(Except for the Cavalier in wedding regalia, the pictures in this post were borrowed from Google image search)
This COAL is dedicated to my LOAL (Love of a Lifetime), my wife, Tiffany
As stated in my second COAL, when I first started driving, I had a thing for J cars. However, after my third experience, I moved on to other vehicles. I did have some seat time in other J cars owned by family and friends, and while I could see the minor improvements over my early examples, I did not think they were that much of an improvement…been there, done that. That is, until 1995.
1995 was the year that the Cavalier and its surviving sister car, the Sunbird (now renamed Sunfire) received a major makeover. I had the opportunity to have a close look when a friend of mine got one. Compared to my 84 and 85 models, the new Cavalier was the epitome of refinement. Gone was the Cadillac Cimarron styling, which was replaced by the round look shared by the refreshed B bodies which were my dream cars at the time. In addition,the tail lights had hints of the ’95 Camaro as well.
Yes…it was also sold in Japan as a Toyota….enough said. More info here if anyone is interested.
The interiors were modern and contemporary looking; similar to the Camaro as well. There was a real center console, and like the ’95 Caprice, rotary switches for the climate control replacing the cheap slider controls of cars past. The seats felt more substantial and less “jump seat like” than my previous Cavaliers. In addition, it had the same safety systems that contemporary high end cars of the day had namely, daytime running lights, dual air bags and anti lock brakes. This was enough to rekindle my love for J cars.
Sure enough, when it came time for my fiance (now my wife) to get a new car, I convinced her to give the Cavalier a try. She purchased her Cavalier shortly before our wedding. It was a nice metallic blue color, which she loved. Unfortunately, she owned the car for about three months when it sacrificed its life to save hers when an Explorer lost control on the Baltimore Washington Parkway and skidded into her. The Explorer actually flipped over onto its roof. Very scary! Miraculously, no one was injured, but her beautiful blue Cavalier was totaled!
As soon as the insurance check came, we promptly looked for another; grateful for the safety features that helped keep her from serious harm. The replacement was identical to the original car except for its metallic green color. It was a pretty basic model besides a cassette player, automatic transmission, air conditioning, and a rear window defroster. In fact, this was our last car with manual crank windows and manual door locks. However, to us, it was state of the art. It was our first car with dual air bags and anti lock brakes.
It had a three speed automatic transmission and the base engine, a 2.2 liter 4 cylinder with 115 horsepower.
Although this was my wife’s primary vehicle, I got to drive it on many occasions. Compared to my previous J cars, the car did not feel underpowered. While there were times that it became obvious that it did not have unlimited power, I felt that I could make full use of the power it did have, unlike my previous J cars which felt and sounded like the warp core would explode like on Captain Kirk’s Enterprise whenever he ordered Scotty to floor it. I also found that it handled better than my old Cavaliers. Gas mileage was OK if not great.
One thing I will never forget is this is the car that we started our married life with. Here you see our wedding guests “decorating” the car for the occasion.
Here’s a picture of the car after they were done with it. After the wedding reception, we drove it to our honeymoon to begin our life together in Holy Matrimony.
Shortly after our wedding, we decided to move to back to my home state of New Jersey from Maryland. Since we were saving our money for a down payment on a house, we used both my Plymouth Acclaim and the Cavalier as moving vans. Cramming them with our stuff and making multiple trips back and fourth. One time we over filled the Cavalier’s trunk and broke off a plastic connector that prevented the trunk from being opened except by folding down the seat, crawling into the trunk, and triggering the emergency release. What a pain! We repaired it but were annoyed at the cheap plastic that caused such an inconvenient failure. The other thing we discovered was that the seats became very uncomfortable and painful on long trips.
Other than that, the only things we replaced were a battery and tires and a small oil leak which we repaired. It was also with this car that I learned about GM’s “Check Gages (as opposed to Check Gauges)” light which illuminated when fuel ran low or something else was amiss like the car was overheating. Thankfully, the light only came on for us because we were low on gas and not for anything more serious. I still wondered why GM spelled “gages” like this. A quick search of Dictionary.com revealed this:
“The spelling variants gauge and gage have existed since the first recorded uses in Middle English, though in American English gage is found exclusively in technical uses.”
