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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.
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.