Curbside Classic: 1989 Chevrolet Cavalier CL Wagon – Final Days


(first posted 1/25/2016)

Ah, the Chevy Cavalier.

It would seem that every person I know (myself included) has either owned one or at least one of its J-body cousins in the Pontiac Sunbird (and later Sunfire)… or perhaps an earlier cousin of the more rare variety like the Buick Skyhawk, Oldsmobile Firenza or maybe even the infamous Cadillac Cimarron. The Cavalier always lead the J-body pack in terms of sales and at one point in time, they were absolutely everywhere. The final production Cavaliers (and Sunfires, too) are still found all over the place, continuing to rack up the miles as inexpensive ‘A-to-B’ commuters or a reasonably reliable first car for the newest of drivers; quite a storied end for a car that took a bit to get out of the gate.


The Cavalier started to appear on dealership lots in 1981 as a 1982 model and was the front-wheel-drive replacement for the rear-drive Chevrolet Monza which had ceased production in 1980. Buyers had the choice of a 2-door sedan, 2-door hatchback, 4-door sedan and 4-door wagon adorned with a woefully weak 88 hp 1.8L four cylinder engine breathing through a 2 bbl carb. This introductory power plant was also found in the Cavalier’s badge engineered cousins, the 1982 Buick Skylawk, Oldsmobile Firenza, Cadillac Cimarron and Pontiac J2000, renamed the 2000 in 1983, the 2000 Sunbird in 1984, the Sunbird in 1985 and finally arriving at the Sunfire nameplate in 1995.


The 1983 Cavalier featured a larger 2.0L four with throttle body injection and a convertible joined the line up. The drop top continued to be offered until the end of the 2000 model year with Pontiac also offering a convertible during the same period. In 1984, the Cavalier received its first refresh with quad headlights and a revised grille up front while the 1985 models finally received the 2.8L GM 60 degree V6 found in the larger Citation & Celebrity as the top end engine option, giving the car a much needed performance boost. Sporty RS & Z24 trim levels would arrive for 1986 and appeal to the sport minded or younger buyer while replacing the ‘Type 10’ sport trim level offered since 1982.


The Cavalier received its first major facelift in 1988 which included much more aerodynamic sheet metal, composite headlights up front, revised tail lights in the back with the hatchback being dropped from the line up. The 2.0L four continued as the base engine with the 2.8L V6 powering the upper end CL and RS models as an option and Z24 models as the standard power plant, mated to either a three-speed automatic or five-speed manual. The RS trim level also extended to the 4-door sedan and wagon body styles, giving these a sporty look.


This second generation line up would receive upgraded engines in 1990 (the 2.2L four and 3.1L V6) another cosmetic facelift for 1991, including front and rear fascia, which would carry on until the end of the 1994 model year. I personally owned a 1990 Z24 wearing the black over silver paint scheme, 3.1L V6/automatic combo, loaded up with all the goodies around 1998. It was a quick car for the times and sounded nice with that distinctive 60 degree V6 drone like the 2.8L before it. I still hear others recount their ownership and experiences with the V6 Z24s of the second generation, usually fondly to boot.


The Cavalier would be redesigned for 1995 and morph into its final curvy iteration, with the wagon gone from the line up and V6 engine replaced by the 2.4L ‘quad 4’ as the top end engine, standard on the Z24. This engine was replaced in 2002 by the newly developed 2.2L Ecotec engine, which powered the Cavalier until the end of its production run.  This final 1995 redesign would carry on with few changes other than a light facelift in 2000 and again in 2003 until it was finally replaced by the Cobalt after the 2005 model year, ending a long and successful run for GM.


The 1982-1994 Cavaliers are a rare sight on the roads today with those built between 1982 and 1987 being especially scarce. Today’s example was found, not surprisingly, sitting almost abandoned in a lonely pay parking lot in Duncan, British Columbia. I have always felt that the Cavalier wagon offered up nice lines as a subcompact station wagon, especially those of the 1988-1990 era, riding on the upgraded style steel (or ralleye) wheels and decked out in RS trim. This particular CL wagon offers a nice package outside of the RS paint scheme and grabbed my attention immediately, despite its worn and rusty condition after 26+ years of service.


I could not quite get a read of the odometer but there’s no question this car has seen many miles and likely a few owners since it first hit the streets in 1989. Its ‘beater-with-a-heater’ type of service is highlighted by the visible jerry can and milk crate of tools in the rear and it will ultimately find its way to the crusher sooner than later, removing yet another of these examples from the road. It carries around a fair amount of lower body rust, which was always a vulnerable place on the first and second generation cars and many examples are long departed from the roads as a result. The notion that this car has lived out its life here on the West Coast is likely a reason that the severe rusting has been kept at bay much longer than usual.


It would have been an attractively trimmed wagon when it was new considering it has the V6 engine, air conditioning, power windows and locks and upgraded wheels. The majority of ’89 Cavaliers were equipped with little more outside of the 2.0L engine and standard equipment package given their position and success in the GM line up as basic transportation. Those who opted for the V6 equipped RS & Z24 models received a lively package at an attractive price with these higher trimmed cars happily changing young owners during their days on the street.


At the end of the day, the Cavalier was continually built a little bit better as each model year progressed and though the potential was there for disastrous results given its long introductory model year and terribly weak performance, it ultimately found its way to being one of the best selling cars in America and certainly here in Canada too. Once so common that they littered the streets and parking lots of seemingly everywhere you went, they are slowly and quietly fading away, with the occasional ‘classic’ model popping up here and there as a reminder of what once was, like that song you used to hear all the time but forgot all about.

Oh, how time flies.