It is really hard to think of the cars of my Childhood as classic cars. But I write this 90 days from the point I turn 30. So sits in the realization that the variety of wheezing penalty boxes the Big 3 used to respond to the 3rd (or 4th?) tidal wave of overly competent imports from Europe and Japan are now “classic” cars.
While I am lucky to not have arrived around the same time that General Motors began offering the revolutionary and disastrous X body cars, a good number of the seeds for the J car(s, from Chevrolet to Cadillac and from Asia to Australia the same basic car was produced) came out of this damned prophet of front wheel drive mainstream American Sedans).
Unlike its most direct competitor, the Ford Escort, the commonalities of all J cars on all continents were far more numerous. An interesting side note about the Opel version: It barely lost out on the European Car of The Year award to the Renault 9 (which as you should remember, as the Alliance/Encore went on to become one of Motor Trend magazine’s more dubious choices for Car of The Year in 1983).
One big difference (and perhaps mistake) was the usage initially of the droning OHV version of the Chevrolet developed “122” Engine. While the Ascona went with a freer breathing (albeit smaller) Opel developed OHC 4s for their J bodies, all General Motors versions of the J bodies debuted with a 1.8L OHV 4 with 88 horsepower. Given how many J-Bodies were equipped with Turbo Hydra Matic125s and weighed in close to 2,450+ lbs, it’s no surprise that 0-60 times were as sleepy as 16+ seconds, if not worse.
The upsized 2.0L version in our photo car did little to improve things, and you need a very clear chart to memorize which in the flurry of 4’s went where, from the 1.8 Turbos at Pontiac and Buick to the classic GM overkill of shoehorning the 2.8L V6 in a bunch of performance variants in 1985. Now at least the Cimarron could move out of it’s own way, perhaps the only 1985 Cadillac to do so.
The addition of the V6 to the line-up reflected one memory of late 1960s Muscle cars. Along with blinding straightline performance for their place in the market (the later 3.1L cars could hit mile a minute in under 8 seconds), the new drivetrain highlighted a genuine Crudeness of the J-car platform. Their torsion beam rear suspensions hammered over bumps instead of smoothing them out . The slight injection of torque brought massive torque steer to the front.
Given American drivers had a good 20 years of more sophisticated driving machines in their memory (sometimes from General Motors themselves) it’s easy to see how many people were turned off by the harsh surroundings of most J-Cars and moved on to other makes and models. I would hazard a lot of first time car buyers from families of the absolute last of the General Motors faithful gave the J car variants a chance, and after a few years moved on to a array of other cars.
And if they did stay in the General Motors fold they ended up in the slightly larger, but equally unrefined N-bodies (Grand Am/Cutlass Calais/Someset-Skylark and the Corsica/Beretta) which were the same cars, in starchier suits. Well you could get a short deck 3800 in those (the 3300) and the Beretta was handsome enough… but…. they were equally poorly behaved little penalty boxes that tried (and failed) to portray an upscale vibe you can’t really get with a 3 speed automatic.
There’s a lot of cars that can be considered the nail in the coffin moment for General Motors in the decade between 1980 and 1990. The J-Cars, the entry point that GM needed to garner a new generation of drivers utterly failed. They weren’t as roomy or flexible as the aging Omni/Horizon twins, nor significantly cheaper than a really cheap K-car. And they weren’t as well baked as some of the offerings in Chevrolet showrooms.
The sign of how lost General Motors was came out of a factory I’ve passed by hundreds of times in Fremont. The Nummi Joint venture produced the recast Nova, and although far more pricey that the Cavalier, it reflected a better approach to the dilemma of producing a small sedan than General Motors could figure out in house. More sprightly, more fling-able, longer lasting and more durable, it was like nothing in the General Motors line-up. Although Ford would wholeheartedly follow this approach with their all new Escort being a mildly disguised Mazda 323, Chevrolet moved the “Nova” to Geo with a bunch of other raggamuffin Japanese/American Cars from Isuzu and Suzuki.
Chevrolet offered the same basic penalty box with incentives through 1994 before they actually made any changes. But as most know the changes were only skin deep, and two virtues, the V6 and the Wagon disappeared with the 1995 restyle that borrowed heavily from the Opel Calibra Coupe.
If most people think of the GM FWD A bodies as roach like, what can the Cavalier (and its long suffering Pontiac Partner) be? They went 24 years without any major change underneath the skin, just minor tweaks and additions of features to keep them barely relevant and legal to sell. Sure, like the A-bodies, some of the mechanicals finally became durable, but not a single Cavalier encouraged first time car buyers that moving up to a larger GM car meant things would improve out of the penalty box stage.
The Cavalier was apathy taken a step too far, and even a bigger disaster than the downsized C and H body cars could ever be. If not the deadliest sin recorded here at Curbside Classic, I nominate it for Top 5 status. Anyone else want to sign the petition?
It’s amazing how GM can be so close to getting it right, yet they are so far away from perfecting it.
As far as longevity goes, I have an uncle in Tennessee that bought a new Cavalier in 1988. He still has it. It’s his daily driver and has over 200k on the clock. He loves the thing.
As for this example today, I wish you still could get a car of this type, meaning a small wagon. I had the modern equivalent of it, the HHR. Once you got past the love-it-or-hate-it styling, it was a really nice car, at least in loaded 2LT trim.
I got a new one in 1983, after our fleet of Citations were recalled as being too deadly and bad to remain on the road. I knew immediately that this car was just something to stem the market bleeding the X cars created.
Compared to the Citation, the Cavalier was smaller, but seemed to be fully assembled. It had a no-nonsense design appearance to it, and the wagon was a very nice addition. It wasn’t bad looking.
Being lighter than the Citation, helped too. The Cavalier had a little more zip, but still suffered from engine knock and rather poor acceleration. Like the Citation, the Cavalier had very bad steering torque, which you grew accustomed to after a while on the road. You didn’t do anything fast in it.
I didn’t like sitting so low to the road, a la, Camaro, Saturn, GM – et al. The Cavalier’s driver position wasn’t comfortable for long distance driving, which I did back then. Worse, the seats would practically collapse under me after a couple of hours on the road. I am not, and certainly was not at that time, fat. (I think I was probably barely 180 pounds back then), but the Cavalier’s seats didn’t provide thigh support considering the low driving position.
The car felt cheaper than the Citation in many ways. There was just many more usages of cheap black plastic on it, that had a more substantial look on the X car it replaced for me.
It still had mechanical problems, but it wasn’t a rolling death trap lemon like the Citation was.
I replaced it the following year with a Ford Escort, a five door hatch with some nice touches. The Escort was superior to the Cavalier in every way and after the Citation and the Cavalier, I gave up on GM for a decade.
