Curbside Classic: 1990 Chevrolet Cavalier Z-24- Camaro Z-28 Minus Four?

Z-24 side view 1

(first posted 3/9/2014)    Chevy takes quite a beating over the Cavalier. Critics tell us the car was too heavy, remained unchanged over the years, and didn’t break any new ground. While I agree with these assessments, Chevy did improve the Cavalier over the years, and this second generation model may be it’s sweet spot, especially this Z-24 model.


The Cavalier was already a couple of years old in 1986 when Chevy decided to add the Citation’s 2.8 liter 60 degree V-6 to the option sheet. This engine was a step in the right direction, delivering the traditional low-end torque domestic car fans were looking for while also compensating for the Cavalier’s relatively high curb weight.

To celebrate this new found power, Chevy offered the Z-24 performance package with upgraded wheels and suspension, ground effects, and an optional rear spoiler. I test drove a couple of these back in the day, and while the specification sheet listed a pretty solid horsepower rating (for the time), this car jut didn’t seem to deliver very much get up and go. While This Chevy ad tried to equate the Cavalier Z-24 with the Camaro and Corvette, the car just didn’t deliver. To my mind, in 1986 the math was more Z-28 minus 15, not Z-28 minus 4.

z-24 front 3 quarter

However, in 1988 Chevy refreshed the Cavalier and Z-24. The coupe received updated sheet metal (including a new roofline) and underhood, the 2.8 received a new set of aluminum heads, complete with a redesigned intake manifold. While the car only gained 10 horsepower on paper, the throttle response and drivability improved across the board, now justifying Chevy’s “Z” prefix.

Z-24 rear 3 quarter

I’m not exactly a Chevy guy, but over the years I’ve owned a couple, including a 1988 Cavalier Z-24. I actually spent several months looking for one equipped with the features I wanted (unusual for me), and ended up with a car very similar to this one. The “3.1” badge on the front fender indicates this is a 1990 Z24, but the engine displacement and body color is the only difference between this car and my 1988 model .

Looking at the parts alignment between the left tail light, trunk lid, bumper cover and lower trim piece reminds me why I got rid the car after only a year of ownership. My own car looked much the same when I got it, and I attempted to rectify the situation. After adjusting things they fit better, but still fell short of perfection. While I liked the overall design of the car, the final product scored at about 82%. All the elements came close, but nothing earned an A rating.

Z-24 interior

Another example of Chevy missing the mark: that shift lever in the center console. It’s connected to a three speed automatic which is a gear short in my mind. In addition, Chevy programmed it to upshift as soon as possible (they were shooting for maximum fuel economy). The 2.8 could manage such high gearing at low speeds, but thanks to this design, my sporty little Chevy now delivered pathetic performance in stop and go driving. It turns out a V-6 driving through third gear performs very much like a four cylinder using second gear.

Z-24 power bulges

I suppose I should be critical of some of the Z-24’s styling elements as well; I’m sure some out there will find this composite hood with double power bulges a bit cartoonish. But styling is subjective, and in this case I think the choices Chevy made nicely set the Z-24 apart from lesser Cavaliers. A sporty car needs some flash, and I think the Z-24 stays on the right side of that line separating “Check me out” from “Hey you A-holes, look at ME!”

Z-24 wheel and sill

This angle shows the best and worst styling features in the same shot. While I see where Chevy was going with the new roofline on this car, the transition from the C-pillar to the rear fender misses the mark. It’s not awful, but is the most awkward line on the car. Conversely, I love the square insert in the wheel center. Tires and wheels are so absolutely round, that adding a square element right in the center would seem to be completely wrong. But something about it works. Perhaps it’s the fact that squares and circles are both such fundamental geometric shapes that they work together. I liked the 1988 insert with a tight grid pattern even more, but this bowtie cover still has panache.

Z-24 side view 2

As some of you may recall, I’ve often criticized seventies-era designers for sticking square headlights on existing designs. However, on eighties-era cars, I typically prefer the later aerodynamic designs over the earlier square headlight cars. In fact, I like this generation of the Cavalier best. It nicely updated the folded paper look of the original Cavalier without turning into a nineties jelly bean. With just a little more refinement, this car might have had quality and performance to match its looks. But it didn’t, so I can bid adieu to today’s Curbside Classic without any pangs of regret.