(first posted 6/7/2017) One of Old GM’s worst habits was to drag out model cycles. This afflicted most severely their subcompact and compact offerings—witness the 13-year run of the first-generation Cavalier, and the 10-year run of the second generation. Post-bankruptcy, that habit seems to have been banished. That’s good. If GM wants to remain competitive in the compact segment, it can’t afford to be cavalier (ahem) with its compacts. While an ’03 Civic or Corolla shared little with their ’95 counterparts, these Cavaliers are almost identical. That’s bad.
The Cavalier had started in 1982 as a North American offshoot of a new, global GM platform. Unfortunately for GM, the Cavalier lacked polish and couldn’t sell at the lofty prices they were asking for it, and so began the Cavalier’s march downstairs into the bargain basement. To its credit, GM did give it some nips and tucks, and its optional V6 engine and low prices were decidedly unlike its Japanese rivals.
The ’95 model was pretty but underneath it was much the same as before. While there were a couple of cosmetic tweaks during its decade-long run, the only major change was the introduction in 2002 of GM’s new Ecotec four-cylinder, finally replacing the 20-year-old 122 four-cylinder engine.
GM’s M.O. for the Cavalier was simple: slap ‘em together and sell ‘em cheap. The Cav still had a three-speed automatic on the options list until 2001. The 2005 interior was almost identical to the 1995 one. And for a company that had slapped ABS badges on so many of their cars in the early ‘90s and bragged about this important safety feature, it was astounding they would make this feature an option for 2003.
Its successor, the Cobalt, used a global platform once again. It wasn’t anywhere near the top of the class but it was an improvement, although sales slumped considerably. But the 2011 Cruze that followed it showed GM was getting smart about its compacts. It arrived a little late in North America (it debuted in ’09 elsewhere) but it was almost identical to Cruzes sold overseas, not a cheap bastardization of a global product. There were a lot of happy Cav owners but it was almost always a car that sold on price and perceived reliability. The Cruze was now a genuinely good compact and became one of America’s best-selling compacts, like the Cavalier had been, proving GM could successfully sell one of their global compacts in North America. Oh, and that they didn’t need to sell it at fire sale prices. There’s a new Cruze out now and it took only 5 years for GM to introduce it. It looks like GM has learned their lesson.
1995 and 2003 Cavaliers photographed near Runyon Canyon in Hollywood, CA.
1991-94 coupe photographed in East Village, Manhattan, NY.