To those who suggest that GM lost buyers with these cars, my experience proves that point. I’m still not a GM buyer, even after a decade with Saturns. (And if you recall, Saturns were marketed to folks like me in an attempt to return us to GM – it worked – while there was a Saturn, btw!).
its funny but european gm cars seem to translate so badly to america our vertion was the vauxhall cavalier and it was a very good car i had one an sri it was a great car and lasted way beyond its sell by date..they were a best seller in europe and very well made ,reliable
I wasn’t aware that the Z24 option was available on the hatch. That’s actually *gulp* a pretty good looking car.
Mainland Europe never received the station wagon. The Opel Ascona was sold as a 2- and 4-door sedan, and a 5-door hatchback. No coupes, fastbacks, or station wagons. Apparently, the nearly identical Vauxhall Cavalier recieved station wagon kits from Australia and the Holden Camira, simply grafted on in England, to some expense I gather. Why on earth they couldn’t make station wagons proper in Europe boggles my mind.
Another curious twist of faith is that the European J-car sedan, the Opel Ascona 2/4-door, recieved its own unique rear section. The boot is longer by at least 4 inches than any of the other derivatives. The treatment of the C-pillar differs as well to the Opel design language, while the Japanese J-car derivative, the Isuzu Florian Aska, received the Opel trademarked C-pillar treatment. To be a fly at that wall when the J-car was developed…
Europe also recieved stationwagon kits of the Commodore for local build cant they do wagons over there.
Ingvar I think it would be purely the cost of another set of tooling versus shipping stamped panels.
It is interesting though that the wagon featured does not incorporate the bumper at the base of the tailgate as do the Holden/Vauxhall wagons. Instead it appears that the bumper is lower, below the tailgate (which does not appear to extend as low) which also requires taller tail lights.
There is a good photo of a Camira wagon on the Holden Camira wikipedia page.
FWIW my cousin had a JE model Camira wagon (86-88 era) back in the day, by that stage they had worked through the bugs and had 2.0 EFI engines. He had it for years, it was relegated to commuter duty when they bought a Mitsubishi Nimbus in the early/mid 90’s (aka Space Wagon) when their 4th kid came along
Hi Ingvar, I was a young engineer in my Early 20s working at Vauxhall when the Cavalier estate (wagon) was introduced. The rear side panels behind the c pillar were taken from Holden pressings with the door frame cropped off. These were then welded to cavalier hatch rear panels with the rear quarter cropped off behind the c pillar! If I remember, due to the relatively low production volumes the decision was taken to do it that way rather than make a whole new press tool.
This car is firmly entrenched in the nostalgic portion of my brain. Good but painful memories. My parents were still driving a ’77 Firebird when I came into the world, and after a year of suffering through cramming a car seat into the back of it, they traded it on a stripper blue ’82 Cavalier wagon in ’81. 1.8L OHV, 4 speed manual, vinyl seating for FOUR, not five. I think the only options were an AM/FM radio and A/C, although I don’t recall either working throughout most of my childhood.
My dad had learned to drive on a column shift van in Taiwan 10 years earlier, but hadn’t driven a stick since. He told me he picked the car up from James Martin Chevrolet in Detroit, ironically just blocks from the GM building where it was given the green light, and stalled his way down Woodward Ave, eventually getting the hang of the clutch by the time he got to work downtown.
The car was loud, cramped and uncomfortable, but fairly reliable as I recall. The back seat bench was split, with a hard plastic tray in the middle. My parents had the dealer install a seat belt there, and as I was the oldest, it became my own personal penalty box. The car got my parents through three kids and was their only car until my dad got a good deal on a used Aspen that his company was selling. Or maybe it wasn’t such a good deal, it was an Aspen after all.
The car was pretty well used up by 1990, but my parents sold it to a family friend for $500 who kept it going for at least a few more years.
I’ll sign that petition! The J-cars were a four-wheeled abomination.
Imagine if you will how the J-bodies might have turned out had GM applied the can-do attitude they once had during the Alfred Sloan years. I think they’d have been hailed as the car that finally turned back the import tide.
Alas it was not to be…and of course similar offerings from Mopar and Ford weren’t much better.
To have the J’s…on top of the X-cars…on top of the Vega…for many buyers, the J-cars were the third strike and GM was out in favor of vastly superior Toyota/Honda/Nissan models.
Design without execution still equals failure.
Oh, Geozinger…where are you? I’m leaving the honor to you…please respond!
We bought our daughter a 1997 Cavalier in 2000, when our beloved 1990 Acclaim was thoroughly abused by her and had to trade it in. 10.5 years old – not bad for the lowly Plymouth!
She kept the Cavalier for three years until she bought a new Honda Civic. Kept that for all of three years – hated the thing. Bought a nice, new 2007 Trailblazer which she loves and still owns. Go figure…
I’m still alive and kicking. Keep an eye out for an email.
The worst things about these things were that they were around so long. If they were replaced in 85 or 86 they wouldn’t have been such a deadly sin but then again stagnation could be the deadliest sin.
We only got them here till 90 untill they reappeared with Daewoo badging some years later
They were gone from Australia by 1989 I think, replaced by a rebadged Camry
But I write this 90 days from the point I turn 30.
Ah, just wait grasshopper. In the blink of an eye you’ll be 40-50-60. Remember to stop and smell the flowers and savor every moment with your loved ones.
Anyway, GM was stuck in their own bizarro world, in an isolated land (Detroit) where they couldn’t uncover the truth if they tried. Sad, really. They are still trying to catch up (and producing some pretty competitive vehicles), but I highly doubt any GM vehicle will ever again become an aspirational brand.
I have vivid, but not exactly pleasant memories of this car. While I was attending the University of Alabama as an exchange student, one of the local students had one. At first sight I took it for a mere variant of the Opel Ascona which I knew as a bland but reasonably reliable car. I was horrified when the owner started it up and the car, which was probably no more than 8 or 9 years old at the time, belched out a thick oil-laden plume. I also nominate it for the Top 10 list of worst NVH offenders ever. Methinks it’s even worse than the 4 cylinder unit in the IH Scout II which at least had significant low-end grunt as a redeeming feature.
Jeez, this is like a post mortem assassination piece.
The 1995 “restyle” is incorrect. 1988 was a restyle,1995 was a complete redesign.
It was definitely touted as a complete redesign, but I do recall reading some reviews at the time that questioned how different it really was under the skin. Aside from a few dimensional tweaks, the J platform that underpinned it remained largely the same.
The underpinnings of the 95+ cars were similar to the previous generation in the same way that the current Impala is just a refresh of the 89 Lumina.
Do both generations have similarities? Absolutely. But they are completely different.
I was going to write an “in defense of” thing for the J car but there is no changing peoples minds.
