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Chevrolet's mission is, as it has always been, to be GM's value leader in the mainstream of the American car market. So when foreign brands threatened to intrude, it was Chevrolet that was charged with going forth with products that would defeat the imports and defend GM's turf. When it comes to small cars, it has not been an easy or pretty fight.
Chevy's first import fighter (more specifically a VW fighter) was the Corvair, which the division introduced as a 1960 model. Featuring a 140-cubic-inch (2.3-liter), technically advanced, rear-mounted and air-cooled flat-six engine and all-independent suspension, the Corvair was a total break from traditional GM engineering. But while it would produce some sales success (slightly more than 250,000 coupes, sedans and convertibles were sold that first year), it was never as popular as more conventional vehicles like the Ford Falcon. Even worse, that first Corvair soon earned a reputation as an evil-handling machine that attracted Ralph Nader into the world of automotive safety.
Despite the fact that the redesigned second-generation 1965 Corvair solved most of the handling deficiencies, the Corvair was doomed by both Nader's book Unsafe At Any Speed and how GM ham-handedly dealt with Nader and his criticism. The Corvair limped through the 1969 model year and then disappeared — ultimately a technological and marketing dead end for Chevrolet.
More as a response to the conventional Falcon than any direct import competition, Chevrolet introduced the thoroughly conventional Chevy II for 1962. Initially powered either by a simple 153-cubic-inch (2.5-liter) four (basically half a small-block V8, it would become the "Iron Duke" four in the 1980s) or Chevy's ancient 194-cubic-inch (3.2-liter) straight six, the Chevy II quickly evolved into the Nova, with various small- and big-block V8s offered at one time or another. The Nova was something uniquely American: a popularly priced compact that could be configured as anything from a stripped commuter to a full-bore muscle machine. It would leave production after the 1979 model year to be replaced by the front-drive Citation.
By the early '70s, Chevy was still without a car to directly confront the rising tide of four-cylinder competition from Japanese manufacturers like Toyota and Datsun (now Nissan). And that was a situation that couldn't be allowed to persist, particularly since Ford was paying attention to the market, too.
After the Corvair debacle, Chevrolet wasn't going to take any chances with the chassis and handling of its next small car. So when the Vega appeared in 1971 it was about as conventional in general specification as possible. It was a simple unibody structure with stamped steel A-arms acting as the front suspension and a solid axle on coil springs with four locating links in the back. The four-cylinder engine sat in front, longitudinally feeding a conventionally mounted transmission and eventually the rear wheels. While the Vega's 97-inch wheelbase and 169.7-inch overall length meant it was large for a "small" car (the rear-drive Toyota Corolla then on sale was 161.4 inches long and rode on a 91.9-inch wheelbase), it was otherwise pretty much similar to the Japanese competition.
The Vega came in three different body styles: notchback two-door sedan, three-door hatchback coupe and a two-door "Kammback" station wagon. In addition, the wagon was offered with the rear side windows blocked out as a miniature panel van for delivery services and the like. For the car's size, there wasn't much room inside but it was competitive. The notchback used drum brakes at all four wheels, while the hatch and wagon got front discs standard.
The general styling was really quite attractive, with the Vega taking most of its cues from its bigger brother, the second-generation Camaro. A Ferrari-like rectangular grille opening was framed by single round headlights set into the fenders with circular turn signals beneath a slim chrome bumper. In back, the coupe and hatchback used four rectangular taillamps echoing the round ones used on the Camaro, while the wagon's lamps were shaped to fit flush with the fenders.
Inside, squishy soft, fixed-angle, high-back, vinyl-covered bucket seats were used in most models, with the transmission (three- or four-speed manual or three-speed automatic) being controlled by a floor shifter. The instrumentation was rudimentary on base models with a long speedometer stretching out before the driver in a rectangular pod with a fuel gauge alongside it but only "idiot lights" to monitor most other functions. The "Vega GT" (available as a hatchback or wagon) filled that same rectangular pod with circular instruments including a tachometer and used a four-spoke steering wheel that, like the seats, would soon be a familiar sight across the Chevrolet range.
