Second-Hand: Chevrolet Cavalier

In 1976, General Motors began planning a car that would drive the imports back into the sea. Five years and $5 billion later, it unveiled the Chevrolet Cavalier

In 1976, General Motors began planning a car that would drive the imports back into the sea. Five years and $5 billion later, it unveiled the Chevrolet Cavalier (along with the Pontiac J2000

(later Sunbird), Buick Skyhawk, Cadillac Cimarron and Oldsmobile Firenza).

To read Car and Driver’s resident carmudgeon, Brock Yates, recount the birth of GM’s import fighter, it was the product of committee-led compromises and bean counting.

The Cavalier, Yates wrote, “proved to be a disaster, economically and technologically.” He described the original J-cars as overweight (thanks to components borrowed from the larger X-cars), underpowered and obsolete from the day they were unveiled in May, 1981.

But his book, The Decline and Fall of the American Automobile Industry, was published in 1983, too soon to see the Cavalier become the topselling nameplate in the US in 1984, and tops in

Canada throughout most of the 1990s.

GM was able to turn an ugly duckling into a swan (at least in terms of sales) through technical upgrades, styling massages and aggressive pricing.

Incredibly, the company recycled the same platform over 13 model years a gutsy strategy, given the competitive small car marketplace. Incredibly, the company recycled the same platform

over 13 model years — a gutsy strategy, given the competitive small car marketplace.

For 1995, the J-car was finally rejuvenated with a longer wheelbase, new front subframe, suspension and body to yield the secondgeneration Cavalier and Sunfire. The second coming, so to

speak, was better received.


The original Cavalier and Sunbird came in four body styles: two-door coupe, four-door sedan, wagon and, for a few years, a three-door hatchback.

Early Cavaliers were powered by an anemic, pushrod 1.8 L four-cylinder motor that produced 88 hp. It was decent power for its time, but the problem was the car’s weight. Displacement was

quickly enlarged to 2.0 L, yielding only two extra horses.

Dissatisfied with the Chevy-supplied engine, Pontiac went its own way and sourced a Brazilian-made overhead-cam 1.8 L used in the South American Monza (GM’s ‘world car’ appeared in other markets as the Opel Ascona, Vauxhall Cavalier, Holden Camira and even as an Isuzu in Japan).

Embarrassed by its wheezy performance, Chevy shoehorned an optional 130 hp V6 under the hood.

Substantial upgrades in 1990 saw the four-cylinder displacing 2.2 L (good for 110 hp), while the ubiquitous 3.1 L V6 churned out 140 hp.

For the second generation, GM dropped the wagon (Saturn picked up the slack) and concentrated on a better-built four-door sedan and swoopy two-door. For the first time, the Chevy and Pontiac versions wore considerably different sheet metal.

The revised platform did not leave any room to squeeze in a V6, so the General offered buyers a 120 hp base engine (having debuted in the oldstyle ’94s), as well as a 150 hp twincam 2.3

L fourbanger to propel the sporty Z24.

With the second generation finally came an optional four-speed automatic transmission, but not right away. Manual transmissions were also offered.


In a Car and Driver road test, a 1993 Cavalier coupe was clocked doing 096 km in 11 seconds — neither embarrassingly slow nor importfighting quick. However, the little coupe

required 217 feet to stop from 112 km/h, appalling performance for a light car with standard antilock brakes.

With 10 additional horses, the second-generation Cavalier was no quicker. But by mounting the master-cylinder booster directly to the stiffened firewall, engineers improved brake pedal feel.

The new steering rack also did wonders for response and refinement.

Improved engine mounts isolated noise at idle and slower speeds, but as the red line was approached, the sound was likened to a Brillo pad dropped in a kitchen disposal machine, noted one critic. Still, it beat the noise emanating from the first-gen four, which one reviewer described as “a flatulent, raspberry moan.”


Bob and Claudine Collings have driven their 1994 2.2 L Cavalier coupe 98,000 km. While the performance and handling, in their opinion, is superior to any Japanese product, they’ve had

some problems: significant rust (including a hole through the trunk lid by the end of the second year), a faulty air conditioning compressor and a failed lockup torque converter solenoid — the latter being a common occurrence, apparently.

The Collings optimistically write their car should last another 10 years.

Don’t believe it? Listen to Neil Aberle, who drives a 1983 Cavalier he purchased in 1995. Mind you, it did pop a crankshaft shim, requiring a n engine transplant from an old Sunbird.

A CV joint, water pump, muffler, battery and a set of rear brake pads later, his hybrid continues to serve him well, having traveled over 250,000 km in perfect anonymity.

“Would I buy another Cavalier? Why not?” he writes.

Milos Borkovic owns a 1997 Z24, the performance model equipped with the twin-cam four cylinder. He was recently handed a $600 service estimate for a new water pump and power steering hose — right after the warranty ran out.

Milos wonders why the faulty items weren’t found during the 60,000 km inspection three weeks earlier.

Despite the litany of mechanical problems described by owners and in the literature, well over 3 million J-car models have been sold. It’s hard to argue with success like that.

The abundance means good prices for used-car buyers. If you can afford it, look for a 1995 or newer Cavalier or Sunfire; the vast engineering improvements catapulted the pair closer to the

head of the economy class. If your budget is more meagre, try to find one no older than 1990.

To say the Cavalier/Sunfire missed the import target is an understatement. Even GM acknowledged it by launching the Saturn project soon after the Jcars went to market. What it did

accomplish, through steady refinement, was a Cavalier that compared well with its domestic competitors. Eventually.

WE NEED YOUR FEEDBACK: We would like to know about your ownership experience with the following models. Please note the deadline dates.

Volkswagen Golf/Jetta, by July 22

Chrysler Intrepid, by Aug. 19

Send your letters and comments to Second-hand, c/o Wheels section, Toronto Star, One Yonge St., Toronto M5E 1E6. Fax 416-865-3996. Email:

Mark Toljagic, a freelance Toronto writer, contributes Second-hand once a month.

    Show Comments