I’ve never had a problem with the J cars. Our 2001 LS with the Ecotec and 5 speed was dead reliable, handled great and was fairly quick. Compared to my Mom’s 98 Neon it actually felt like a Cadillac.
Today’s Impala ditched the original Transverse leaf rear suspension, for one, there’s been more evolution of the 60 degree V6 between the 2.8MPFI’s in 1988 and the last 3.9L’s.
General Motors did far more to move the W-bodies away from their original starting point that at times they actually were competitive with market rivals (although that was probably only one period, probably 1998). If a Cavalier feels like a Cadillac in comparison to a Neon, a 1998 Escort feels like a Rolls Royce compared to a Cavalier, nevermind what a similar vintage Civic, Corolla or Protege feels like in comparison to a Cavalier.
I’ve got to see this Escort that rides like a Rolls… That Mazda based Escort was no great shakes, even in GT form. Remember, we’re talking about the smallest cars here, with the shortest wheelbases, usually the least amount of suspension travel and other assorted price leader shortcuts…
The ride and drive King of the mid-late-90’s was the Neon. They drove better than all of the domestic competition and a lot of the foreign competition. I traveled a lot back then, and my first pick at the rental lots was a Neon.
I still curse Eaton for selling Ma Mopar to the Krauts… And I am one!
Geo, you know what’s really funny about your comment? Soon after I joined my previous packaging company in 1996, I traveled to Atlanta to visit our plant in Stone Mountain. I had the choice of a Hertz rental Jaguar or a Neon. Guess what I chose? THE NEON! No joke…
Dont bother with a J-car defense here, what I want to know, is if it was that bad for so long, how, I mean really bad, people here really slam it and the Vega too, how come GM sold hundred and hundreds of thousands of them every year for a decade, you would think if it was as terrible as people, (who have proabably never driven one) make it out to be, how come people still bought it?
I’ll disagree about people never buying a second GM car after having a Cavalier, I cut my teeth as a wee lad seliing Chevrolets in the 90’s and I took a good number of Cavaliers in on trade for another Cavalier, Corsicas occasionally, Luminas and the then new 97 Malibu.
I would say sales stayed strong on the fact that initially, in a broad swath of the country people still wouldn’t consider Foreign cars, and still thought GM was king, then when the costs were recouped, the incentives came in to keep them cheap and moving. But who really bought them brand new after 2000? I don’t think buyers would have been clamoring to get them brand new at that point, Most of them would have been rental returns bought a year later for dirt cheap.
The basic reliability of the 4 paired with the 3speed automatic or cheap replacement parts if those two components failed allowed the “it’s a shitbox but it still runs/GM Cars run bad the longest” mentality to keep a lot of them on the road.
I agree that the Cavaliers didn’t necessarily drive customers away. My parent’s cavalier, though crude, was reasonably reliable and they continued to buy GM cars. But sometimes people buy brands out of habit and loyalty, despite their glaring faults. Ironically, my parent’s successive Chevys had more major problems; an Astro that fried an oil pump and seized the engine @100k, a Lumina that developed a rod knock at 70k. But they kept buying them. By the time they got a Venture things were getting better, but even that had both upper and lower intake manifold gasket problems.
I think we’re seeing the same thing happen today with Toyota’s quality stumbling blocks. They say that brand equity takes a long time to build and a short time to lose, but that isn’t always the case with some people.
The lost sales came from people of my generation (I’ll be 50 in a month). My parents were Oldsmobile loyalists, but after reading the reviews of the original J-Cars, and riding in a friend’s Pontiac J2000, I bought a Honda Civic for my first car, and never looked back. And I’m sure that I wasn’t the only one. The problem was people like me who never set foot in a Chevrolet dealership in the first place. In the 1960s, that would have been the first place we stopped.
At any rate, given the steady decline of GM’s market share since the early 1980s, and subsequent bankruptcy and bailout, I would hardly consider the J-Cars to be a roaring success. They weren’t solely responsible for what happened, but they certainly didn’t help the situation.
By the late 1990s, you bought a Cavalier if you wanted a cheap car, and not much else. You bought an Escort if you wanted a domestic with more polish and better reliability, and you bought a Civic if you wanted the best small car avaliable.
Being the Walmart of anything in the auto business is not the long-term path to success, but that is the path that GM ultimately took with the J-Cars.
The ’88 restyle was just the coupe and just the rear half. The sedan and wagon were same basic sheetmetal til ’94. Not restyling those hurt, since 4 door imports were rising fast in the 80’s
I don’t know if an improved version of the same 3 speed automatic, or upsized “122” engine, same suspension and wheelbase count as a complete redesign. Not that the J cars are the only cars guilty of this (The 1992 Camry is pretty much the same car under the skin as the 1998 “redesign”).
But when you’re the least competitive option in your field, you might wanna try a little bit harder.
The 82-94 Cav rode on a 101″ wheelbase with an overall width of 63″, the 95+ rode on a 104″ WB and had a width of 68″. Close.
The suspensions and their geometry were completely different. You’ll have a really difficult time swapping anything but the base 2.2 engine and the wheels between a 94 and 95.
Like I said above. The underpinnings of the 95+ cars were similar to the previous generation in the same way that the current Impala is just a refresh of the 89 Lumina
Yet the ‘new and improved’ 95’s were stil uncompetitive and crude. Sure, compared to the 94 J, but not to a 95 Civic. And may be more reliable, but noisy, bouncy, and sagging all the way.
These helped GM nearly go under; no matter what the apologists say.
But the point is, all of that didn’t make the Cavalier feel as good as even some domestic competitors. a 1995 Cavalier doesn’t drive as good as a 1991 Ford Escort. Ford kept the same basic Escort all the way into overlap with the Focus, but the Escort was a more modern car.
The only reason the Cavalier and Sunfire had any chance of surviving beyond 1995 were the inevitable incentives and fleet duty. And that harmed General Motors actual customer base even more. Many of us had been subjected to Cavaliers and Sunfires being the basic rental option, being horrified by the experience and would never consider a small GM car because of it.
General Motors North America, until the Cruze, forgot/didn’t get the concept that you can lure people in and get them to trade up if you put out a nice welcome mat.
I still see a pretty good number of the last kinda awkwardly re-styled 2000 and up versions(dont recall when it done) on the road, and this is in FL not in the heartland.
Yes, its was crude and cheap, but durable too, sometimes you just need a “car” the J’s were that.
This is where I can get on the same page as you.
The fleet and loss leader j cars were horrible. Unfortunately that’s what people bought. This is a car that’s only as good as it’s options. GM made the same mistake with Cobalt and it’s on it’s way with Cruise.
When I met my ex she was tooling around in a low mileage1992 Escort LX. I wouldn’t put it up on a pedestal. The only advantage it had over the Cav was a hatchback.