The only innovative element in the Vega was its engine construction. In a bold, nearly exotic departure from normal Detroit practice, the engine's block was made of aluminum even though it retained a large cast-iron cylinder head and cast-iron main caps. Unusually (and ultimately disastrously), instead of using the iron cylinder liners that were common on the era's aluminum-block engines, the Vega engine had its cylinder walls impregnated with silicone against which the pistons would ride. Displacing 2.3 liters with a single-overhead cam acting on two valves per cylinder, the "Vega 2300" four was rated at 90 horsepower when equipped with a one-barrel carburetor.
Car and Driver was initially impressed with the Vega, as it won a six-car comparison test that included the Corolla, archrival Ford's new Pinto, AMC's slightly bizarre Gremlin, Volkswagen's ancient Beetle and the utterly forgotten Simca 1204. "The Vega was the (most) expensive car in the test — by almost $300," the magazine wrote. "In fact, even a naked Vega without a single piece of optional equipment goes for a higher dollar than the as-tested price of the other comparison cars. But the Vega's virtues are nicely in proportion to its price and it was the unanimous favorite.
"The Vega pulled down the No. 1 position because of its particular suitability to American driving conditions. It was one of two cars in the test (the other being the Gremlin) capable of strain-free cruising at 70 mph or above
. The key to the Vega's high-speed capability is its incredibly long 2.53-to-1 axle ratio which allows the engine to loaf along at only 3,000 rpm at 80 mph. This is an essential part of the car's cruising ability since the Vega's overhead-camshaft four is disturbingly loud when revved
. The standard Vega, with its wide-ratio three-speed transmission and long axle feels more like a six-speed with first, third and fifth missing." The magazine also praised the car's plush ride and seating position, while criticizing the heavy-handed interior styling and lack of a traditional glovebox.
In Car and Driver's group of a half-dozen truly sluggish cars, the Vega was the least so, taking 18.6 seconds to complete the quarter-mile with a trap speed of 72.3 mph. From a standing start it took 12.2 seconds for the Vega to reach 60 mph.
Despite competition from the Pinto and a strike at the Lordstown, Ohio, plant where the Vega was built, Chevy was able to get 277,700 buyers into the Vega during its inaugural season.
Except for a slight upsizing of the standard tires, there were practically no changes to the 1972 Vega lineup and Chevy shipped out another 394,592 of them. However, there were ominous signs about the car appearing as consumers were reporting excessive oil consumption and disastrous engine failures. Things would only get worse.
A new, stronger front bumper was the most apparent change for 1973, though new three- and four-speed manual transmissions improved shifting feel and accuracy. A new emissions control system had the engine rerated so that it made 72 horsepower with a one-barrel carb and 85 horses with a two-barrel. Despite increasing grumblings about the Vega's reliability, sales increased to 395,792 units.
Bumper regulations led to a redesign of the Vega's nose and tail for 1974. In place of the attractive egg-crate grille, there was a new shovel nose with eight horizontal slats to let air get to the radiator and, naturally, a new huge bumper. In the back there was another new and massive bumper (to meet the 5-mph impact requirement) and the four rectangular taillights were replaced by two larger square ones. There were essentially no changes to the mechanical package and sales remained incredibly strong with another 452,887 sold.
While the 1975 Vega was visually indistinguishable from the '74, it did feature a catalytic converter for the first time and both power brakes and a tilt steering wheel were added to the options list. The standard Vega engine was rerated once again to 78 hp in one-barrel form and 87 hp with the two-barrel. Sales, however, were collapsing as the problematic nature of the engine was now undeniable — only 204,178 regular Vegas were sold during this model year.
However, there weren't just regular Vegas being sold during '75. At midyear Chevrolet introduced the Cosworth Vega based on the Vega GT hatchback but featuring a special electronically fuel-injected version of the Vega four displacing 2.0 liters and capped by an aluminum, dual-overhead-cam, 16-valve cylinder head designed by the famed Cosworth engineering firm in England. Making 120 hp and backed by a close-ratio four-speed transmission, the Cosworth Vega is today the only Vega with any sort of collector following. And Chevy only built 2,062 of them that first year.