This car, along with my last COAL , helped us begin our married life. We took this car everywhere…it was our default car whenever we went anywhere as a couple. We moved into the first house we owned with this car. It took us to our job interviews in New Jersey and when the time came, to the many doctor’s appointments when we decided it was time to start a family. We ended up keeping the car for five years and it was the best J car that I have ever owned. In 2004, we had our first child and we needed something bigger to accommodate car seat, stroller, and other paraphernalia. So eventually, my wife began to use next week’s COAL as the baby hauler. Hint: Another larger Chevy from my past.
I followed a green Cavalier today with Toyota badging two girls in it giving it hell and tossing it into roundabouts with gay abandon tyres howling getting plenty of understeer I’m not sure I’ll see that one too many more times as they were busy exploring its handling limits and they were not going fast far from it so it will likely get wrapped around a pole one night when its pilot get a bit too keen.
Interesting story, but it looks like the whole lot is on the front page for some reason
Hey Paul or any other author out there with the requisite admin rights (which I don’t have), the ‘Read More’ insert is missing so the entire article is showing.
Always thought this generation of Cavalier was an attractive little car, especially the higher-trim variants with alloys and whatnot. They seem to have become rather uncommon lately, but I guess that’s not surprising as they’re nearing 20 years old!
I am surprised Toyota would willingly place their brand on the Cavalier, especially in their home market.
I remember test driving a Cavalier from this generation, and driving a Dodge Shadow loaner shortly thereafter, and the Shadow felt like a better built car, with a nicer interior. Even though the Shadow was discontinued by then.
In regards to the badging, I imagine it was an extension of the same GM-Toyota JV as the NUMMI plant for joint Corolla/Nova/Prizm production. It does seem odd that Toyota would sign off on that: not that they’d agree to distribute GM cars in Japan, but that they didn’t simply leave the original badges, which might have actually made the Cavalier moderately more interesting to a Japanese buyer.
Quite a few of the Toyota Cavaliers here – they’ve been arriving ex-Japan for over 10 years now. They look good, but the interior design and quality aren’t up to the usual Toyota standard of the time, which dampened the Cav’s appeal somewhat. Still see them around a lot though, so they must be well-built and reliable! 99.9% of ours seem to be the same metallic green as the wedding car above.
I like seeing positive articles written about cars that are almost always derided by automotive writers. It’s an interesting change of perspective.
I’m glad you were happy with it. I don’t have much good to say about the Cavalier and my experiences with them have been less than stellar, but they do get the job done. I would hardly call them “well-built”, but mechanically, they seem to last a lot longer than they look good. (not sure if that’s a compliment or not)
Regarding the spelling of gauge and gage, I recalled a press release from the General Motors in the 1980s, which was widely reported in the car magazines.
General Motors wanted to make their vehicles more ‘accessible’ for the drivers in their golden years, i.e. larger and more readable font size on the switches and labels. Thus, GAGES at 15 points occupies the same width space as GAUGES at 12 points, but the former is more ‘readable’ than latter.
I’ll bet CHECK GAGES was a more effective alarm for “golden-agers” like me, but not because it was a larger font. “Golden-agers” know how to spell, and GAGES rang all sorts of bells when I saw it in the picture. Should I drive to the Oklahoma panhandle and see if something is wrong there? Or should I get out my micrometer and see if some of the car’s wiring is too narrow for its rated current? Nah, those don’t make sense. Must be a false alarm.
Chrysler, Jeep and Ford all had a “Check Gage” or “Check Gages” light at some point as well.
It’s just easier for people to rag on GM about it. From what I’ve seen at least.
Gages is also a widely used SAE term for instrumentation.
I have to wonder how often people thought “Typical GM – can’t even spell!”
I know it was an old American spelling (dating back to some late 19th/early 20th century newspaper editor who tried to reform US spelling, IIRC – can’t get to my reference books now) , but surely it had fallen into disuse by then?
I also enjoy seeing articles that highlight the positive stories folks have with typically derided cars. And this was a nice post.
That being said, my experiences with Cavaliers, while all rentals, was not very favorable – they were all extremely crude, and had that typical GM 90’s “Rubbermaid” interior. And as I believe C&D scribe Pat Bedard said at one time, Cavaliers had the cheapest feeling key ignition switch of any car he had been in – like inserting a “rat tail file”……….
