Chevrolet Cavalier soldiers on another year, outdated and outgunned by the imports but still offering solid and sporty transportation at a bargain price.
Cavalier remains the best selling automobile for all of General Motors. Cavalier was revamped in 1995 with a new body and interior, plus mechanical upgrades that turned it from a chunky economy car into a tight and sharp-looking little cruiser.
For 2003, the basic shape remains, though freshened with new front and rear styling, and can be ordered with monochromatic body parts, a new spoiler and 16-inch aluminum wheels that make the little Chevy look something akin to a tuned import.
There’s also a new standard engine, a twin-cam four that delivers 140 horsepower.
But let’s not forget the major upgrade best appreciated by the young target audience: optional XM radio that offers 100-channel, fade-free audio. For those who believe a great audio system is the key component to a great ride, Cavalier has taken on a new sheen.
What it is:
Cavalier is Chevrolet’s cheapest car, a little runabout with a stylish body that’s an enduring favorite among young drivers, especially females.
Cavaliers rest on a platform that’s more than two decades old, and small-car engineering has moved a long way since then. Steering and handling are responsive but lack the sophistication of the import brands. GM promises that Cavalier will be upgraded to the platform of the new Saturn Ion in the near future.
Engine and transmission:
The standard “Ecotek” engine is a four-cylinder, aluminum 2.2-liter mill that also is found in the Ion. With 140 horsepower, Ecotek has plenty of pull for this 2,600-pound car. This is a major improvement over the standard 115-horse engine that formerly struggled to motivate Cavalier.
The downside to Ecotek is a noisy harshness that compares unfavorably with smooth four-bangers such as those found in Honda Civic and Mazda Protege. This is a problem with GM fours. They put out decent power but feel downright agricultural. GM has expended serious time and money to quiet this engine, including the installation of twin balance shafts. It could still be better.
The five-speed stick shift felt notchy, though the gears were well-spaced for performance.
Though Cavalier sits on an ancient chassis, the steering and cornering are crisp and responsive. The steering would benefit from less power boost and more road feel. It helped that the LS Sport Coupe as tested comes standard with a firmer sport suspension and low-profile performance tires, with rack-and-pinion steering standard across the board. The old platform becomes noticeable over rough surfaces, when Cavalier is felt flexing, vibrating and skittering to the side. Otherwise, the ride is secure and comfortable.
Front-disc, rear-drum brakes are unexceptional, with fairly good stopping power . Anti-lock is standard in the upgraded LS, optional on the base models.
The two-door sport coupe, in bright yellow, looked appropriately sporty with monochromatic trim, rear spoiler, integrated fog lamps and lower body ground effects. The Cavalier still tends toward the cute side of the equation, and the overall style seems more appropriate to a young female than a snarling boy racer. The 16-inch aluminum wheels look very sharp.
The body design is 8 years old, and although updated for 2003 and reasonably attractive, it doesn’t really stand out as anything special. Hopefully the next transformation will bring Cavalier’s looks up to date.
The front seats have been upgraded, becoming more supportive than those in past Cavaliers, but the interior is cramped for anyone taller or bigger than average. For this tall driver, finding a comfortable driving position was impossible, settling for a tilted-up steering wheel and re ard-raked seat.
The rear seat supposedly has room for three abreast, but only young children or really small adults will find happiness back there. Otherwise, treat it strictly as room for two.
Side-impact air bags are standard for 2003.
The XM satellite radio is great. Bluegrass to modern jazz, comedy to Top 40, hip-hop to country, it’s all there.
Cavalier’s ace in the hole is a modest price tag for this attractive, well-equipped car. This is a benefit of keeping a vehicle for years on the same platform with minimal style changes. The LS Sport Coupe starts at $16,625 with a nice collection of standard features. The test car included a sunroof at $595 and XM radio at $350, though the satellite service requires a subscription fee. Shipping is $565, for a total of $18,110. Not bad.
There are small cars that are sharper and more sophisticated, but Cavalier offers a good deal of sporty style and performance at a bargain-basement price.
Chevrolet Cavalier LS Sport Coupe
Vehicle type: five-passenger, two-door coupe, front-wheel drive.
Base price: $16,625.
Price as tested: $18,110.
Engine: 2.2-liter inline four, 140 horsepower at 5,600 rpm, 150 pounds-feet of torque at 4,000 rpm.
Transmission: Five-speed manual.
Wheelbase: 104.1 inches.
Curb weight: 2,617 pounds.
EPA mileage: 26 city, 33 highway.