"The 3.11 first gear matched to a 3.73 axle ratio makes the Cosworth Vega tough to launch from a stop," reported Car and Driver. "Unless you sidestep the clutch with the tach at redline, there are a lot of station wagons out there that (will) suck your headlights out from a stoplight. So the shrewd guys who bought off the dealer for a Cosworth Vega will likely not chance soiling its image on the street circuit. In stock trim, the car is perhaps at its best with an adoring public drooling over chrome-plated engine adornments." The magazine measured it getting to 60 mph in 8.7 seconds and completing the quarter-mile in 17.6 seconds at 80.1 mph.
Fat and strangled by emissions regulations and GM's own noise concerns, the Cosworth Vega was a disappointing car in every sense. But it was interesting and, at $6,033.15, expensive, too.
Introduced alongside the Vega for '75 was the Monza coupe and hatchback. Based on the Vega's platform, the Monza was offered with small-block V8 engines in addition to the Vega's four. While effective as the basis for racecars both in drag and road racing, it only sold modestly. And the V8 versions were infamous for needing to have their engines disconnected from their mounts and lifted so that the rearmost pair of spark plugs could be changed.
The Vega was mildly restyled for 1976 with the grille now featuring four slats that ran from headlight to headlight and new taillights that followed the fender contours. The panel truck body was dropped. The rear suspension was redesigned to follow the torque arm design used on the Monza, and to emphasize that GM had fixed all the problems with the Vega engine it was renamed the "Dura-Built." They really hadn't fixed much, however, and that, combined with the car's age and competition from Chevrolet's own bottom-trawling Chevette, saw sales droop to 159,077 units plus another 1,446 Cosworth Vegas (which now had five-speed manual transmissions). The Cosworth would not survive to see another model year.
The last year for the Vega nameplate would be 1977, and most of the changes made were of the most superficial variety. A new cassette tape package for the GT? Whoopee! A total of just 78,402 were sold.
While the Vega name was gone, the car lived on as the wagon body style became part of the Monza line for 1978. The now thoroughly despised and discredited original Vega engine was gone, replaced by a resurrected version of the 2.5-liter OHV "Iron Duke" four whose ancestor had once powered the Chevy II. This heavy and ugly lump of an engine made just 85 hp with its two-barrel carb and yet was still generally considered a step forward from the "Dura-Built."
For those so inclined, Buick's 3.2-liter V6 was now available in the Monzas and the 90 hp and decent torque characteristics of that engine made for a generally pleasant package (by the day's lax standards). Exciting? No, but pleasant. Somewhere around 29,000 of such old Vega bodies were sold during this model year as Monzas.
The old Vega bodies remained unchanged through 1979 and dribbled out a few more sales before leaving the Monza and Chevette to continue on with negligible effect in the small-car market through 1980 and 1981 until the arrival of the Cavalier.
In his memoir On a Clear Day You Can See General Motors the late John Z. DeLorean described the awful arrival of the Vega when he was Chevrolet's general manager. When the prototype Vega finally got to the Chevrolet managers at GM's proving grounds in Milford, Michigan, the front part of the car literally fell off after only eight miles. DeLorean wrote, "It must have set a record for the shortest time taken for a new car to fall apart."
While it's tough to call a car that sold relatively well a commercial failure, the Vega never sold as well as did the Ford Pinto. And even though the Pinto was a legal disaster for Ford, it was never as achingly fragile as the Vega. The Vega was so notorious for engine failures and for rusting badly that junkyards in Southern California would put up signs with two words: "No Vegas."
The Vega has virtually disappeared from America's highways. If you're out driving today you're more likely to see a Ferrari on the road than a Vega. But just because Vegas are rare doesn't mean they're desirable.
After introducing the front-drive Citation as replacement for the Nova during the 1980 model year, it was no surprise that Chevrolet would introduce a front-drive machine in the empty spot in its lineup left when the Vega and Monza disappeared, just above the decrepit Chevette. The 1982 Cavalier would be that car.
