Orlando Sentinel's view

With front seats only marginally more accommodating than an Amish church pew, the 2003 Chevrolet Cavalier does not make a particularly good first impression. As one of the oldest models in the General Motors lineup, the Cavalier has been tweaked and tuned and “refined,” as the Chevrolet public relations people like to say, but the company has spent comparatively little to update its small cash cow, and it shows.

With a list price of slightly more than $18,000, the test car, a Cavalier LS Sport, is being sent into battle with the much newer Honda Civic, Toyota Corolla, Mazda Protege, Nissan Sentra, Ford Focus and even the Dodge Neon, which is also in need of a major makeover but still feels fresher than the Cavalier.

Relief for the Cavalier is coming, and if you have seen the 2003 Saturn Ion, you’ve seen the future of the Cavalier and its near-twin, the Pontiac Sunfire, assuming the Sunfire – available only as a coupe, not a sedan this year – is continued at all. Until then, GM is relying on good will and massive discounts to keep its little cars moving.

Last year I spoke with an engineer for the Cavalier, and – off the record – he did not deny the need for a new platform, but gamely listed the improvements made the past few years to the current car. Indeed, some of them show: The suspension isn’t bad, handling is pretty good, and the ride is reasonably comfortable.

The only engine available, the 2.2-liter, 140-horsepower Ecotec, is pretty new and will power Cavaliers for quite some time, as it is also found in the Ion. It’s a double overhead-camshaft design with four valves per cylinder, replacing a 115-horsepower four-cylinder of an older design.

While not as smooth as the Honda four-cylinder, the Ecotec is pretty good, and provides more than adequate power and fuel economy – 24 mpg in the city, 33 mpg on the highway. On the test car, it was mated to a four-speed automatic transmission that was nicely matched to the Ecotec.

As is the custom with all manufacturers when a model grows long in the tooth, extra equipment is added as standard to make for a more attractive package. The top-of-the-line Cavalier LS Sport came with power windows, locks and mirrors; cruise control, air conditioning, traction control, a tilt steering wheel, an AM/FM stereo with a compact disc player, antilock brakes, fog lights, remote keyless entry, a rear spoiler and some attractive chromed aluminum wheels with relatively large P205/55R-16 radial tires.

All this made for a pretty nice car, if you could adjust those cloth-covered front seats to a comfortable position. Six of us tried: Four could not, two others found acceptable positions. Both were women, on the smallish side.

What was wrong with the seats? Too low to the floor, too-short bottom cushions, spongy seat foam, little lateral support, and insufficient available adjustment.

The rear seat is fine for similarly smallish p eople, or kids. Trunk space, at 13.6 cubic feet, is average or better.

The only option on the test Cavalier LS Sport was the automatic transmission, at $780. I’ve driven the Cavalier with the five-speed manual; I’ll take the automatic. With $565 in shipping, the bottom line was $18,120. Base-model Cavaliers start at about $2,400 less than the LS Sport, but don’t have standard antilock brakes, cruise control, a CD player, the big tires and wheels and several other features.

The non-Sport LS model is about $1,200 less than the Sport and doesn’t have the spoiler, tuned suspension, fog lights, and 16-inch tires and chrome wheels.

For slightly more than $18,000, the LS Sport offers quite a bit for the money, but General Motors realizes that buyers need more incentive. The automaker is offering a $3,000 incentive, right off the top, through Feb. 28, but that probably will be extended. That’s the same incentive offered on the more expensive Impala, Monte Carlo, Venture and Trailblazer EXT.

Drop the price of the Cavalier LS Sport to just over $15,000, and twist the dealer’s arm for more, and suddenly this looks like a pretty good buy.

Except for those seats. Sit first, ask questions later.

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