If you’ve ever got to play around with a Cav LS Sport Coupe with the Stage 2 suspension package and Ecotec/5 speed combo(2001+) you’d be very surprised. It’s a rare bird but it was every bit as good as an Escort and better in every way compared to a first gen Focus.
You’re right, the LS Sport was a good example of how the Cavalier COULD have turned out if it hadn’t just been a low volume package. I’ve driven one, they handle great and the ecotec is smooth. But the rest of the line just had an overwhelmingly cheap and apathetic feel. They may have been pretty reliable, but their long model cycles and crushing mediocrity wasn’t doing anything for GM’s image.
And therein lies the problem. I could forgive a Cavalier if it drove halfway as decently as the LS Sport package is supposed to be in 1985, or even 1990. Why it took 20 model years to produce one niche decent Cavalier doesn’t make any sense. And even then, what money could GM lose by making all Cavaliers/Sunfires from 2001 on equal to one optional package?
A 2001 Cavalier better than a first-generation Focus? I don’t think so…
My parents bought a new 1986 Cavalier when I was young. 2-door, minimal options other than automatic transmission, 2.0L (I think). I was too young to drive then, but I remember it being slow and unrefined. It was totaled within a year, so no experience with long term reliability.
But I did have ample opportunity to drive these cars in high school in the 90s, as the older examples were cheap and thus common in high school parking lots by then. A friend had a Skyhawk, another had a Firenza. I mostly remember the slowness. You could mash the pedal and the car would downshift, but still would only accelerate at the laziest pace. I’m not sure if it was the slushbox or the weight of the car, but they just seemed so much lazier than other cars with similar power ratings. I think it was the experience with the Cavalier’s engine that led my parents to believe that you need a minimum of 6 cylinders to have decent performance.
Sometime around then my parents bought my brother a gently used Cimarron with the 2.8 and the porno-red leather interior. It lasted a couple of years before it blew its headgasket. With the 2.8 it was decently fast, but was still such a crude and poorly handling car.
Some friends had new Cavaliers in the later 1990s, and I remember that, despite the updated cosmetics, you could still feel the crudeness of the underlying 1980s mechanicals.
And I don’t think the crude handling/ride can be blamed entirely on the torsion bar, as there are plenty of similarly-sized cars of that era with torsion bars that do just fine.
Also, a relative in Europe had the Ascona 5-door with a 2.0 and the 5MT, and I spent a lot of time in the backseat on a very memorable road trip one summer in the early 90s. That car was significantly nicer. I assume Opel did a better job tuning the wallow out of the suspension, and it didn’t have that annoying throbbing exhaust note that so many GM engines of the 80s and 90s seemed to have. I was actually somewhat surprised to learn here that the Ascona was related to the Cavalier. I suppose it just shows how much GM North America got it wrong back then.
My father had an ’83 Skyhawk T-Type coupe (though not a turbo). He got 264,000 miles out of it somehow. Of course, I don’t think it was in good shape by the end, but it held up to his inconsistent maintenance and aggressive driving.
I was five when he got rid of it in the mid-1990s; the only real memory I have of the Skyhawk is my father blaming me for the sagging headliner (which of course was a common GM problem)!
The last time I was in a J-Car was in 2004, when my mother had a Sunfire rental when her car was in for service. TERRIBLE seats, rode like a bag of hammers, and made more noise than a kazoo symphony orchestra.
That sagging headliner syndrome is caused by always riding with the windows down and buffeting the interior with wind constantly. I don’t understand riding with windows down with a working a/c. Guess some people are just masochistic.
That rear suspension was fully up to the task. It was featured in the kadett and corsa too. Fine roadholding manners for the time and no intrusion in the bootspace to speak of. One of the biggest merits of the Opels of their day were their spacious boots. My father, an architect, was a no nonsense kind of guy so from his first car on it was Kadetts. I have seen all between the C and last type on the driveway, later on it were Astras. All but the C had that rear suspension and it just worked. I drove his E’s and Astras all teh time, had an Astra myself and cannot find fault with the roadholding or steering capabilities. I am a die hard W124 diesel man myself and yeah that is a whole different ballgame, but for it’s class, price and compared to the competition Opel could not be beat in those days. Good engines too, the lowly 1300 was quick enough and only took small sips. The Kadett was basicly a shrunken J (Ascona) and that was mighty popular too on the mainland and I think it also was a hit in the UK. Something must have gone very wrong in the US with this chassis. Bad shocks probably.
My dad never got the slushbox, me neither. We just don’t do that over here and that probably contributed a lot to the overall satisfying engine experience.
You and your dad were right not to choose automatics with gas powered four cylinder engines. ,
this is definitely a buyer’s Deadly Sin, what ever the car,
Automatics are OK with high torque engines, a big four cylinder diesel is Ok with an automatic as the diesel got more low end torque.
J car is best example of GM’s ‘good enough for cheap buyers’ attitude. Having it be virtually the same in 1994 as in 1982 was a mortal sin. I know quite a few had one and moved to Honda, etc, not a Lumina.
All the $ spent on Saturn and other high tech by Roger Smith could have been used for good compact and mid size cars, even better FWD big cars from the start. Not after many years on the market and then it ‘finally’ is bullet-proof.
And, the 95 ‘redesign’ to me was just new sheet metal on the old shell. The interiors were melted plastic, especially the Sunfire’s. Borrowed a friends ’99 Z24 and it was bouncy, and interior was already worn at 4 years old. Noisy and crude, but to some GM lifers, it was ‘good enough’.
I agree, the money spent on Saturn should have been spent on developing a kick-ass J-car replacement. Saturn represents the max-GM-80’s schitzo, here is a company with too many car lines and some say too many divisions, so what does it do, it creates another whole car company within itself to make small cars.
J car is best example of GM’s ‘good enough for cheap buyers’ attitude.
I think this is what did the most damage to GM’s future. Even though they weren’t the worst GM ever produced (i.e., not as bad as the Vega or Citation), they were still plenty craptacular and I would imagine that many J-car buyers thought, “This is it? This is the best GM can come up with for a small car?”, gave the Japanese a shot at trade-in time, and never looked back.
That was all GM ever did, was build “good enough”. But they weren’t and still aren’t even that.
The J cars, the Chevette, and the Aveo clearly articulate GM management’s view that small cars are for people who are to stingy to buy bigger cars and thus the small car should be penalty boxt that punishes them for not buying the bigger more profitable car GM wanted them to buy. The Cruze and the Sonic are exceptions that prove the rule since they originated outside the US where small cars are the norm and big cars are ostentatious.
