The season’s Sackcloth of Shame is hereby awarded to General Motors, for continuing to foist the Chevrolet Cavalier and its clone, Pontiac Sunfire, on an unsuspecting public.
It’s Chevy’s bad luck that I got the Cavalier LS Sport Coupe right on the heels of a Toyota Corolla – a comparison between a vehicle first penned a decade ago and one so fresh it carries a 2003 label is bound to be invidious.
And that’s the whole point – GM must have colossal contempt for the low-end segment if it thinks it can keep a mediocre car around that far beyond its useful lifetime.
There’s one glimmer of good news – the marketplace in its infinite wisdom is sharply discounting the outcast from Lordstown, Ohio, although I’d probably tell someone I cared about to buy a previously-owned, last-generation Corolla in its stead, if price is paramount. (A total reworking of the Cavalier/Sunfire platform, having much in common with Saturn’s recently-revealed Ion line, is expected in 2004.)
Let’s get to the bill of particulars.
Don’t be fooled by the admittedly snazzy job the exterior stylists have done on the version called sport coupe and sport sedan. They’re curvaceous, and bear a respectable paint job. Their big tires and handsome wheels, along with bold “aero” treatments front, rear and side, promise far more than the cars can deliver, however.
The Z24 package used to be the hot tip, Cavalier-wise. It is being phased out in favor of the fresher-sounding sports sibs, while a more purely cosmetic “sport” treatment can be grafted on the base series.
A new engine debuts for the 2002 run. Called the EcoTec 2.2, it’s a more modern piece than those which propelled Cavaliers all those years. All-aluminum, it’s lighter, thriftier with gas and lower in emissions than the clunky pushrod base engine or the hot, well, lukewarm, Z24 powerplant. With twin balance shafts to damp the inherent tendency of an inline four to rock and roll, it is smooth at idle, and climbs to its 5,600-rpm power peak quite willingly.
Rated output is 140 horses and 150 foot-pounds of torque (@4,000). That’s a tad less than what the Z24 2.4-liter twincam offers (150/155), but it garners appreciably better EPA estimates – 24 mpg city, 32 highway. I managed 26.2, giving the optional automatic transmission a workout on mostly rural roads.
Despite having a 10:1 compression ratio, the EcoTec seemed content with the recommended 87-octane fuel, a point of some interest at this end of the automotive gene pool.
A five-speed manual transmission is the standard fitment; the four-speed automatic adds $780 to the asking price.
The automatic did its job quite well. Both upshifts and downshifts were handled smoothly and quickly, and the box seldom got flustered by sudden changes in power demands. The console-mounted shifter must be pulled back into third to negate the long-legged overdrive (fourth forward ratio), with nothing among the instruments to tip t he driver off that she’s now tooling around in third – save the noise level.
The exhaust note of the Sport Coupe was unremarkable, but the intake was buzzy and poorly isolated from the cabin. When the tachometer climbed above 2,000 rpm, the drone became tiresome. In overdrive, each thousand engine turns translates to nearly 30 mph of road speed; in the around-town, 35-45-mph domain, that leads to slight sense of running away, solved by notching down to third. When the speed climbs above 40, the engine drone returns, serving as an audible reminder to upshift.
Traction control is standard with the automatic transmission, though there hardly seems to be enough torque to make the front, driving wheels break away except on wet surfaces. The traction assist is turned off when one manually downshifts to second or first, a situation heralded by a light near the tachometer.
Overall handling was adequate, although it seemed rubbery and vague, despite an unusual amount of feedback through the front tires. The car maintained a heading on the freeway without excessive correction, though it had some tendency, fostered perhaps by the wide, “sporty” tires, to follow road creases.
The LS Sport coupe sits on 205/55/R16 tires mounted on expensive-looking chromed aluminum wheels. It’s a good thing GM didn’t find it necessary to mount high-speed, i.e., stiffer tires, for with the 55 profile, the standard skins were rough enough. Overall, they felt as if they were many pounds overinflated, though they weren’t – it was not very long before the ride became unpleasant.
The tires do afford good grip, though, and that showed also in braking tests, where the Cavalier did reasonably well, despite having somewhat smallish discs at the rear. Antilock is standard, to GM’s credit, and performed correctly without any alarming feedback.
Noise level at freeway speeds was a bit above touring comfort levels, but the noises that got me the most were the unseemly clunks and groans emanating from the chassis. When I exercised the machine over less than optimal roads, it sounded as if the suspension members weren’t firmly bolted together. This kept me from any overenthusiastic exercises, which would have been difficult anyway, given the lack of support from the seats. Though the coupe stands only 53 inches high, it was fairly easy to get into. Once aboard, however, I felt somewhat cramped behind the wheel, even with the driver’s seat full back.
There were two map lights mounted overhead, a good thing per se, but their switches resided in the headliner, which seemed to be lightweight cardboard covered with fuzz – a very cheap feel.
The seatbelt wasn’t as hard to reach as on some GM mistakes, but the guide for it – mounted atop the seatback, was next to useless thanks to an inept design which allowed the belt to break free.
The basic four instruments were well-placed and highly legible, white on black. The tachometer and speedometer seemed rather small, while the other two were disproportionately large.
All in all, Cavalier would get a mediocre rating, were it not for the crash-test results.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which uses a five-star scale, gives it three stars for driver protection in a frontal impact, while the co-pilot has a more respectable four-star aura. In a side impact, however, front-seat occupants have only 1-star protection, while those in the rear are a little better off, with two stars. Either way spells a high likelihood of injury. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety uses a 40-mph frontal-offset crash into a barrier to gauge occupant protection. It gave the Cavalier its worst rating – poor, a shameful distinction it shares only with the Daewoo Leganza and its cousins, the Pontiac Grand Am/Oldsmobile Alero.
The institute considers the Cavalier an inexpensive mid-sized car, and thus compares it with such as the Honda Accord (acceptable overall), Subaru Legacy (best pick), Dodge Stratus and Mazda 626 (good). Chevrolet defines the competition as the Dodge Neon, Honda Civic and Ford Focus. IIHS gave the Civic and Focus its top rating – good – while the Neon was graded marginal. The 2002 Corolla, to return to a point I made above, was rated acceptable. I think these tests deserve heavy weight, particularly in the case of cars aimed at a youthful, accident-prone audience.
The Cavalier I tested bears a base sticker price of $16,280. The automatic transmission was the only option, at $780. With freight, then, total asking price was $17,600.
Edmunds.com estimates you can get one for about $1,000 less – still no bargain, in my opinion.
Payments on a $17,600 car would be $357, assuming 20 percent down, 48 installments and 10 percent interest.