Road noise is present at all times, wind noise permeates the cabin at highway speeds, and when it rains, water is picked up by the tires and hurled at the underside of the car, much like the sound of a carwash. The engine noise is present mostly during acceleration, but it's always in the background. Cruising at 75 mph, however, the engine turns at only 2,800 rpm, which is probably ideal for noise reduction. The stereo, unfortunately, is not powerful enough to compete with the other less appealing sounds.
On the plus side for this car are braking and handling. The brakes fade moderately at first, but then even out and grip well even when hot. Successive panic stops resulted in little loss of traction from the tires, and the ABS action didn't shy us from the brake pedal. Steering is not quite crisp, but it is consistent and gives feedback from the road without feeling too direct. ndersteer isn't bad, but the motor isn't quite strong enough to induce much understeer in the first place.
The interior of the Cavalier is laid out quite well, but it's made up of the lowest form of materials from the GM parts bin. Black plastic bristles are probably the least attractive of the interior accouterments - they line the inside slots of both shift lever and parking brake handle. Truly, the bristles are the bottom of the barrel in terms of automotive parts. In time, they fray. Just take a look at any early 80's rental car, or any slightly-used windshield scraper brush for an example.
We'd prefer that the stereo controls be positioned north of the climate controls, but otherwise the dash layout is quite ergonomic and easy to read. Our test car's dash-top air vent wasn't attached correctly and as a result was coming loose, but the rest of the interior was assembled well. The only complaint, really, was that he exterior paint was plainly visible through the rear doorjambs. This might not have been a source of gripe, but remember that we really hated the "Aquamarine Blue.".
Our test car came with power windows, which seem a bit out of place in such an economy car. We were constantly in search of the old-fashioned cranks. In fact, if we were considering the Cavalier, we'd skip the options altogether, except for the 2.4-liter engine. Our test car came in at an MSRP of $16,524, which is dangerously close to much more refined cars such as the Honda Civic EX sedan, fully-optioned Toyota Corolla LE or the Chevrolet Prizm LSi.
The Cavalier is in a sort of no-man's land, positioned in the Chevy lineup between the scrappy-yet-economical Metro and the competent Prizm. If you're looking for motorcycle-like fuel economy, look at the Metro. Want an affordable, sensible sedan? Drive the Prizm or Corolla. But with such plentiful competition, the Cavalier is not a vehicle we can recommend.
The word "cavalier" has two very distinct meanings. In one sense, cavalier is a noun meaning a courtly or gallant person such as a knight. In another sense, cavalier is an adjective meaning haughty, unceremonious, or thoughtless. We're guessing that the product planners had the former definition in mind when they named this car, but the alternative definition is intriguingly accurate.