Getting back on topic, the only J car I had extensive seat time in was my then girlfriend now wife’s 88 Cavalier sedan that had been her mother’s company car before mom bought it and gave it to her for graduation. On the plus side the only two times is died on the road were a flat tire on the BQE and a plug wire that fell off while driving around Portchester. On the minus side it was a slow noisy crapbox that didn’t even have defroster wires on the rear window (Florida car with an old fashioned blower on the parcel shelf). Since I was driving an 84 Jetta at the time and had been driving an 84 Accord a lot the gap between GM and import was very clear. We ended up selling it in 92 to buy a used Ford Ranger (she loved pickups) which even in poverty spec S trim was still a better driving vehicle than the Cavalier. As an aside, I’m not sure which wound up her parents more, getting engaged to me or selling the Cavalier to buy a pickup.
GM brass always considered small car buyer as a social underclass, a looser, low IQ idiot who deserves nothing better than crude under-engineered misery boxes that they offered, After all, they got 10 times as much profit selling an Eldorado than selling a Cavalier.
They were wrong!
This short shortsightedness definitely destroyed the company the way we all witnessed in recent years.
Small car design is an engineering challenge, that GM was never willing to put it’s research and development resources in it,
Thank you lord! Someone realizes that the Cruze is not even an American car. It is Korean. GM still has no idea how to build a good small car, or any size car for that matter.
The Cavalier’s tag line was pretty much “Well, it’s better than the Vega/Monza at least!”
My neighbor got a ‘restyled’ 2003, but after 3 years, the gold bow tie badge was crinkled and cracked. Now has a 2012 Focus. How could GM still be so dirt cheap that recent? They deserved to go bankrupt.
Those disintegrating Chevy badges were not just on the Cavalier. My uncle’s ’05 Trailblazer did the same thing. It’s a pretty good truck otherwise.
I remember wanting to write a piece for TTAC in 08-09 about how GM expected people to believe that its quality was so vastly improved when it couldn’t even manage to make the stupid EMBLEM last for 3 years. I can only imagine how much damage was done when the most visible piece of branding on your Chevrolets was cracking and shriveling and looking like crap in a very short time. Not good.
I ordered a 1982 (1981?) Cavalier 3-door hatchback Type 10 (red with dark red mouse-fur interior) and waited 4 or 5 months for delivery. It had the 1.8L with 4-speed manual shift. It was the worst GM car I ever owned. It spent weeks at the dealership with a large oil leak. It got “fixed” several times and then a few months later I would change the oil – the leaking would start again. Dealer put heavyweight oil in the crankcase? Anyway the engine/transmission started making ominous noises (after being taken apart several times) and I drove it to the Pontiac dealer. I bought a Sunbird (J2000?) with the 1.8L-ohc engine – a satisfactory replacement.
you know, they actually look ok which is the point i guess. the bean counters at gm who approved these monstrosities never drove a cavalier themselves. so as long as they looked good in the advertising and the price was right, they were approved for production. by the time these hit the streets, nobody i knew and i mean nobody drove an american small car. everybody and i mean everybody had moved on to japanese or european cars. i remember getting one of these at a rental counter and being astounded at how crude it was compared to anything else i had been inside in years.
I think people put waaay to much emphasis on how crappy the car is. Its not that bad. Look at toyotas last recall and any VW since 92 . Now thats crap! Im a VW guy by heart BTW. Truth is the hatches and the redesign do look pretty good in my eyes. I always thought the Z24 looked pretty good. Especially with the 2.8 performance. Same with Sunbird. They can be pretty respectable performers done right. Now, before people argue done right. Look at what people have to do to get civics and other makes to “perform” . They were decent no more no less. If you complain about the interior or ride of the base model, then dont get the base model.
‘the variety of wheezing penalty boxes the Big 3 used to respond to the 3rd (or 4th?) title wave of overly competent imports from Europe and Japan are now “classic” cars.’
When I got my license in ’89, it seemed like every teenager drove the parents’ Cav or Escort. I preferred my 2.2 Horizon to either. Hondas were definitely nicer, but my car was at least faster than the Civics I encountered.
We had a 1993 four door Cavalier that we bought used (former rental) when our finances were in terrible shape and we had to have something. It was an “RS” model – white with a red tape stripe. Joke among salesmen was that RS stood for Red Stripe. I think every 93 had that stripe. Another year they were all blue. The car was about as bad as everyone described but it did get us around and it was sort of quick up to about 30 mph. the motor mounts were especially weak. Once they failed the car could not be left in drive at a stop light or it might shake itself to pieces.
All that said GM sort of had it right. It was satisfactory for basic transportation at the one year old used price point.
And with the blue stripe that was the BS model.
As others have pointed out, there was a 3 door Cavalier with a pointy “aero” nose that you never ever see anymore, in fact the single headlight Cavaliers have become pretty “rare” the 4 headlight versions though are still seen frequently.
Yes, the Type 10. I really liked the looks of those. One of the neighbors (or friends of theirs) had one in gunmetal gray in the mid ’80s. I don’t think I’ve seen one since then.
True confession time: I considered buying one of these once. In 1985, I was into the great search for my first new car. We went to Tennessee for a family wedding, and I rode several times in the backseat of my cousin Dave’s fairly new (84?) Cavalier Type 10 coupe. Decently trimmed and with a stick, I decided that I should put aside my old anti-Chevy prejudice and check one out.
After I got home, I went to a dealer and told them I wanted to drive a Type 10 with a 5 speed. This was a big dealer in Indianapolis, but no 5 speeds were to be had (on their sporty Cavalier). So I drove an automatic (it may not even have been a Type 10). On my short test drive, I suddenly wondered “What, in the name of all that is Holy, am I doing in this awful car?” All I remember about the drive was that I had liked every single other car I had ever test driven over this one, and that I needed to find the fastest route back to the dealer and get the hell out of that car. So yes – I may be the only person who ever cross-shopped a VW GTI, a Mustang GT and a Cavalier. And I am not proud of it. 🙂
This car’s success can be summed up as follows: in the midwest, a HUGE segment of the population once believed that the worst of GM was better than the best of anything else. So lots and lots of people with Park Avenues, Eighty Eights and Bonnevilles bought Cavaliers (or Skyhawks or Firenzas or whatever) for their high school kids, or helped buy them for their older newlywed kids. Why did they stay around so long? I blame CAFE which required large numbers of cheap small cars to go out the door to offset the profitable larger cars. No development means no new costs to amortize which allows the incentives to be bigger. Short term thinking, but understandable. Once the price kept coming down, the fleets jumped in and it was a self-perpetuating cycle.
My father bought a new Camira a week before I moved to Australia it seemed ok to ride in to the airport and ironicly for 4 days before we moved back to NZ I hired a cheap rental as Id sold my fleet and needed wheels I got lumbered with a 86 Camira wagon possibly the worst car Ive ever driven yes it was nearly 20 years old but the 63 Holden & 74 Toyota Id just sold were so much better. I actually parked next to a Camira at Southwards museum recently I didnt shoot it despite its rarity though my fathers second Camira is on the cohort its the very rare outside Japan Isuzu Aska version(wikipedia asked permission to use the shots).
