Chevrolet’s new Cavalier has taken off like the space shuttle.
In just its second year on the market since a major overhaul, the Cavalier has rocketed to the top of the compact-car sale charts.
The Cavalier earned the top spot without any rebates or other tomfoolery because it is a solid, high-quality, value-packed automobile.
You are going to have a hard time finding a similar-sized compact that, for the money, offers as many safety features, as much room and the same amenities as our test car, a sporty Cavalier Z24.
In many import showrooms, $16,000 doesn’t get much. At a Chevrolet dealer, you can’t spend much more on a Cavalier unless you opt for the sporty convertible model.
If you’ve sworn off small American cars – and who could blame you based on some of Detroit’s previous clunkers – you’ll be very pleasantly surprised at the Cavalier’s Toyota-like quality.
In Chevy parlance, Z has come to mean performance.
But don’t let the Z24 moniker fool you. Unlike other Chevrolets with a Z in the name (Camaro Z28, Monte Carlo Z34), the Cavalier is mostly show and not much go. It’s sporty-looking but not particularly fast.
The Z24 does deliver snappy performance, and it can be fun to drive. However, if you want tire-screeching performance, you’ll have to look elsewhere.
Unlike many other double-overhead cam 16-valve engines, the Cavalier’s 2.4-liter Twin Cam motor need not be revved hard to deliver strong acceleration at low speeds.
Chevrolet engineers tuned the 16-valve, 150-horsepower engine to deliver most of its power as it is revving up. The 2,788-pound Cavalier moves away from a traffic light fairly briskly, offers decent mid-range power and cruises quietly and efficiently on the highway.
Previousincarnations of the 2.4-liter GM Twin Cam engine were called Quad 4, and they developed as much as 195-horsepower. But GM has virtually overhauled this engine.
Counter-rotating balance shafts cancel vibrations, and several of the engine’s components, such as the power steering pump and alternator, are mounted directly to the engine. This eliminates parts, saves weight and reduces maintenance.
Except for oil changes, the 2.4-liter engine is designed to go without a tuneup until it reaches 100,000 miles. Even the radiator coolant lasts that long.
Our test car came equipped with a five-speed manual transmission. But I also tested a Cavalier Z24 with the optional four-speed automatic. Although the Z24 with the manual transmission shifts smoothly, I prefer the car with the automatic. It performed better and was easier to drive.
The Z24 has a stiffer suspension system than standard Cavaliers. The ride is semifirm and compliant in most instances. Some larger bumps in the road can make the car lose its composure and bounce hard, but that doesn’t happen often.
I was very impressed with the quick, agile, sharp turns our test car c ould make. The turning radius is 35.6 feet; that’s tight. U-turns are no problem, and maneuvering into awkward parking spaces is a breeze. But the Z24’s braking performance could be improved.
The Cavalier needs better brakes. Although the anti-lock system works smoothly, the front disc/rear drum brakes don’t inspire confidence in hard braking. They don’t feel as if they have enough stopping power. Discs on all four corners might be what is needed.
FIT AND FINISH
It’s no accident that the Cavalier feels very much like a Toyota. In Japan, the Chevrolet Cavalier is called the Toyota Cavalier, and the steering wheel is on the right side of the car. The car marks the first time Toyota has put its name on a car built by another automaker.
When you sit inside a Cavalier, it becomes evident why the car is good enough to wear a Toyota badge. It has the same user-friendly features, smart design and comfortable feeling of an import.
The dash, gauges and interior break no new ground in terms of style and layout. The shape of the interior is safely conservative, with all the buttons, switches and controls placed within easy reach of the driver. They also are simple to use.
By using the rotary knobs mounted in the center of the dash below the radio, the air conditioner can be adjusted without diverting much attention from driving. The lights and windshield wiper are controlled by stalk-mounted switches behind the steering wheel. You don’t have to reach behind the wheel to operate anything.
The seats, however, may be a bit too firm. I sometimes found it difficult to get comfortable, especially because the upper portion of the seat is too straight.
The rear seats fold forward and open a passage to the trunk for large items.
Our test car came with just about everything you could want in a small car: air conditioning, cruise control, power windows, mirrors and remote-controlled door locks, cruise control, powerful AM/FM cassette, rear window defroster and more.
If you are in the market for a compact and have your heart set on a Honda Civic, Ford Escort, Toyota Corolla or Dodge/Plymouth Neon, I suggest giving the Cavalier Z24 a solid kick in the tires. You may find, as I did, that none of the others will require as little maintenance as the Cavalier and few can match the value.
Specifications: Base price: $14,200 Safety: Dual air bags, anti-lock brakes, side-impact protection, daytime running lights, front and rear crumple zones Price as tested: $15,840 EPA rating: 23 mpg city/33 mpg highway Incentives: None
Truett’s tip: Chevy’s Cavalier Z24 is a balanced, refined, well-built machine that delivers reasonable performance and excellent value.