I think it’s fair to say that GM has historically been…hit and miss with their compact and below cars. The Corvair was unique and sporty, but the Mustang soon put it out to pasture. Next to it, the Nova was a solid performer evolving into a somewhat unsung hero of hot-rodders as they realized pretty much any engine/gearbox combo they could desired would be welcomed in its capacious engine bay. And so it has gone through the decades. Their latest compact, the Cruze, was good enough to be legitimately viewed as a choice against the CivRollAccent alternatives and bought by a millennial-favorite elderly gentleman from Vermont. Sadly, it seems as though the waning popularity in sedans will be the thing that ends this particular foray rather than anything wrong with the car.
And then there’s the brand new Chevrolet Cavalier.
Now, the last time GM made a car with the Cavalier nameplate, it was the 1995-2005 J-Body which suffered from much of the same maladies as the final-gen Cutlass that I wrote up for this pages a long time ago. Good enough may have been good enough, but it was hardly what GM needed to wrestle sales from the Corolla, the Civic or the Sentra. Then again, same complaints could be lobbied to the Cobalt that came to replace it. Even as a snotball hanging around when his parents were deciding on their next car, I could tell that there was something amiss on the Cavalier.
Then again, I was very excited to see the Corsa B with a trunk (Monza) and wanted to go home with one of those, make of that what you will. With that record, you would think that it would be the easiest thing in the world for me to go and use the new Cavalier as a punching bag with wild abandon, the same way autojournos who don’t race the things on ChumpCar have been using them for the last decade or so. But actually, the new Cavalier has quite an interesting history that warrants a closer look.
The story of the new Cavalier begins, as do most stories involving everyday products that we use, in China. The SAIC-GM joint venture set in 1997 has been a relatively stable source of income for the General. What started as the sale of some rebadged GM minivans and compact imports (including that Corsa B with Buick badges) has ballooned into a market in which the General has sold no less than one million vehicles per year since 2010. In addition to that, they have also gotten into developing their own vehicles and platforms, such as what they did for the 2015 Chevrolet Sail subcompact, which went from the Gamma platform to a bespoke one. They have also created their own range of engines based on Suzuki’s S-TEC line.
It’s with all that expertise that GM Shanghai decided to tackle a problem. They had discovered a hole in their lineup. Customers who would like to purchase a compact sedan would look at the second-gen Chevrolet Cruze and deem it too expensive. Now, the Chinese Cruze is somewhat different than the one we get on the rest of the planet with an exclusive engine and different styling. But it remains a relatively upmarket proposition for those looking for a compact in the region. So development on a solution began.
It should at this point be noted that they never did stop selling the first-generation Cruze. Quite why this wasn’t deemed the ideal solution is something I don’t really have the answer for. At presumably great expense, they began working on a compact that would slot neatly between the second-gen Cruze and the smaller, cheaper Sail. (again, first gen Cruze is right there.)
The result is our featured car. The Cavalier actually has Cruze origins, as it was developed over the Delta II platform that underpins the Gen-1 Cruze, as well as the Volt, Cadillac ELR and Opel Cascada. You would think that being the cheaper option would mean it is completely devoid of toys, but this is 2019 and making something about as well equipped as a Hindustan Ambassador with a modern body is not going to cut it. So you still get a six-speaker sound system, stop/start functions, ABS, MP3 compatible headunit and two airbags. Higher trim levels get amenities as hill-start assist, more airbags, a six-speed automatic transmission, leather-insert seats, LED DRL’s, Apple CarPlay (!), and a sunroof.
The result is…a car. A run-of-the mill compact car. The places where they cut costs are more difficult to detect. The engine, for example. Instead of using the 1.4-liter turbocharged engine from the Cruze or the 1.5-liter GM-based China-exclusive engine with 113 HP, it uses a Suzuki-based units. Still 1.5-liters but with just 107 horsepower. The brakes are disc/drum unless you buy the top-of-the-line spec. The manual gearbox is not a 6, but a 5-speed unit. The rear suspension is a normal torsion beam rather than the trick one on the full-fat Cruze.
And all of this is perfectly okay. Because if the objective was to reduce the experience of the Cruze in such a way to reduce costs, they have succeeded. And the result doesn’t suffer too much for it if you don’t know where to look or spend much of your time on gridlock. The Cruze has been a success in China and is not being exported to developing markets such as my neck of the woods and Mexico, where a base model will run you about $14,300 and a fully loaded one about $17,700. Not bad when you remember in the US the Cruze starts at $17,900.
As for it being a future classic, it’s unlikely that anyone will lovingly keep a Chinese Cavalier preserved on a climate controlled garage waiting for the day it turns 25-years old and they are able to register it legally stateside. So its most likely chance of being seen in 2044 is in a border town with Mexican plates, a nice coating of dust and a willingness to continue moving. Which is when us, who look for the forgotten cars and try to decipher how they got to where they are now, take some pictures and give them their 15 seconds of fame. And I’m glad to see the Cavalier name on something that doesn’t immediately bring bad GM jokes to the vast majority of the populace.