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1998 Chevrolet Cavalier, Ford Escort, Plymouth Neon

In the not-so-distant past, the Big Three — General Motors,

Ford and Chrysler — owned the game.

The imports altered that, drastically and forever. But the

Detroit-based megacorps continue to be a force, particularly if

you're looking for an inexpensive car. Canada is the most

competitive market in the world, and few cars can profitably toe

the price line if they must bear the burden of a trans-oceanic

ticket.

It should come as no surprise then that four of our six

best-selling cars are smallish domestics — Chevrolet Cavalier,

Pontiac Sunfire, Ford Escort and Dodge/Plymouth Neon.

What makes these cars so popular? And what should you take

into account when trying to choose among them? What follows is

my personal opinion on their strengths and weaknesses.

CHEVROLET CAVALIER/PONTIAC SUNFIRE

Cavalier has been our best-seller for seven years in a row, and

the closely-related Pontiac Sunfire (previously known as

Sunbird) is not far behind. Obviously the Canadian buying public

has been placing its bets on the General's horses, known

internally as the J-cars. Why not, there's a lot to like.

When asked to list the best-looking cars on the road, how many

would mention Cavalier? Familiarity, indeed, breeds contempt.

But it's gorgeous.

Even entering its third year in this body style, the clean

European-influenced lines, minimal ornamentation, nice

wheel-to-body stance, and outstanding proportion still catch the eye.

Three Jcar body styles are offered. We'll dismiss the

convertible right away; the price point takes it out of

consideration for most shoppers in this segment.

The two-door coupe is more swoopy and less roomy a

style/practicality tradeoff typical of a a coupe.

My choice would be the Cavalier sedan, in white, with

after-market wheels and tires and lightly tinted windows — a

sophisticated-looking automobile.

(In all body styles, Sunfire is too ,40 geewhiz for my

taste. Many don't agree — that's why GM offers a choice.)

Coupes account for between 50 and 60 per cent of Cavalier

sales, and around 70 per cent for Sunfire, exceptions to the

oft-stated belief that the coupe market is dead.

Cavalier's interior is roomy, and also nicely designed,

although its color combinations are drab. The quality of both

the trim bits themselves and their installation is better than

it was, but still won't cause any sleepless nights in Toyota

City (or Cambridge, where Canadian Corollas are built).

The Sunfire is, again, more flamboyant in style and color.

Look out for the bright red interior — RayBans are recommended.

I have no problems with the Jcar's front bucket seats, but

some find the lumbar support insufficient. I suggest as long a

test drive as you can arrange. That, or a visit to the nearest

ObusForme backrest outlet.

The J-car mechanical package is adequate.

Two engines are available, an ancient 120-horsepower 2.2-litre

pushrod four cylinder, and a son-of-Quad 4 150-horsepower

2.4-litre twin-cam 16-valve four.

Frankly, there isn't a huge amount of performance difference

in day-to-day driving. Neither engine is a paragon of

refinement. A friend once commented when I fired up a 2.2-litre

Cavalier from dead cold, "Ain't no Honda, is it?" The 2.4 is a

lot better now than the washing-machine-full-of-walnuts

character of the original Quad 4.

The standard five-speed manual isn't a common choice, but it's

pretty good gearbox. Both the three-speed hydraulic and the

newer four-speed electronic automatic options shift well, and

the four-speed comes with a traction assist system which reduces

engine output if wheelspin is detected.

Both trannies are filled with Dexron III fluid, which never

needs changing. This little detail, plus two-sided galvanized

steel for all body panels except the roof, 160,000km

platinum-tipped spark plugs, and ,1,0 five-year/160,000 km rad

coolant, are examples of low maintenance that can save owners a

bundle over the life of the car.

Front struts and a twis-tbeam rear axle are the suspension

basics. Springs are pleasantly firm, and the cars handle

remarkably well.

Anti-lock brakes are standard. Despite the misgivings of some

owners and some insurance companies, I maintain this is a Good

Thing, and applaud The General for bringing this feature to the

lowprice ranks.

In all, the J-cars are a sound package.

Best features: Styling Room Handling Equipment

Worst features: Engine coarseness Variable assembly quality

Seat comfort(for some)

1997 Chevrolet Cavalier

4-door sedan Base engine 120hp 2.2L OHV I4

Transaxles 5-speed man./3-speed aut.

Exterior mm (in.) Length 4442 (174.9) Wheelbase 2510 (98.8)

Width 1866 (73.4) Front seat mm (in.) Legroom 1100 (43.3)

Headroom 963 (37.0) Curb weight (base) 1238 kg (2729 lb.)

Specifications can change at any time.

1997 FORD ESCORT

Ford's Escort has had to handle both subcompact and compact

buyers' needs since the Tempo/Topaz twins were discontinued

(their replacements, Contour and Mystique are priced out of

Cavalier's range). Escort is a notably smaller car than

Cavalier, the toughest selling point Ford has to counter.

The current-generation Escort was developed as a joint venture

with Mazda's 323 and Protege for the 1991 model year.

Rather than join Mazda again for a complete redo, Ford

reworked the existing car last year, saving considerable

development dollars while still ending up with a vastly better

automobile.

The four-door sedan has new sheet metal which follows Ford's

jellybean theme — one they are beginning to abandon,

interestingly enough. The station wagon shares the new front

end, but the rear two-thirds remains pretty much as it was. To

me, both wagon and sedan are on the pudgy side.

Wait a minute, did I say station wagon? That's right. Ford,

forever the "wagon master," has stayed with a concept which

seems the obvious answer to the limited carrying capacity of a

small car.

Ford of Canada's public affairs man John Arnone says it amazes

him that everyone else, apart from bit players like Saturn and

Hyundai Elantra, has abandoned this field. He's just as happy,

though, since wagons make up 35 to 40 per cent of Escort's

business.