Is that where the water temperature “gage” usually was?
GM’s always spelled it “gages”. Back to the fifties anyway.
My wife’s cousin Laurinda LOVED her circa-2000 Cavalier 4-door. When it was time to trade, a Cobalt left her cold and she wound up with an ’06 Malibu Maxx, which she also loves.
I drove an ’86 Cavalier wagon in 1996 for a few months and it was fine, but the 2004 2-door I drove back when new was like corporal punishment. Couldn’t get over it, I felt 30 years older upon exiting the thing.
With all the Cavs left over from their heyday still on the road here around Western PA, there are obviously more stories like Laurinda’s and yours. I’d have never thought.
Thanks for sharing.
We don’t get misty eyed about the Cavalier where I live. They’re a poor car for the poor and nothing more. How many years now since a new one was built and they’re still a common sight on our roads. Rusted and rattling. These were rubbish and over priced for what you got. GM showed no shame selling these shitcans.
I agree with the comment on how it is a good addition to see an article talking nice about the Cavalier. They were common here in Chile, but now they’ve become rather hard to find.
As a kid in the 90s, when this were new, I didn’t like their styling, myself being a fan of those squared cars from the 80s, but I’ve come to appreciate the design of the Cavalier a lot now. It is really modern, aerodynamic and fluid but without looking overly roundish, as other cars from the time.
It also impossible to see that the original Cavalier is still underneath the sleekness, and that is a huge achievement for GM. I think the Pontiac version looked very different, another good thing.
I get the feeling that the last generation Cavalier has achieved ‘cockroach of the road’ status. Eventually, if they ever die off, it will be replaced by the Cobalt. These cars are mainly interesting in automotive culture because they highlight GM’s attitude of making their smallest domestic cars ‘just good enough’ and primarily for use in fleets. They were true bottom feeders that just about anyone, even someone with a McJob, could afford. Unfortunately, they rode and drove at that level, too. Still, if you can tolerate their failings, they do refuse to die, no matter how poorly they’re treated.
The other interesting thing, particularly with the Cobalt, is how dramatically better the Cruze is in comparison. The Cruze was the first small GM car that could be legitimately cross-shopped with the best from Japan. Too bad it took them four decades to finally accomplish it.
There was one feature of the old Cavalier that I have to say I really appreciated, and that was the one-handed latch operation of the last convertibles. It was possible to unlatch/latch, then raise/lower the top, all in one single movement, allowing the driver to keep the left hand on the wheel at the same time, and was a real time saver. It was quite Mercedes-like, something you’d never hear of a GM product. Of course, I found out later that the convertible conversions were done at a separate facility outside of the normal assembly line, so that probably explains it.
I see these all the time. Cheap to buy, to fix and fuel (at least for now). My brother had a Sunfire that survived Hurricane Katrina. It got nailed but damned if it didn’t start up and make from Biloxi to Knoxville in one day, minus 3 of its windows.
These were the big rentals at the hometown place I used to use in Massachusetts. Certainly a better pick than the late 90s Malibus.
But for my taste, if I needed a cheapo roach, I’d lean toward the cockroach emeritus Buick Century.
I owned two of these in coupe form bought new. The first a tan ’97 served well but was t-boned when my partner was driving. It’s replacement was a green 2000. That was my daily driver till 2007. I had no problems with either except a faulty gas guage that left me stranded once (3 blocks from a gas station thankfully). They were exactly what I expected: an inexpensive, stylish two door that was cheap to operate.
Back in the day these were sometimes disparagingly called “secretary cars”. So where does one go now for a new cheap two door with a dash of panache?
I wish Chevy still made the Cavalier, in a 2 door model. It would likely be my next car. Same thing for the 2 door Cobalt. I really find it sad that GM does not make a single 2 door model other than the Camaro and Corvette. Ford doesn’t make one except for the Mustang, and all Chrysler makes is the Challenger. There have been 2 door cars since the Model T, right up until the last few years. To me it is another indication that style no longer plays any part in most cars. They truly are appliances now.