In specification, the Cavalier was even more conventional in its time than the Vega was in its time. The basic structure was again a simple unibody and the suspension consisted of MacPherson struts up front and a simple beam axle in the back on coil springs. That was the way small front-drive cars were made back then, and it's pretty much the way they're made today, too.
Like all members of GM's "J-Car" family (which initially also included the Pontiac J-2000, Oldsmobile Firenza, Buick Skyhawk and, most weirdly, Cadillac Cimarron), the Cavalier was relatively large for a small car of its era. Its 101.2-inch wheelbase dwarfed the 94.5-inch wheelbase of the Toyota Corolla, and at 173.5 inches long the Chevy (in sportier two-door "Type-10" hatchback coupe form) was 5.2 inches greater in overall length. What was unusual was the variety of body styles offered: two-door notchback coupe, three-door hatchback, four-door sedan and five-door wagon.
The only engine offered at first was a simple 1.8-liter overhead-valve four with a pushrod-operated valvetrain and two-barrel carburetor. Rated at just 88 hp, the transverse-mounted 1.8 fed either a four-speed manual or three-speed automatic transaxle. It was not an adequate power plant in either power or refinement.
Inside Line's own Kevin Smith, then writing for Motor Trend, found the zip of the Cavalier wagon with the three-speed automatic less than inspiring but with other virtues present. "Accelerating off the line as hard as it can, this family car needs 15 seconds to reach a speed the highway patrol will even notice," he wrote. "But we're going to use the word 'sport' in discussing it. Absurd? Not really. Consider the sports wagon concept: a taut and responsive chassis that delivers a decent level of driving pleasure, combined with the family-type flexibility and workability of a station wagon."
With a 0-to-60 time of 16.4 seconds and the quarter-mile taking 20.7 seconds at 67.2 mph, Motor Trend's wagon was just slow. But it was still quicker than a sedan with the automatic they had tested earlier that took 18.8 seconds to reach 60 and struggled through the quarter-mile in 21.9 seconds. What was the significant difference between the two vehicles? The wagon carried a shorter optional 3.18-to-1 final-drive ratio gear set compared with the sedan's standard 2.84 to 1.
While Smith wrote of power plant improvements that were on the way, he found the Cav's chassis in good shape. "The Cavalier wagon's handling is predictable and reasonably quick," he concluded, "aided by a fast 14-to-1 power steering ratio that comes with the F41 suspension package . Ride comfort remains very good and the car feels firm and stable through medium-fast corners.
"There is room for improvement, of course, as the Cavalier's cornering limit is rather modest. Stiffer springing all around and bigger, performance-oriented tires would be our prescription."
But with a nicely styled, relatively roomy and comfortable interior, the Cavalier wasn't a bad buy. It got a solid sales start during its abbreviated first model year, with 58,904 leaving Chevy dealers and heading into owners' driveways.
The power issue was addressed during 1983 with the introduction of a new fuel-injected 2.0-liter version of the OHV four in the Cavalier, still rated at 88 hp but with better torque characteristics and a more eager personality. Also available was a five-speed manual transmission — second five-speed ever offered on a Chevrolet product after the Cosworth Vega. Late in the model year, Chevy hacked the roof off the two-door notchback coupe to create a convertible Cavalier.
Otherwise, except for juggling some option packages, the Cavalier remained much the same car it was during its inaugural year. Chevy sold 218,587 of them, including 627 convertibles.
A new grille, four headlights and revised taillights made the 1984 Cavalier look both more traditional and more contemporary. The Type-10 package was now available on both the notchback coupe and the convertible. Motor Trend tested a five-speed notchback Type-10 and found it markedly improved. "The combination of a more usable gearbox and improved drivability of the TBI 2.0-liter [engine] elevates the Cavalier from the Terminally Dull category. As a matter of fact, it's now possible to extract something that's not too far removed from performance with 0-60 acceleration in the low-13-second range. While this is not exactly in the nosebleed field, the little Chevy can finally hold its own against most of its American competition."
With the larger Citation's sales collapsing, the Cavalier took up the slack for Chevrolet and it sold 462,611 examples during the '84 model year. That made it the most popular new car in America.