This also reminds me tha for a while there Chevrolet liked to put the cars model name on the front fender ahead of the wheel, seems strange now, but the Cavalier, Citation, Celebrity and my 80 Caprice has it there too.
It meant they only had to make a little plastic badge to differentiate models
I had an ’84 Type 10 that I bought used in 1988. It had the five speed, and a week after I bought it I had to take it back to the dealer to have the shift linkage fixed. The mechanic was an idiot. When I took it in, I told him that the shifter didn’t work properly (I couldn’t get it past second gear). He then gave me a shop manual and asked me to point out the problem. I nearly blew a gasket (no pun intended) and told him that it was his job to figure it out, not mine. I had the same problem a few months later and I took it to a different GM dealer and they told me it might need a new transmission. The transmission had been replaced shortly before I bought the car, so I told them to shut up and fix the shifter. After a few months it went again, and I took it to yet another GM dealer. This place didn’t have a bozo for a mechanic, and it finally worked right for the rest of the four years I owned the car. Overall it wasn’t a bad car and I got a lot of use out of it, but the indifferent treatment I got from those first two dealers really stuck in my craw, and I have no time for stupid service personnel. And I’ve never bought another GM product.
With growing up in the shadow of Lordstown, we swam in a sea of J-cars. As I and my cohort were in our early 20’s when the car was released, many of us bought these things new. Some were good, some were bad.
The revisionists seem to forget it wasn’t JUST the GM cars that were crap. Many, many other domestic and foreign cars were crap, my 1980 Mercury Capri Turbo being Exhibit One. Job One was to get the check by any means. My former girlfriend had a 1978 Honda Accord that was slow and rusty with the droopy interior, but by God it was a great car because the farkin’ dealer would kiss their ass every time they came in. Free fenders for everyone!
Not that the J’s weren’t without their faults. They had similar issues as the X-cars with locking rear brakes and morning sickness power steering racks, to mention two. But there were significantly less issues with the J’s than the X’s, which would set a pattern. The A’s and N’s that followed were better yet, but the cluster that was the Saturn program robbed so many cars of development funds would cripple any attempts to improve upon the level the cars attained.
The 1995 re-design would solve a lot of the perceived and real faults of the J-cars, one of which was model proliferation, The cars added some extra interior space, a lot more rigidity than the first two gens, and even a glove box that you could keep a six pack of Cokes in, not to mention gloves.
I never owned either one of the first two gens, I have a couple of third gens. My 1995 Sunfire GT with Quad 4 and the ever crappy Isuzu five speed trans has over (an indicated) 160K miles on it. At 17 years, the Quad 4 has no oil or antifreeze sludge and keeps even (110 psi) compression across all four cylinders. I admit to using the universal orange coolant, but I don’t even know where to find DexCool. My 1997 Cavalier has 252K miles on the 2.2 pushrod motor, the body will rust off the car before the drivetrain dies. Up until last fall, my daughter had a 2004 Sunfire SE with the 2.2 Eco and the autobox. It was totaled in a freeway pileup, she came out of it without a scratch.
Of the three cars, the 2004 Sunfire was THE car to have, the Ecotec pumped out a solid 150 HP and 37 MPG (freeway; observed, pencil and paper). The whole car was assembled very well, and GM (finally) got the seats right. The differences between the 2004 and the 1995’s are a vast chasm, I have to imagine the differences between the 1982 and 1988 J’s was equally dramatic.
Some may remember that the J’s were intially targeting the original Accords, I don’t seem to remember the marketing skewing that way. It was not long before the J’s were in direct competition with other small cars, as within a couple of years of the J’s release, the Accord moved up a size.
The J’s for better or worse, were trying to be everything to everyone, with two door coupes to five door wagons. During its run it had an immense series of powertrains. I bought and drove a boatload of cars in the 80s, among the big three, they were all pretty equal. The only reason why I would put the Mopars ahead of the GMs is because they were markedly faster in the hi-po versions. And less costly to buy and run. You may have gotten a nice Honda or Toyota or VW, but you were going to pay for it. From my experiences, the value wasn’t there.
Sorry for this diatribe, I just think that folks really aren’t remembering things clearly. We’re judging these old cars through today’s lens, while ignoring that all cars had significant problems back in the day. I wish GM with it’s new found lack of debt would spend a few million and give us the Cruze hatchback and wagon that they produce overseas. I would love to find a Cruze coupe, maybe with a turbo’d Ecotec, like the previous gen Cobalt SS. Why can’t we get the Orlando in the US?
I would like to see GM again dare to give us a line up of small cars as comprehensive as the original J-bodies.
Replying to my own post, but I thought this was pertinent:
I checked fuel mileage at refill today. ($3.99/gallon in W. Michigan… woo hoo!)
26.5 MPG mixed city/hwy driving.
I don’t baby this car, by any stretch of the imagination. I tried driving it like a grandma, and hooning it, the mileage is + or – 1.5 MPG of that figure.
So, I rev it to 5000 RPM, bang shifts off, and generally enjoy the music the Quad 4 provides. The Magnaflow cat has made a big difference in drivability, and the sound is a plus. On sunny days like we’ve been having, it’s great to drive around with the windows down and the radio off.
I’d drive this car for a few more years, but the body is rusting away and I need to get a bigger car anyway. It’s getting tougher and tougher to fold myself into the car, and I’d like something easier to load my drum kit into.
Still holding out for that HHR SS…
I remember being very unimpressed with the J-Car. Their reliability was inferior to that of the Honda Civic or Toyota Corolla (the real competition after about 1985, as you noted, because the Accord and Camry grew in size). And GM build quality was wildly inconsistent compared to that of Toyota or Honda.
The bitter truth is that these cars were widely hyped upon introduction (they made the cover of Newsweek in the spring of 1981), and were real disappointments. They certainly did nothing to arrest GM’s slide in market share. My first brand-new car was a 1988 Honda Civic DX sedan; it was a superior car in every way to a contemporary J-Car. I believe that history has pretty much upheld that judgment.
Your best post ever.
@Laurence: “If most people think of the GM FWD A bodies as roach like, what can the Cavalier (and its long suffering Pontiac Partner) be? They went 24 years without any major change underneath the skin, just minor tweaks and additions of features to keep them barely relevant and legal to sell. Sure, like the A-bodies, some of the mechanicals finally became durable, but not a single Cavalier encouraged first time car buyers that moving up to a larger GM car meant things would improve out of the penalty box stage.”
The Cockroach of the Road™ is the term you’re searching for, I believe. The cockroach appellation can be applied to any kind of car during any period of time. When I lived in Atlanta during the 90’s, most any beige or white Camry could have accurately been described as a Cockroach of the Road™, as there were that many back then.