I had a rental car identical to your green one in 1999 while having some warranty work done on my 1995 Mercury Grand Marquis.
Talk about two contrasting cars!
Since you were fond of your Cadaver I won’t mention my impressions of the car.
Enjoyed reading your story. Thank you for writing it.
I’m afraid I don’t have very fond memories of these. Enterprise gave me one as a long-term rental when my 2004 Hyundai Accent was destroyed in a flood. After years of driving small imported cars, I couldn’t believe how primitive it was. The cheapness of the interior materials, groaning engine, and crudeness of the the switches gave me the impression that GM had simply given up on making a decent small car. It made my stripper 2004 Accent seem sophisticated by comparison.
When I was working at GM, every time Cav came in I’d cringe in case I’d have to drive it. These cars are absolutely junk. In my experience, the only people who actually liked these things were those who had never driven anything better, meaning practically every thing else on the market. Horrible cars, badly designed and cheaply made in the extreme.
These cars, like most GM stuff, sold on price. My store cleared out the last 2005 models at $8500.
If I had a 115HP Cavalier with a speedometer indicating 93MPH I’d definitely want to Check Gages.
The first new car my fiancee and I bought was a 2002 Cavalier LS “Sport Coupe”.
It was basically the Ecotec powered replacement for the Z-24, it carried over the Getrag 5 speed, (a wonderful transaxle), FE2 suspension and Chrome 16″ wheels wrapped with meh Eagle RS-A rubber.
It didn’t do anything outstanding but it was very competent at everything I asked it to do.
After 5 years, multiple trips down the Dragstrip, several long distance trips to no particular destination and using it as a “moving van” three times it never complained.
I never found anything horrible about the 95-05 Cavalier. This was because I have never viewed it as anything but entry level basic transportation that took you from A to B. I have always laughed when reading stories about how the Honda Civic and Toyota Corolla of the same era were so comfortable compared with the cavi. Those folks need to remove the rose colored glassed. the Corolla and Civic were indeed better driving cars with more pep but they were just as uncomfortable to drive on trips lasting more then 30 mins also. You got the Cavalier/Sunfire with seats that felt like cardboard or a Civic/Corolla which had seats with rocks stuffed into them. None of which were exactly driver’s cars.
Ford also used “check gages” on the 89-93 Thunderbirds with the analog w/tach instrument panels, but then changed it to “check gauges” on the otherwise identical instrument panels for 94-96. I always assumed they were correcting a mispelling with the redesigned interior haha
I’m glad someone had fond memories of these Cavaliers. They were high school beater status cars brand new and were pretty much done within a few years. The build quality may not have been as bad as I remember it but the material quality was for sure atrocious, from the interior plastics to the steel itself(these rust like 70s Japanese cars).
My former sister in law bought a new Cavalier back about ’03, and kept it for 3 years. She did not have any issues at all with it as far as I know, she traded it just because the warranty ran out. It was replaced by a Kia Spectra that caused nothing but trouble. She gave up on that and bought a used Toyota Corolla rental car, which she still has.
Having been a fleet mechanic for over 3 decades, I worked on a lot of Cavaliers. I don’t have anything bad to say about them. Yes they were cheap cars, which allowed a lot of people to buy a new car instead of a used one. They were very reliable, and easy to work on for a FWD car. The interior materials were cheap, and the engine was crude, But I never had an issue with that. It was a basic transportation car, and the 2 door model even had a little style. The 4 door model looked just like every other generic 4 door on the road. If you really want to see cheap, go check out a Chevy Spark. Not only do they feel cheap, they fall apart on the way home from the dealer. I have seen many Cavaliers with close to 200,000 miles on them, and still running fine. The ’97-’03 Malibu gets it’s share of complaints as well. I own one. The only issue I ever had with it, besides it having 4 doors, was that GM put glue in it for coolant. I had to replace the radiator, water pump, overflow tank, thermostat, and both radiator hoses. They were all plugged up with this brown waxy stuff. Cavaliers of this vintage also have this crap, and if you own one, it is best to get it out now, flush the system, and put in green Prestone.
I’m willing to bet on a Spark “Deadly Sin” in the future. The short time I spent in a rental (400 miles) proved to me that GM isn’t taking small cars seriously again.
