1996 Chevrolet Cavalier
I don't remember exactly where I saw this particular car. It
was on the west coast, probably in California.
It was a compact four-door sedan. Refrigerator white, with a
moderate tint on the windows, simple after-market wheels with
what may have been slightly lower-profile tires.
Two things struck me about this car:
One, what a fine-looking piece. Nice proportions, flowing
shapes, cohesive integration front to rear, very little
ornamentation — the essence of a European sports sedan.
Two, it was a 1996 Chevrolet Cavalier.
It's tough enough to get tasteful yet innovative styling past
the market researchers and bean-counters today, even in
high-priced cars — witness the recent unfortunate and allegedly
marketled changes to the Infiniti Q45.
But for an economy car, the country's best-selling automobile,
to also be one of the country's best-looking cars — well, that
Dual credit here, to Chevy stylist John Cafiero and his staff,
for coming up with the car in the first place; and to General
Motors management, for building it.
I've been a fan of the new-generation Cavalier since its
inception, nearly two years ago. I had always said that the old
Cavalier would be 200 per cent better if GM put about 10 bucks
more into the suspension and 20 bucks into its structure. They
did. It is.
Dual air bags. Anti-lock brakes. Folding rear seat back.
Steering column stalks. Round HVAC controls. Cupholders all over
the place. Scotchgard fabric protector — a lot of Cavalier
owners have young kids. High-torque motor. Lots of room. Theatre
dimming the interior lights fade to black when you close the
door, instead of instant blackout; a nice, luxurycar touch.
There's even a left-foot dead pedal. All this for $13,600
(coupe), or $14,000 even (sedan).
Add automatic, air and a radio, and you'll barely top 16
grand. It gets better, because even GM admits few Cavaliers are
sold at full retail pop.
Last time I drove a Cavalier, it was the full-zoot Z24 coupe
(Wheels, Aug. 5, 1995). This time, I requested from GM Canada
a sedan resembling as close as possible the model the public is
actually buying. Sedans currently make up about 40 per cent of
Cavalier sales; there are more competitors to choose from than
for the Cavalier coupe or convertible.
Mine was the most popular version, the base (as opposed to LS)
trim, with the oneup option package, consisting of AM/FM stereo
four-speaker radio, floor mats, left-side visor vanity mirror
and intermittent wipers — a $645 bargain.
Automatic transmission has a 90 per cent takeup rate — 76 per
cent choosing the three-speed box for $715; a 14 per
cent-and-rising slice paying the extra (and worthwhile) $315 for the
four-speed, which includes traction control. As more import
owners do the pricedriven defection to domestics, Chevy expects
increased popularity for the slick and standard five-speed manual.
My tester had the four-speed auto — my recommendation for
Air conditioning is almost a must these days; the hot humid
weather that jumped all over us last week made me glad my car
was so equipped.
It had a few toys: a tachometer ($40; few choose it,
especially with automatic); tilt steering (a hefty $190 keeps
its popularity down to 30 per cent); a radio upgrade to include
a cassette player ($215; virtually mandatory for me); power
locks ($325; but again, well worth it when you have kids);
remote keyless entry ($175; rare in this price range, but
increasingly valued as a security feature); and 15-inch
BF-Goodrich T/A Touring tires, in place of 14-inch Goodyear
rubber (cheap at $170; but I'm not sure the ride/handling
tradeoff would be appreciated by most Cavalier intenders).
This adds up to a shade under $18,000; you can easily do a
nice Cavalier sedan for closer to $17,000, and dicker from
My question, though: is the Cavalier still as impressive,
nearly two years after launch? It's a tougher marketplace now.
While Chrysler's Neon seems to have peaked, Ford's nicely
reworked Escort is just hitting the streets, the new Hyundai
Elantra is impressive, and several Japanese contenders have
played with their price/content ratio, to increase their
Two black marks against Cavalier right from the getgo: the
front doors don't open very wide; fling one open, it bounces off
the doorstop and rebounds to smack you right in the face.
Second, when you fire the ancient 2.2 litre pushrod engine up
from cold, you're instantly reminded that this ain't no Honda.
It's probably no louder, especially at full throttle. But the
quality of the sound is harsh and unpleasant.
Impressions improve as the klicks tally up. The seats are firm
and supportive, if maybe a shade short in thigh cushion for
longer-legged drivers. There's lots of room in every dimension.
Ergonomics are generally good, although I find the chunky
steering column stalk is a bit far from the steering wheel rim
for fingertip access. And the manual leftside mirror can barely
be adjusted far enough outward to expose the blind spot. Drivers
who sit farther back than me will find it even worse.
Because of the engine's broad and high torque curve, you don't
have to dip very far into the revs to achieve a satisfactory
rate of advancement. This also means real-world noise levels are
The automatic transmission works as well as just about any in
the business, at any price level. Likewise the steering. Nothing
fancy here: no variable this or electronic that. Just nice,
linear feel; low but not too light effort, good feedback.
The optional tires do impact the ride, and I use that word
advisedly. It's not too harsh, but on our deteriorating road
surfaces, we need all the cos setting we can get.