Ford has just launched a coupe called the Escort ZX2. Many

have wondered what the Escort label is doing on this car when it

has a unique body, interior, engine and image.

Rumor has it the ZX2 name will stand alone sometime soon.

Escort's smaller size is really only an issue for rear-seat

riders. That said, the ZX2 has pretty good rear cabin space for

a coupe, and the wagon answers any luggage-carrying concerns.

Interior trim, fit and finish are best in this field.

Escort offers what seems to me a weird idea a remote

door-lock system that works only on the driver's door. Ford's

Arnone says the lower cost of this option, versus the all-door

system (also available) has made it popular in this

price-conscious market. Hey, the customer is always right.

Escort sedan and wagon come with a 2.0-litre pushrod four with

split-port induction, which is good for 110 horsepower. ZX2 also

has a 2.0-litre four, but it's Contour's twin-20 ,1 cam 130-pony

16-valver. A five-speed manual and fourspeed automatic are the

transaxle choices.

All-independent suspension provides decent ride and handling.

Anti-lock brakes are an option.

Escort hardly inspires passion. But it's a nicely engineered

small car that should offer workmanlike duty.

Best features: Parkability Fuel economy Interior finish Wagon

Worst features: Dowdy styling Modest acceleration Limited rear

seat room

1997 DODGE/PLYMOUTH NEON

The smash hit of 1994 was Chrysler's Neon. Marketed under both

Dodge and Plymouth brands, the identical-save-for-the-badges

compact sedan proved that 'style' and 'cheap' need not be

mutually exclusive.

The flounder-eye headlights and cheeky proportions made Neon a

delight to behold. A taut suspension and 132-horsepower

overhead-cam 16-valve engine made it a delight to drive.

Harsh reality set in when early examples proved to be poorly

built. The engine lost some of its entertainment value when more

than an hour or so in the car proved hard on the ears. It wasn't

just the volume of the noise, but its harsh character.

The build quality issue seems to have been at least partially

resolved. Richard Russell, who runs C.A.A.'s driver training

programs in the Maritimes, says the new Neons in his fleet have

been exemplary. Various noise-suppression measures have made the

car more pleasant for long-distance cruising.

Neon's interior is spacious and as trendily styled as the

exterior. I find it a fun place to be, but some observers feel

that a car with this much personality ages quickly, and that the

bloom is already off the rose.

In 1995 Neon added a two-door coup — really, a two-door

sedan, since it was identical to the sedan apart from roofline

and door count. To me, it's not as pretty and, with reduced

practicality, it seems an unwise choice.

Neon offers an optional twin-cam 2.0-litre four, producing 150

horsepower. But the torque peak of this engine arrives so far up

the rev range that it's slower in real-world driving than the

lesser engine. Strike two for the option list.

A somewhat clunky five-speed manual and a venerable

three-speed automatic put Neon behind the others in this field in

the transmission department. A four-speed auto has been hinted

at for some time, but we're still waiting.

Fully independent suspension delivers excellent handling.

Anti-lock brakes are, as with Escort, optional.

Neon is the choice in this group for the impoverished

extrovert who wants a sports car but needs a family sedan.

Best features: Styling Driving entertainment

Worst features: Iffy build quality Noise Refinement

MAKING CHOICES

Three choices, then (four, if you count Sunfire separately).

All rate value as their major attribute, so there's not a great

deal of differentiation there. Each is a lot of car for the

buck.

The number of bucks won't be much of an issue either. All

start in the mid-$14,000 range, and can be optioned up to nearly

twenty large. The merchandising of these cars is so fierce that

when one offers, for example, 1.9 per cent financing, the others

aren't likely to be far behind. Apples to apples, prices will be

very close.

Pick the one that best suits your needs, treat it well, and

with a bit of luck, you should enjoy a long and happy driving

experience.

THE IMPORT OPTION

We've concentrated on so-called domestics here, so-called

because they have North American brand names even if they are

built either in the United States or Mexico.

But shoppers should also consider two so-called imports (they

have Japanese brand names even if they're actually more domestic

than any other cars mentioned here). Both Honda Civic and Toyota

Corolla are assembled in Ontario.

Civic is smaller than the other cars in this group, and

Corolla considerably duller. Both offer less power and fewer

features. But both have outstanding reliability records and,

hence, excellent resale value, which helps offset the fact that

you'll pay more for a comparably-equipped new car.

The rest of this field consists of Saturn (the lone other

'domestic'), Volkswagen Jetta and Golf (two more Mexicans),

Mazda Protege, Hyundai Elantra, Nissan Sentra (another domestic

import, built in Tennessee), Suzuki Esteem and Subaru Impreza.

Freelance journalist Jim Kenzie is Wheels' chief automotive

reviewer. You can catch Kenzie each Saturday on Talk 640 Radio

at 4 p.m.

1997 Neon

4-door sedan Base engine 132hp 2.0L SOHC I4 Transaxles

5-speed man./3-speed aut. Exterior mm (in.) Length 4442

(174.9) Wheelbase 2510 (98.8) Width 1866 (73.4) Front seat

mm (in.) Legroom 1100 (43.3) Headroom 963 (37.0) Curb weight

(base) 1238 kg (2729 lb.)

Specifications can change at any time.

1997 Ford Escort

4-door sedan Base engine 110hp 2.0L SOHC I4 Transaxles

5-speed man./4-speed aut. Exterior mm (in.) Length 4442

(174.9) Wheelbase 2510 (98.8) Width 1866 (73.4) Front seat

mm (in.) Legroom 1100 (43.3) Headroom 963 (37.0) Curb weight

(base) 1238 kg (2729 lb.)

Specifications can change at any time.

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