Oddly the Sonic isn’t a terribly bad car, it’s actually fun in RS trim.
Back in ’08, I had a rental Cobalt (the replacement for the Cavalier, but very similar) that I drove from Maryland to Indiana and back to take a training class – I could have flown but thought it would be fun to drive.
It was… a car. Handling, accelleration, ect were all fine, but it had some annoying details – the cupholder was too small to hold certain large cups, and the second 12v adapter was right behind one of the cupholders, making it impossible to plug in and have a cup in it. It did have an aux jack, though… for my Zune!
One of my fellow commuters at the local train station has a droptop Cavalier from this generation with a white leather interior. I thought it was a custom job the first time I saw it, but I looked it up and sure enough they actually did come that way. It’s a red car with a white top, twin-cam engine and alloys but not a Z24. I’m amazed that in 1997 or so there was still someone checking off every option on a Cavalier order form.
Never understood the Cavalier hate. You’d think they were Yugos. I recently sold my Cav I bought new in 2002 after 200,000 trouble free miles. Only time it ever broke down was when the original battery died 5 years ago. It replaced a trouble some Contour that blew up at 120,000 miles. It was basic, but it still had power steering, brakes, a/c, CD, & an automatic transmission, things by first two cars never had.
You’re probably the exception. The Cavalier animosity seems to stem from the fact that virtually everyone who owned one didn’t ‘want’ one, but it was the only car they could afford. They might not have actually been on the lowest rung of society, but every time you got into ‘your’ Cavalier, you sure felt like you were one of the lowest dregs. IOW, it was a car, it had seats and a steering wheel, and it (mostly) ran. That was pretty much the sum total of the positive things you could say about a Cavalier.
I think you just made our esteemed commenter GEOZINGER proud!
These truly were and are the “Cockroaches of the Road”©!
Amusingly, the *original* Cockroach of the Road was the Citation from a couple of days ago. J-bodies have inherited the sobriquet just due to attrition. Although, the J-cars are old enough they’re starting to disappear from the roads finally…
I was in high school when the “new” 1995 Cavalier came out. I was excited when seeing the TV commercials but very disappointed when I first saw one in the teacher’s parking lot. For some reason I thought that they had looked a lot bigger in the ads, rather than this tiny compact staring back at me. I’ve known several people who drove these cars. To me they looked like cheap, dime a dozen, disposable cars. My friend’s old ’97 Sunfire was a total piece of junk. Old cars like these are good for people who know how to fix them.
I even remember test driving a used newer model Cavalier from early 2000 with my dad around the end of 2007. This one had been in an accident and repaired so some trim and interior pieces such as in the trunk were missing. It drove so rough and felt like I was driving with the brakes applied. We didn’t end up buying it.
My mom rolled a 2001 model. She went around a curb too fast bounced off a large rock and ended up tangled up in a chain link fence. She and my step dad ended up hospitalized for a while but without any major injuries. I always hated the car because of how cheap it was. They had purchased it new and the interior trim fell apart from day one. But It did save their lives though so it must have been better built then most people judge them for.
I have also seen a few of the two door models with complete rust out behind the rear doors. Which is odd because cars do not typically rust much here in Oklahoma. Having ridden in one they are CRAMPED compared to the four door models..
I have driven probably ever iteration of this car from it’s 1995 introduction to the very last 2005 model with the Ecotec 2.2. They are still in demand at our dealership in fact and when one comes in it usually sells the first week. Lots of younger kids buy them and they make a good cheap second car. My neighbor bought a new 1996 green coupe with stick and liked it so much he kept it well past 200k up until 2006! Other than a clutch at around 155K, an alternator a little before that, one battery and the usual wear items it was as reliable as the sun. Strangely he never had the head gasket issue certain 1995-1997 models had and his valve cover was only just starting to seep a little by that point which was in stark contrast to his parents 1996 Plymouth Breeze with a 2.4 that not only blew 2 head gaskets but leaked like a sieve, cooked it’s tranny, had loads of electrical problems such as the right side head light that kept burning out due to faulty wiring, sensors failing, a rear defogger that quit, lights going out on the dashboard and numerous other maladies.