Sales were so robust that Chevy saw little reason to mess with the Cavalier's appearance for the 1985 model year. But there were detail changes like new taillights, a new steering wheel and revised seats for the two-door coupe. However the big news was under the hood, where a V6 engine was available for the first time.
That V6 was the same fuel-injected, 2.8-liter, 60-degree, OHV power plant stuffed into the larger Citation and Celebrity models. Rated at 125 hp, the V6 brought an athleticism to the Cavalier line that had never been there before. The V6 was supposed to be featured in a new "Z24" sports model. Though the Z24 was delayed, the V6 appeared in other Cavaliers.
Car and Driver tested a preproduction Z24 equipped with the V6 and three-speed automatic transmission and found it ripping to 60 mph in only 9.5 seconds and running the quarter-mile in 16.9 seconds at 77 mph. That's hardly spectacular, but solid for the time.
Cavalier sales during the '85 model year remained strong and 383,752 were produced. That was enough for it to retain its position as America's best-selling car.
The Z24 model arrived in full force for 1986, bringing with it lower "ground effects" side skirts, a two-tone paint job and P215/60R14 Goodyear Eagle GT tires on special five-spoke wheels. Upgrades, such as a digital dash display, took place inside as well. The Z24 package was offered on both the notchback and hatchback two-door bodies. Otherwise, changes were slight and sales remained robust, with another 432,101 Cavaliers finding buyers. However, the Cavalier's big brother the Celebrity sold even better and took the title of America's best-selling car.
Both the 2.0-liter four-cylinder and 2.8-liter V6 engines were updated for 1987 and both were now offered with a new Getrag five-speed manual transmission. The four now made 90 hp while the V6's output was variously reported as either 125 or 130 hp (some attribute the discrepancy to exhaust system variations between the Z24 and other Cavaliers). And the Z24 package was now also offered on the convertible. Motor Trend measured a five-speed Z24 making it to 60 mph in a mystifyingly lackluster 9.5 seconds and finishing the quarter-mile in 17.3 seconds at 79.3 mph. Sales remained strong at 346,254 units.
New sheet metal was the most obvious change for the 1988 model-year Cavalier. Gone from the lineup was the three-door hatchback, and the remaining sedan, two-door coupe and convertible got new noses with a slimmer, more contemporary-looking grille. The sheet metal change on the two-door and convertible was even more pronounced, with a "Coke bottle" effect to the profile and a new sleeker, semi-fastback roofline for the coupe. The interior was similarly revised and much more modern-looking.
"The Cavalier Z24 lies well behind the leading edge of technology yet cannot claim the mitigating circumstance of low price," wrote Car and Driver about the '88 coupe. "At a base price of $10,725 the Z24 faces vigorous competition from such players as the Acura Integra, the Volkswagen GTI 16V and the Toyota Corolla FX16. Each of these cars moves at the behest of a modern double-overhead-cam, 16-valve four-cylinder engine, while the Z24 draws on a pushrod V6.
"The car's power unit represents the major character difference between the Z24 and its major competitors, and also explains why the Z24, fun though it is, gives you the feeling you should have seen this car a few years back .
"Instrumentation quibbles aside, the Z24 — at an as-tested price of $13,365 — isn't a bargain, but neither is it unfairly priced. With discounts and rebates having, apparently, become facts of life, you can probably obtain a well-equipped Z24 for something less than that sticker price, a possibility that makes the car's attributes and its price less uneasy as companions."
For the record Car and Driver timed its five-speed Z24 accelerating to 60 mph in 8.3 seconds and running through the quarter-mile in 16.3 seconds at 83 mph. That's slightly quicker than either the then-current Acura Integra LS or VW GTI 16V. Sales of all Cavs during '88 came in at 322,939 units.
If you were waiting for the Cavalier to finally come with a self-aligning steering wheel with an energy-absorbing hub, then 1989 was your year to take the plunge and buy one. Otherwise, the lineup pretty much continued unchanged and Chevy sold another 376,626 of them.