Over the 24 years of the J-body program, there were a huge number of models at one time, not just the Chevy and Pontiacs. The Olds, Buick and Cadillac variations were equally numerous, but were put out to pasture long before the 1995 redesign. Only the Cimarron seems to register with anyone. Find me a mint 1986 or later hatchback Olds Firenza SX with the 2.8 V6, F41 suspension and five speed tranny, and I’ll be your friend forever.
It really was redesigned in 1995. My BIL had a new Saturn at that time, he was crazy about the plastic fantastic. He ended up with a then-new Cavalier as a rental after the SL-1 was involved in an accident. The Cavalier had a much better thought out interior, instead of just aping a recent model Civic like the SL-1 did. People complain about the melted interior and the PlaySkool buttons, but when you operate the controls with gloves in sub-zero weather like we get in the upper midwest, those toy-like controls actually work function well.
The place of assembly makes all of the difference in how the particular car feels; I’m not a fan of the Mexican assembled J’s, they seem to fall apart. The best ones were built in Lansing (Dr Olds, where are you?) with Lordstown and Janesville (for the early cars) in that order.My quarter million mile Cavalier? Sorry my Ohio brothers, the Lansing plant made that one. (I hate to say that, I know I will get crap for admitting it.)
The cars were heavily revised during each of their generations; If you compared an early 3rd gen to a late 3rd gen, they only really share some major sub-assemblies. Knowing several people who had them in the 80’s, by the time we got to the later editions of the cars, they were significantly improved. They may not have evolved as far or as rapidly as some others, but it was still happening.
Maybe I’m one of the few who has had good experiences with J’s, but I can’t be the only one.
“Maybe I’m one of the few who has had good experiences with J’s, but I can’t be the only one.”
I had a good experience with a 1990 Sunbird (2.0 SOHC / 5MT) that my wife had when we met. It lasted for 17 years as a commuter, and was still going strong at 250,000 km when we got rid of it.
Not refined or well built – but definitely reliable, durable, and economical. Hard to fault it for its cost per mile…
But after buying the early model, who in hell would want to even try a later model? Hence, the bankruptcy.
I would be very curious to hear the thoughts of folks who’ve spent significant time in BOTH the American J-cars and their European counterparts. Another entry for the eternal “is it the cars, the roads, or the expectations?” question.
Technically, the Cavalier replaced the H-body Monza. Strange then for the local Brazilian version of the J-car, they used the Monza name in Brazil. Here a vintage ad on Youtube.
Note then Pontiac had some troubles findind an identity for their J-body, first it was J2000, then 2000, Sunbird 2000, Sunbird and Sunfire.
Wow, this really brought out the commentariat! My own J-car experience was with an ’82 Type 10 hatch with the 1.8L and a 4 speed manual. It was my first car loan (Mom co-signed, and thankfully I managed to pay the thing off all by myself), and the longer I owned the car, the more I realized I really got “took” by the Used Car Dealer (“That’d be Nalley!”).
At any rate, I have always been under the impression my car had the Brazilian engine in it, but from the comments above, it doesn’t sound like that could be the case. I do know that once the air pump seized and I removed as much of the rest of the emissions junk as possible, it revved very easily and I considered the car to be fairly quick (my previous driver was a Buick V6-powered Vega, which was ludicrously fast). It would pull to 100mph without too much trouble…
I lightened the car as much as possible, shaved the drip rails, cut a coil off all the springs, replaced the front sway bar with a larger one from a Z24, and fabricated brackets and installed a second stock sway bar parallel to the factory bar. A custom-fabricated rear spoiler, front and side ground effects and a monochromatic white paint job finished it off. It handled like it was on rails!
I found it to be a comfortable trip car, and really had no major problems to speak of besides the seized air pump. I think I had maybe 120K on it when I got The Mother of All Speeding Tickets and had to park it.
I switched to a after that…
Well, something ate my comment, so rather than retype the whole thing, here’s a short version about my ’82 Type 10 hatch. 1.8L and 4 speed. Bought it used, extensively reworked the undercarriage (handled like it was on rails), and found it to be reasonably quick (I always thought I had the Brazilian engine, but from the comments above, I guess that can’t have been the case). Got my last, and The Mother of All Speeding Tickets™ in 1985 and had to park the car, eventually getting rid of it, having switched by then to my 1971 VW Bus, “The Mayfield Belle.”
Great write-up, Laurence. I too turn 30 in a couple months, and also have vivid memories of the J-car. A 1984 Cavalier was “my” first car. Quotes because I didn’t buy it–it had been my parents’ daily driver in the ’80s.
It was a wagon–brown, with matching sheets of rust on the hood and a mismatched black hubcap–with the 2.0L and 3AT. It had two saucer-sized gauges: an 85 mph speedometer, and a mostly-empty one except for three idiot lights and a thumbnail-sized gas gauge. At night, the dials had this sickly, uneven green glow like the radar from a WWII U-boat.
It was great fun to drive, because the 13-inch tires squealled at or near the posted speed in most curves. The brakes were scary. I recall a friend driving it once–he began braking for a stop sign, and rolled through the entire intersection before gently coming to a stop on the other side, turning to me, agape.
One winter, it developed a bad roof leak, and the headliner sagged down to the beltline. We tore it out, so every time you hit a bump, the interior would “snow” insulation, and it started to grow lichen in the footwells.
I put a “GT350” badge on the fender and a K&N filter in it that Spring; not many of my classmates got the joke.
I came home from college one weekend (by then I had bought a used Miata) and it was gone–my parents had had it junked. Wasn’t fun for them either, as it had been in the family for 18 years then, but still felt like getting to the end of Old Yeller.
In the late ’80’s I was looking for a replacement for my AMC/Renault Appliance, I drove a number of automobiles, including an ’89 Chevy Cavalier. I was totally turned off by the cheap interior; the entire interior had a really cheap look and feel, panel fit was terrible. I ended up buying a 1988 Mercury Tracer. The difference between these two vehicles
(the Tracer and the Cavalier) couldn’t have been more different-the Tracer was vastly
superior in all counts.
It is interesting though that the wagon featured does not incorporate the bumper at the base of the tailgate as do the Holden/Vauxhall wagons. Instead it appears that the bumper is lower, below the tailgate (which does not appear to extend as low) which also requires taller tail lights.
There is a good photo of a Camira wagon on the Holden Camira wikipedia page. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:1987-1989_Holden_JE_Camira_SLX_station_wagon_01.jpg
FWIW my cousin had a JE model Camira wagon (86-88 era) back in the day, by that stage they had worked through the bugs and had 2.0 EFI engines. He had it for years, it was relegated to commuter duty when they bought a Mitsubishi Nimbus in the early/mid 90′s (aka Space Wagon) when their 4th kid came along
As someone who RACED one of these things for 3 glorious LeMony years, they can be made to work well as driver’s cars. I’ve built two 1987 wagons as racers, and the best thing is that just about any 60* V6 can be made to fit, and cheaply.