A 99 2 door was my first new car: ABS, 4 speed auto with traction control, 2.2 OHV engine A/C. I liked the looks, the “throw back” engine and the straightforward simplicity of it.I liked that it had it’s roots in the early J Cars even though the 95 and up was “65%” all new.
I liked the fact that parts were easily and cheaply available if needed and that any shop in the US could work on it if need be. A “Genuine Chevrolet” designed and built in the US.Not in Korea. Not byOpel. Plastic is plastic and it still is.
It never gave a moment’s trouble in the five years I had it. 1 recall for a hose that could chafe because of where it was placed. Liked brakes every 20,000 miles, and a problem with the intermediate steering shaft was fixed under warranty [and seems to be a problem with GM cars of all stripes well into 2010.
It was rear ended while I was waiting for a left turn arrow to change and totaled in 2004. I had just paid it off.
And BTW, I never felt less than, 30 years older, too “poor” to afford a “better” or as if I was driving the “dregs” of the automotive world. I have too much self confidence for that and am far more secure in my sense of self to be defined by what kind of car I choose to drive. What nonsense.
A good car to me is one that doesn’t break down or fall apart along the way. I could have spent more, say on a VW product and shown the world what a “smart” consumer I am while waiting for a tow truck because the coil packs had decided to self destruct. At least my self esteem would still be intact while my windows have dropped into the doors.
The Cavalier did exactly what I wanted it to, reliably and at low cost. I never got tired of looking at it and would probably have it still had that accident not taken it off the road.
I have to agree with GM’s attitude about small cars: “Just good enough” has been their driving force not only with small cars, but their entire product. Does anyone actually believe that the 97 Malibu was the car “You Knew America Could Build” ?
Was the Malibu based Cutlass anything more than just “something to sell in the segment” ? Like the G5, G3 and corporate minivans?
GMs corporate cynicism toward anything other than trucks and SUVs gave all of their non truck based offerings the air of “just good enough”.
When I looked to replace the Cavalier with a new Cobalt there were just 4 on the lot. Black or white. All optioned up to $19000. And row upon row of SUVs. That was GM’s real purpose in the 00s and where their development money went.
I owned an 82 J2000…the check gages light, and ALL the other dashboard lights started flashing one afternoon after the car had sat for a few months. After a few seconds, “things” returned to normal…for about a minute and then it happened again. A trip to the dealer was worthless as they couldn’t duplicate the problem.
The next time the dash lights started flashing I went back to the dealership…they still couldn’t duplicate my “problem” but finally took the alternator apart and found it was “shot”. This on a 4-5 year old car.
We rented a white “jellybean” Cavalier sedan for a trip to California and back. It was acceptable. The only quirk I remember was that the driver’s door was considerably harder to shut than the other three…this on a new car with only a few thousand miles on it.
As always, late to the party…
Glad to see someone else had a good experience with their Cavy. I know this much, I will never change the minds of the haters, but I can’t complain about my experience with the car…
I got mine 7 years used from my brother in law (this sounds like a bad country song) with 192,000 miles for $1000 ten years ago. It’s survived my commutes, both of my daughter’s college careers and now my younger one STILL drives it. 270,000 miles. It looks like the metallic version of swiss cheese and many of the electronics are starting to get wonky. But the drivetrain goes and goes.
It was an inexpensive car that was inexpensive to fix generally. I had other than self inflicted wounds, the car has had no major issues. If we were in a warmer dryer climate (Western Lower Michigan is not easy on sheet metal), I think I’d spend the money to restomod the car and have some fun with it. But now, my daughter is hoping to find a replacement for it before something happens to it.
One of these days, I will write up a story about this car and the 1995 Sunfire GT I owned for 8 years. Another story entirely…
The cavalier is a crappy looking cheaply finished car. The underpinnings have been around since the mid/late 70’s and continued through the cobalt with some very minor tweaks. I have a 08 Pontiac g5 that I have been under alot. The rear beam (suspension) where it mounts to the body are shorter and the front is much the same except the steering rack seams to be mounted lower from what I can remember. This suspension setup is decently strong and easy to maintain. That’s why they kept it around for so long.
The other carryover from the cavalier is the front seats. The bottom of the chair always seems to give way and leave you sitting on the metal. These seats are torture for anything longer than an hour.