The wider tires undoubtedly improve ultimate cornering power,
but that's hardly what Cavalier is all about. The regular rubber
does a good enough job.
Some competitors scoff at Cavalier's cheap anti-lock braking
system. Maybe it doesn't have the rapid pulsing capability of,
say, a Porsche. But it is ABS, and it does work. I was asked to
put on a demonstration of ABS for the safe driving assembly at
Robert Hall High School in Caledon Village the other day, and it
did the job perfectly. I maintain that cheap ABS is better than
no ABS at all. And, it's standard equipment.
This Cavalier was assembled in Lordstown, Ohio. Previously,
Cavaliers destined for Canada came exclusively from the Ramos
Arizpe plant in Mexico. The car was tight and rattle-free, but
I'm not sure the trim was as well fitted as on Mexican cars I
have driven. The lesson: if you have a Mexican car, fear not.
In the final analysis, it's true that the new domestic
competitors to Cavalier are genuinely improved.
It's true that recent iterations of the Asian-nameplate
entries are perhaps more refined than Cavalier, but are still a
couple grand more expensive, comparably equipped. You may make
that up in the long haul with lower depreciation. But then
again, you may not. And if your budget can't support that extra
two grand, it's academic anyway.
It's also true that Chevrolet Cavalier still stands as a top
pick in the economy sedan stakes.
MODELS AND PRICES
Base 4-door sedan $14,000; LS 4-door sedan $17,310
dual air bags; anti-lock brakes; child-proof rear
door locks; adjustable front shoulder belt anchors; PASS lock
theft-deterrent system; dual sideview mirrors; tinted glass;
fixed-interval intermittent wipers; centre console with dual cup
holders; Scotchgard fabric protector; theatre-dimming interior
lighting; remote trunk release; folding rear seat backrest;
battery rundown protection; aluminized stainless steel exhaust
system; power rack and pinion steering; block heater
as above, plus: 4-speed automatic transmission,
including traction control; 15-inch wheels and touring tires;
air conditioning; front and rear floor mats; full
instrumentation including tachometer; dual visor vanity mirrors;
AM/FM stereo cassette 4-speaker radio; deluxe cloth upholstery;
trunk cargo net; body color bodyside mouldings; front wheel mud
2.2 litre 4-cylinder, OHC, 120 h.p. at 5200 r.p.m.; 130
poundfeet torque at 4000 r.p.m. Optional (LS only): 2.4 litre
4cyl. DOHC 16valve; 150 h.p. at 6000 r.p.m.; 155 poundfeet
torque at 4400 r.p.m.
Standard: 5-speed manual. Optional (base): 3-speed auto;
4-speed auto (standard LS); front-wheel drive
Manufacturer's figures: WB 2644 mm; L 4580 mm; W 1725
mm; H 1393 mm; front headroom 989 mm; rear headroom 946
mm; trunk capacity 385 litres / 13.6 cubic feet; fuel tank
58 L; weight 1214 kg
PRICE, AS TESTED
Base model, plus options: $17,830 (excluding extra charges and
OPTIONS ON TEST CAR
Preferred equipment group 1SB, including variable-delay
intermittent wipers, AM/FM stereo 4-speaker radio, front and
rear floor mats, dual visor vanity mirrors, body color bodyside
mouldings $645; air conditioning $1,035; 4-speed automatic
including traction control $1,035; power door locks $325;
radio upgrade with cassette player $215; tilt steering wheel
$190; remote keyless entry system $175; 15-inch wheels with
touring tires $170; tachometer $40
Freight and predelivery inspection $595; federal air
conditioning excise tax $100; Ontario fuel conservation tax
Dual air bags: std.; anti-lock brakes: std.; meets 1997 U.S.
side-impact standard: yes; theft deterrent system: PASSKey,
std.; height-adjustable shoulder belts: std.
TRANSPORT CANADA FUEL ECONOMY
City: 9.9 L/100 km; highway: 6.8 L/100 km; estimated maximum
range (tank capacity x 100 / highway fuel consumption): 853 km
Cost of commonly needed parts, excluding installation: muffler
and tailpipe (aluminized stainless steel) $206; front fender
$216; tail-light assembly $152
Entire car 3 years, 60,000 km (no deductible, no transfer
fee); rustthrough 6 years, 160,000 km; roadside assistance
3 years, 60,000 km
Ford Escort: smaller than Cavalier, but nicely upgraded to
serious contender for 1997; Dodge/Plymouth Neon: pretty, perky,
a bit rough, a sports sedan rather than a family sedan; Mazda
Protege SE: best of Japanese entries, but still down on
equipment to Cavalier, dollar-for-dollar; Honda Civic: '96
version better car, better value than '95; Toyota Corolla:
nobody was ever sorry to buy one of these, even if pricey;
Hyundai Elantra: swoopy styling, good mechanical package, yet
another tough competitor
Kenzie's rating: 9.0. (14: yeah, it's a car; 56: it's got
price going for it; 78: good value; 9: great value; 10: where
do I sign?).