The Cavalier convertible disappeared before the 1990 model year began, and in compensation Chevy poured more power into both the four- and six-cylinder versions of the car by boosting displacement. The four grew to 2.2 liters and now made 95 hp, while the V6 swelled to 3.1 liters and 135 hp. But by this time the car was aging significantly in the market and sales drooped to 310,501 examples.
Miraculously (sort of) the convertible returned to the Cavalier catalog for 1991 along with a shuffling of options and option packages. At the bottom of the lineup was the Cavalier VL (as in "value leader") in coupe, sedan or wagon with the RS a step up from there. The Z24 was available only as a coupe, and the convertible came only as an RS. Sales jumped to 326,847 units for no apparent reason.
The Z24 was again available as a convertible and output of the 2.2-liter engine leapt up to 110 hp for 1992. Sales slumped to 225,633 units however, as the car was a full decade old and buyers were noticing its age.
Detail changes and a lower price carried the car through 1993 and Chevy sold another 251,590 examples.
Further refinements to the 2.2-liter four boosted its power rating to a robust 120 hp for 1994 as the original Cavalier limped through its final season. Another 254,426 Cavs found their way onto America's roads.
The first Cavalier was never a beloved car by the public and many folks were exposed to it only as the cheapest rental at Avis. But it was a long-running sales success for Chevrolet. And that meant the next Cavalier would have a tough act to follow.
The second Cavalier was wider and rode on a longer 104.1-inch wheelbase than the car it replaced, but was actually a bit shorter overall. It was also roomier on the inside and far sleeker on the outside. But at its core it was very much the same car as before; still a simple front driver built around a simple unibody incorporating a MacPherson strut front suspension and a solid rear axle on coil springs in the back.
Considering how closely related the second Cavalier was to the first one, Chevy's most remarkable achievement may have been how distinct the new car was from the older one. With a curving body and grille-free nose, it looked nothing like the old boxy Cavalier and in fact seemed like a more expensive vehicle. It was handsome in a way the original Cavalier never had been.
Missing from the 1995 Cavalier line were the station wagon and convertible body styles and a V6 engine. The base power plant was still the fuel-injected 2.2-liter OHV engine that had been used on previous Cavs and it carried the same 120-hp rating it had before. The standard engine in the Z24 was now the DOHC, 16-valve, 2.3-liter Quad4 engine making 150 hp. The Quad4 was an option in the LS coupe and sedan. A five-speed manual transaxle was standard with either engine, a three-speed automatic was optional with the 2.2-liter four and a four-speed automatic could be ordered with the Quad4. Total sales stood at 151,669 units.
Except for the Quad4's growth to 2.4 liters (it remained rated at 150 hp) and the inclusion of daytime running lights, there was little that was new with the Cavalier for 1996. However Edmunds.com did get its first exposure to the car when it tested a Z24 coupe. Our reviewer had more than a few complaints about the car. "I don't like the awful glare reflected onto the windshield and backlight in direct sunlight," he started his list. "I don't like the way the car keels over on its suspension in turns, though it sticks to the ground just fine. I don't like the way the monstrous (for a car this size) P205/55R16 Goodyear Eagle RS-A tires howl in protest when the Z24 changes direction. I don't like the stereo speakers. I don't like the engine racket that makes its way to the passenger compartment under acceleration. I don't like the fact that my water bottle bounces against the seek button on the stereo when it is placed in the cupholder, interrupting my listening pleasure. I don't like the single-piece folding rear seat because a split-fold would meet my needs better. And, I don't like the fact that the center console isn't designed to hold CDs."
But despite those gripes, there were still some things worthy of praise. "In fact, the Cavalier Z24 is very easy to live with, meeting the specifications of a sport coupe with little effort," our reviewer continued.