Manual gearboxes are hard to find, but worth the effort. A careful bit of spring matching and shortening and a huge rear sway bar gives good (for fwd) handling.
I don’t have any experience with driving one in stock condition, I did drive the second race car across the country before it got a V6, and that 2.0/TH125 was horribly slow. But I was too busy being deafened by the stripped interior and wondering if I was going to get pulled over when some cop noticed the roll cage…
My wife had an 86 2-door Cavaler, automatic, 2.0, basic light blue model with dark blue cloth seats. She took great care of that car and it was RELIABLE!! It ran and ran even after she sold it in 1996 to buy a used Accord. It had well over 100k when she got rid of it. Rust was an issue, but mechanically it was strong as an ox. I wonder if these cars weren’t maintained well and that led to their overall stigma of being crappy. She still talks about how reliable that car was!
I bought a Cavalier brand new with 43 miles on it 2002. Crank windows, manual door locks, no cruise, just air, tilt, and a CD player. Just rolled over 191,000 miles today. It ain’t pretty, but besides tires, brakes, and a couple of batteries, I haven’t done a thing to it. It replaced my ’96 Contour, which blew up at 120,000 miles. I never loved it, but I do respect it. It turned this Ford man in to a Bow-tie guy.
In the late 80’s we my parents had an 82 Cavalier CL Wagon with a manual. They bought it from friends of ours who replaced the little wagon with a new silver Celebrity EuroSport wagon. I remember very little about it except that my dad thought it was gray and silver (he wont admit he’s slightly colorblind) and he hated it for being too small and rough and unrefined. But it wouldnt stop running and I remember hearing the car revving like mad racing down the driveway the day my sister was born (my father drives careful and slow most of the time).
We had just purchased our first Astro Van (a dark brown 86 CS base model) which my dad loved to pieces and drove for 250k until it got “weak” In 1990 another base 88 Astro CS (this time dark gray) showed up at the same lot we got the first one. My dad whipped around as he was friends witht the owner and an hour later we had traded the Cavalier for the gray van which my mom loved and drove to 179k, when it became my first car.
Turns out some guy would buy an Astro or Safari new every two years. We bought the first two and kept them all through the 90s. That started our families love affair with those vans and my parents drove half a dozen over a million miles befor moving to Caravans only when they stopped making the Astros and to get better mileage
To us the important factor is to get from a to b the most efficiently and economically, with the best reliability… couldnt beat a GM for that and today my two cars are an 88 GMC Sierra with 250k and a 90 Buick Century with 150K. I commute an hour to work every day and would drive either anywhere with not much of a worry.
I drive a ’90 Cavalier with the 2.2 / aw tow. As soon as it is started I hear this odd noise which resembles a stone rolling around in a coffee can. It seems to be coming from the water pump or a/c compressor. The car has just over 53 thousand miles on the odor. Its been threw Katrina (pun intended)- it was resting comfortably on the street when it was unexpectedly bathed in the storm surge. I ripped out carpeting and gave ‘er a good washing. All it needs now is a new wiring harness and some rust repair. But does anyone know what the noise is? I’ve been driving it about two years with the sound.
My late wife, my girlfriend at the time, totaled her 1980 Sunbird, a really nice one, and ordered a new 1982 base Cavalier in August of 1981. The only good thing about that car was the nice light blue color. She let her sister drive it to Myrtle Beach the next summer and the cooling fan relay failed, and her sister had no idea anything was wrong, since there were no gauges. She apparently drove the 180 miles home with a blown head gasket, which the dealership did not fix for free. I don’t remember how many miles my girlfriend drove it that first year, so the 12,500 mile warranty may have been up. It cost her $300 (1982 dollars, about, what, $900 now?) for the dealership to fix it. She drove that poor POS for 6 years, finally having enough when the CV boots cracked and the joints started seizing, sending the car into intermittent shuddering fits. We had a newborn daughter at that time and I didn’t want her riding in that death trap, so I took my girlfriend to a Toyota dealership and she bought a 1987 Toyota Tercel DX 4-door hatchback which was a demonstrator with 5000 miles on it. Yes, the rare one. That car soldiered on for 7 years with only a timing belt replacement, although we never had the defective carb replaced and it never would get out of its own way, but she wasn’t Dale Earnhardt anyway. That is my J-car experience, and it sucked. The Tercel, by the way, bad carb design and all, still accelerated better than the Cavalier.
I wonder if the Cavalier’s problem was GM applied truck logic to a small car. Cavaliers are by and large durable, cheap to buy, cheap to fix, and there are mountains of parts in the scrapyard. These are great qualities in a work truck. You put up with a bouncy ride and low rent interiors because you are filling it with mulch, scrap metal, your buddies couch, or a lawnmower and weedwacker. The truck is either making you money or running a wifely errand. The wife is happy with the freshly mulched bushes, your buddy has a place to sit, and your BIL threw you a few bucks for cleaning out his rental property and whacking some weeds. The truck goes and that’s all you really need it to do. A car you drive to work needs refinement, comfort, and to be a pleasant place to be after 10 hours of work. The low rent interior and bouncy ride begins to wear on you. There’s still a niche for a cheap, durable and unrefined small car in the used market. You buy a 4 year old Cavalier instead of a new Honda because you put the difference toward student loans, your mortgage, or starting a small buisness. VW has somehow found a niche for expensive and unreliable small cars which still baffles me.
As a mechanic for the last 40 years, and having owned over 170+ cars, it never ceases to amaze me how many idiots claim to be experts on their own merit. Probably less than 5% of the people that posted above, even have any clue how to ACTUALLY work on a car, let alone pump their own gas. Foreign cars, cheap junk. New “muscle cars”, junk. Smoky Yunick said,” There’s no substitute for cubic inches.” Still holds true today. New Mustangs, Vettes, Challengers claim to have all this horsepower, but they can’t get it to the ground. TOO much power with inexperienced drivers, not only loses races, but fills up junkyards. My “P.O.S.” 75 Monza Town Coupe eats new plastic shit boxes every time their balls grow, and get them handed to them on a regular basis. it’s hilarious to see them try to show off to their girlfriends, and get owned by a 44 year old glorified Vega! What do I drive daily? A mint ’86 Cavalier wagon, with 60K on it, from an old lady in NJ. $800, and I get more thumbs up than any of my Chevelles, GTOs, or any other car I’ve had. And if you put big ass 15″ 60’s all around, the do ride like a Caddy, handle sick, and STILL get 35 mpg.