America's sweetheart, now sweeter than before.
by Jonathan Ingram
Base Price (MSRP) $13,160
As Tested (MSRP) $16,635
Chevrolet Cavalier is the most popular car built by General Motors, and one of the 10 most popular cars sold in the United States. But more significantly, for nearly 20 years Cavalier has been one of the most popular choices among first-time new-car buyers. Like the girl (or boy) next door, it's been a lot of people's first sweetheart.
The reasons for this persistent success are clear. There's the sheer number of Chevrolet dealers, of course, backed by the production and marketing momentum of General Motors. Beyond that, however, Cavalier has always been a simple and economical car with baby-Camaro kind of flair. It meets all the practical definitions of "basic transportation,'' but looks like much more.
A high level of standard equipment is an important part of the Cavalier formula. That modest base price listed above includes color-keyed bumper covers, air conditioning, power steering, anti-lock brakes, and a theft-deterrent system. You don't have to be a first-time new-car buyer to appreciate value like that.
The base-level Cavalier is offered in two body styles, a fastback coupe ($13,160) and a four-door sedan ($13,260). The more plush LS comes with the sedan body only, for $14,855; while the sportier Z24 model is available only as a coupe, for $16,385. (The convertible is no longer offered.)
Base and LS models are powered by a 2.2-liter, ohv inline-4 that produces 115 horsepower. A more powerful 2.4-liter twin-cam four is standard on the Z24 models and optional on the LS. Base and Z24 models come with a German-built Getrag five-speed manual transmission, and offer an electronically controlled four-speed automatic as an option. For 2001, all automatic Cavaliers have traction control, a premium feature in this class. Automatic transmission and traction control are standard on LS.
Additionally, LS pampers drivers and passengers with cruise control, an AM/FM four-speaker stereo with compact disc player, tachometer, trip computer, variable intermittent wipers, remote trunk release, tilt steering column, and 15-inch wheels.
Z24 models come with a sports suspension, 16-inch cast aluminum wheels; remote keyless entry; power windows, mirrors and door locks; fog lamps and other generally cool stuff.
Cavalier is an attractive car with flowing lines, rounded fenders and a low-to-the-road attitude. Relatively slender A-pillars and C-pillars enhance driver visibility and contribute to the light, airy feel of the upper body. Dual side mirrors are tucked nicely into the A-pillar. The flowing lines come to an abrupt end in back, which stymies the overall design, though the rakish rear spoiler that comes on the Z24 improves this somewhat.
Bigger tires add a little muscle to the appearance of the LS and the Z24 models. Z24s come with five-spoke aluminum wheels, while the base coupe and sedan and LS get full wheel covers.
Cavalier's interior was redesigned for 2000, making it feel somewhat larger than before. Aside from some upgraded stereo choices, it remains unchanged for 2001.
The dash has a smooth, flowing look and readable gauges, including a tachometer on LS and Z24. Cavalier's console achieves coffee nirvana, with two regular cupholders in front of the shifter plus three more behind it, including one that can serve the back seat.
The seats are contoured and comfortable, but side support could be better for cornering. Cloth insets in the doors helps prevent plastic overload, and a two-spoke steering wheel looks pleasantly light.
Even with last year's revisions, however, the back seat remains cramped for even average-size adults.
Our LS sedan was equipped with the optional 2.4-liter twin-cam engine ($450) that provides 150 horsepower and 155 pounds-feet of torque. Because the car weighs less than 2700 pounds, it boasts a favorable horsepower-to-weight ratio and, more importantly, torque-to-weight ratio, for scooting away from intersections. With the twin-cam engine, the Cavalier is no rocket, but it does have zip, and it cruises comfortably at relatively high speeds.
Under brisk acceleration our LS wound quickly through the gears of its electronically controlled automatic transmission without any noticeable surges. This transmission works well around town, keeping the engine in its best operating range at lower speeds.
Even with the 2.2-liter, overhead-valve four-cylinder engine, the Cavalier is surprisingly spunky. However, the droning exhaust note it makes is uninspiring at best.
The Cavalier is a much better car with the four-speed automatic ($780) than it is with the three-speed automatic ($700) available as an option on the base model. Its three gears are farther apart, forcing the engine to stretch under hard acceleration.
The Cavalier handles reasonably well with a stiff chassis that enables the suspension to do its job. There's a slight twitch when hitting a bump in the middle of a quick corner, possibly a foible of Cavalier's twist-beam rear suspension. But the Cavalier handles most bumps with a steady attitude and a modicum of comfort. Power steering is light and responsive and the Cavalier quickly turns in for corners. This car is light on its feet and can accommodate both conservative and sporty driving styles.
Cavalier's solenoid-based anti-lock braking system (standard) can be a real ally in an emergency maneuver because it allows the driver to steer the car in a panic braking situation. Just remember to keep hard pedal pressure on the brakes and don't forget to steer. This system really adds value and safety to the Cavalier; some other compacts offer it only as part of a deluxe equipment package, or not at all.
Chevy's Cavalier is fun to drive, easy to own, and packs enough standard equipment to make life behind the wheel enjoyable without huge monthly payments. No wonder it's the first car so many people love.
© New Car Test Drive, Inc.