"Powered by a zingy 2.4-liter, 150-hp twin-cam engine, the Z24 zooms forward with authority. We prefer a five-speed manual with the twin-cam engine, but our test car's automatic shifted crisply and effectively, providing instant bursts of power when needed. Torque steer is rather evident during hard charges, but is easily controlled. Fuel economy is not sacrificed in the transition from econocar to sport coupe. Hammer the Z24 to redline all week and you'll barely go through one tank of gas. Despite the lack of rear disc brakes, the Z24 stops quickly and assuredly. The meaty Goodyear tires grip well, and steering is quick and communicative, providing a nice blend of power assist and road feel. The suspension, despite our complaints about excessive roll in turns, effectively isolates bumps and broken pavement, offering a smooth ride that doesn't beat up passengers. We think the trade-off is worth it in real-world driving. Chevy designers have created quite an attractive car in the Cavalier coupe, with only some busy styling details marring the front and rear Z24 fascias. Rear headroom has been sacrificed for a sleek profile, with a sweeping roofline that melts into bulging rear fenders. Handsome five-spoke 16-inch alloy wheels and wide, low-profile tires give the car an aggressive stance. Foglights, rocker panel moldings, body color bumpers and a tasteful deck lid spoiler differentiate the Z24 from base Cavaliers."
In the minds of many buyers the good must have outweighed the bad, since Chevy shipped 261,686 Cavaliers during the year — including just 10 LS convertibles (we drove one in a test — who knew it would be so rare?).
Except for some reinforcement to meet stiffer side-impact regulations, the 1997 Cavalier was almost indistinguishable from the previous year's edition. Sales pounded up to 315,136 cars that year, including 1,108 LS convertibles.
All Cavalier convertibles were Z24s during the 1998 model year; otherwise the car changed only in the slightest details. Our test of an LS sedan produced one of the most scathing reviews ever to appear on this Web site. "Our test car was painted an awful shade of blue which Chevy calls 'Aquamarine Blue Metallic,'" our reviewer explained. "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 under bite 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." Ouch. And it just got worse from there.
"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 5,600 rpm and 155 pound-feet of torque at 4,400 rpm. That's an extra 35 hp and an extra 20 lb-ft of torque when compared to the base 2.2-liter engine, which is considerable for a 2,630-pound 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." Despite that brutal review, Chevy managed to sell 238,861 Cavaliers this year.
Except for limited production of a "bi-fuel" Cavalier that ran on either gasoline or compressed natural gas, little changed for the line during 1999. Sales remained strong.
All Cavaliers got a new instrument panel for 2000 that was easier to read, and the upmarket radios included more power and the Radio Data System (RDS). On the outside, the Z24 got a new, more aggressive rear spoiler.
In our nine-car economy sedan comparison test, the Cavalier LS four-door finished in 6th place just ahead of the Dodge Neon, Honda Civic and Toyota Corolla. "Going through the evaluation sheets we noticed consistent mid-to-high scoring in areas like engine, transmission, braking and even tire performance," explained Karl Brauer. "Many drivers wished for more steering feedback and all of them felt the suspension allowed too much body roll and wallow through corners. Still, the Cavalier had no glaring deficiencies when it came to its driving characteristics, so what kept it from placing higher in the evaluation process?
"Digging deeper we discovered that front-seat comfort was a sore spot (literally) with our testers, who complained about everything from a lack of thigh and lower back support to minimal side bolstering to tight legroom. A mismatched height between the brake and gas pedals made rapid transitions between them clumsy, and several editors noted a clicking sound from the instrument panel when traversing bumps. Wind and road noise at highway speeds was noticeable, though not irritating."
The only changes to the Cavalier for 2001 were the deletion of the convertible model, a few modifications to the available sound systems, a new sport appearance package and a new Indigo Blue paint color.
GM's new all-aluminum Ecotec 2.2-liter, DOHC, 16-valve, four-cylinder engine appeared in the Cavalier for the first time during the 2002 model year. While base Cavaliers continued with the ancient OHV 2.2-liter four and the Z24 still had the 2.4-liter Quad4 (though it was no longer called the Quad4), the 140-hp Ecotec was available in the sporty LS Sport Sedan and LS Sport Coupe. Despite being down 10 hp to the old Quad4, the Ecotec was a clear improvement over any previous Cavalier power plant in terms of overall drivability and refinement.
A new nose with a grille that seemed to be smiling was the most obvious change to the Cavalier for 2003. But the most significant change was the adoption of the Ecotec 2.2-liter four across the range as the sole engine offering. The Z24 was gone as the Cavalier lineup was simplified into just three trim levels on both coupes and sedans: base, LS and LS Sport. The standard transmission was a five-speed manual while the optional automatic had four forward gears.
