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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

is special.

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

family-oriented buyers.

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

there.

Unquestioned value.

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

competitiveness.

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

pleasingly low.

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.

Chevrolet Cavalier

MODELS AND PRICES

Base 4-door sedan $14,000; LS 4-door sedan $17,310

STANDARD EQUIPMENT

Base model:

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

LS model:

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

guards

ENGINE

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.

TRANSMISSION

Standard: 5-speed manual. Optional (base): 3-speed auto;

4-speed auto (standard LS); front-wheel drive

DIMENSIONS

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

taxes)

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

EXTRA CHARGES

Freight and predelivery inspection $595; federal air

conditioning excise tax $100; Ontario fuel conservation tax

$75

SAFETY WATCH

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

PARTS BASKET

Cost of commonly needed parts, excluding installation: muffler

and tailpipe (aluminized stainless steel) $206; front fender

$216; tail-light assembly $152

WARRANTY

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

COMPETITION

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

RATING

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?).

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