A "sport appearance package" was available on all 2004 Cavaliers that otherwise featured only minor detail tweaks. The car carried on into 2005 unchanged except that there was no bi-fuel car around to ignore anymore.
The Cavalier was finally at the end of its life after 24 years in production. It was more than time for GM to take a swipe at designing an all-new small car.
Built on the same "Delta" architecture as the Saturn Ion and the Europe-only Opel Astra, the 2005 Cobalt is, like the Cavalier before it, a conventional front-driver with a unibody structure, a MacPherson strut front suspension and a semi-independent torsion beam in back. Once again, a transverse four-cylinder engine feeds a five-speed manual or four-speed automatic transaxle. The steering is by electric power-assisted rack and pinion, the brakes are (on all but the "SS") discs up front and drums in back with ABS optional on the base and standard on higher trim levels, and the tires come wrapped around 15-, 16- or (on the SS) 18-inch wheels.
The Cobalt's hull cuts a big wake through the small-car mainstream. At 180.3 inches, the Cobalt four-door sedan is 4.9 inches longer overall than a Honda Civic sedan and 2 inches longer than a Toyota Corolla. At 68.4 inches the Cobalt is also 1.5 inches wider than the Corolla and 1.3 inches up on the Civic. The Cobalt coupe differs from the sedan by being 0.2 inch longer, 1.4 inches squatter and (naturally) having two less doors. The Cobalt's exterior is awkward from some angles (rear 3/4), handsome from others (head-on) and distinctive.
Most Cobalts are powered by the same 2.2-liter, DOHC 16-valve Ecotec four used in the Cavalier. Rated at 145 hp in this application, the Ecotec is 18 horses up on the Civic EX's 1.7-liter four and 15 up on the Corolla's 1.8-liter. Better still, the 155 lb-ft of peak torque out-grunts the Corolla by 30 lb-ft and the Civic by 41. But it needs that power since a base Cobalt sedan weighs 2,868 pounds and the range-topping LT runs 2,989 compared to the heaviest gasoline-fueled Civic sedan at 2,652 and the Corolla LE's 2,615.
But the exciting Cobalt is the SS Supercharged coupe. Running a 205-hp supercharged 2.0-liter Ecotec and a five-speed manual (the same drivetrain as Saturn's Ion Red Line), the SS package includes huge 215/45R18 Pirelli P Zero tires on stunning five-spoke wheels. It also features a huge rear spoiler that's guaranteed to impress everyone in any high school parking lot but impair the driver's rearward vision.
Our full test of the Cobalt SS Supercharged found a car both engaging and frustrating. "We like the Cobalt's sleek lines," wrote our Dan Kahn. "There's a touch of Cavalier mixed in there, but the new car is sleeker and cleaner, like an American compact with European panache.
"The two-door Cobalt may look small, but at 180 inches it's more than half a foot longer than its two closest competitors, the Acura RSX Type-S and Dodge SRT-4 .
"The Cobalt SS Supercharged has absolutely explosive power. The little Ecotec is sedate until 3,500 rpm, when the boost kicks in like an afterburner and the front tires scream for mercy. We noted that the boost gauge maxed out at 11 pounds, but we've got no doubt that Chevy's 12-pound claim is accurate once the engine breaks in and loosens up.
"Torque steer is a problem in front-wheel-drive cars with (lots of) power, and the Cobalt SS is no exception. As soon as the boost hits, the steering wheel starts trying to yank itself out of your hands, so finesse and a firm grip are necessary to keep this beast under control.
"At the track our test car ran zero to 60 in 7 seconds flat and sprinted the quarter-mile in 15.4 at 97 mph. In comparison, a similarly priced Dodge Neon SRT-4 (which is turbocharged) that we recently tested went zero to 60 in 6.3 seconds and ran the quarter in 14.9 seconds at 94.3 mph."
It's much too early to proclaim the Cobalt a sales failure or success. But as it concludes its first year on sale, it only has to last 23 more to match the car it replaced.
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