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The success of General Motors' Chevrolet Cavalier has always been somewhat of a mystery. This car is certainly not a prime example of cutting-edge technology: The Cavalier is as sophisticated as a Big Mac - and nearly as popular.
As recently as 1993, Cavalier was the nation's fourth best-selling nameplate, and it remains GM's most popular product line. So maybe Chevy's nonchalant attitude toward updating its mainstay subcompact shouldn't be all that surprising.
Up until now, the Cavalier's long-running popularity has been fueled by two factors. Rental companies and other fleet customers have made up a hefty chunk of Cavalier's customers, but GM is sharply cutting back on those low-profit sales. And cost has been the other piece of the Cavalier equation, but with plenty of new competitors crowding the market, even the Cavalier's low sticker price is losing its appeal.
So now is the right time for an all-new Cavalier to take its bows. The redesigned 1995 Cavalier is the first complete remake of this vehicle since its debut in 1982. Models include the base-level coupe and sedan, the LS sedan, the convertible and the Z24 coupe. And they all look to be in tune with the value-conscious 1990s.
But there's got to be more than just looks. Does the new car live up to the public's long-simmering expectations? And will it have the staying power of the compact car it replaced? Those are just some of the questions that popped into mind as we took our $10,966 base Cavalier sedan for a test drive.
The new look is curvaceous, with a low, sweeping hood flowing into a sharply raked windshield and roofline. It's a much more attractive car than the one it replaces, but it's also a bit derivative, with influences ranging from the bulbous Chevrolet Caprice to the discontinued compact Geo Storm.
The Storm wasn't a bad choice to mimic, for it certainly stole away many traditional Cavalier buyers looking for more design pizzazz.
Unfortunately, GM stylists also appropriated one of the Storm's weakest features: oversized bumpers that come across like the automotive equivalent of Jimmy Durante's schnoz. Their massive vertical surfaces were only exaggerated by our sedan's 2-tone paint job. The rich sheen of the metallic paint was cheapened by the black plastic bumpers. The air intakes carved into the rounded front bumper are meant to give the new Cavalier an aggressive look, but with the black bumpers, the result is a goofy grin. A recommendation to the style conscious: Upgrade to a Cavalier that offers color-keyed bumpers.
Bigger is better, at least that's been the credo for most automotive designers in recent years. The new car is a larger package, both inside and out. Make that a larger usable package, for although the track is 3 in. wider and the wheelbase is 2 in. longer than the previous model, the 1995 Cavalier is actually 2 in. shorter overall and only 1 in. wider.
The tires on the base model tend to look a little small and lost inside the large wheel wells, though Chevy offers some rather nice-looking wheels as options.
Another complaint about the exterior: door handles. GM has finally adopted flush door handles, though they are not quite designed to fit the hand. If they aren't gripped carefully, they will slip away from you. Oddly, Chevy made it much easier to get out of the car, molding in finger indents on the interior door handles.
That extra room we mentioned shows up where it's really needed: in the cavalier's completely redesigned interior. The look is far more fluid than that of the previous Cavalier. Stylists like to use the word organic to describe the way it all flows together. The steering wheel is one of the car's more pleasant surprises: It looks and feels much more expensive than you'd expect. Some other interior elements, however, are carried out less successfully.
You'll find plenty of leg-room up front, and those seats are quite comfortable. Maybe It's a sign of our advancing age, but it seemed as if the seats in our tester could use a little more padding. And the rear seats were barely adequate: The bench was hard and unyielding and wouldn't be much fun on a long ride.
On the positive side, the rear seatback folds down with ease to create a roomy, cavernous storage compartment. There's more rear legroom than in the old Cavalier, but still not nearly as much as there is in the Plymouth Neon.
Incidentally, the Neon is a car lots of shoppers will choose to compare the Cavalier with. The Neon is a friendlier-looking vehicle, with a much more comforting, familiar-feeling interior. It seems to say welcome, while Cavalier has a more officious, yet efficient, feel to it.
That's not to say the Cavalier doesn't come with a few pleasant surprises. There are cupholders, lots of storage pockets, standard anti-lock brakes and dual airbags. Plus a novel rear defroster that starts by melting a rectangular patch in the center of the window, and a feature that turns off the interior lights if they're left on long enough to start draining the battery.
This car's sporty look is matched by a genuinely sporty feel, at least when you compare the new Cavalier with the old one. Acceleration is respectable, running under 9 seconds in the 0-to-60 mph test. that's all the more surprising when you consider this is the familiar GM 4-cylinder engine that's been under the Cavalier hood for quite some time. The optional 3-speed automatic transmission is adequate, and Neon has chosen the same powertrain combination. Still, you'd be hard-pressed to find an Asian import falling back on a 3-speed package.
Handling is competent and predictable. GM engineers are quick to point out that the new cavalier's body has been markedly stiffened. That added rigidity means less body flexing, particularly when you're bouncing along a pothole-filled highway. It not only translates into crisper steering but a quieter ride.
Yes, you'll find the new Cavalier a notably more quiet car. Wind noise has been sharply reduced due the steeper rake of the windshield and a better job by the factory of sealing the pillars. Road noise is still a problem, especially when compared with cars such as the Toyota Corolla. Under full acceleration, the engine sounds like a hive of angry bees, though it's more tolerable under normal driving conditions.
Braking is one of cavalier's weak points. The brakes require far more pressure than one might feel comfortable applying, at least in an emergency. They also have a tendency to fade if you use them repeatedly.
One is tempted to damn the Chevrolet Cavalier with faint praise. it's a generally attractive package, but words such as adequate and functional come to mind for the rest of the car. It really deserves better than that, but so do Cavalier buyers.
The 1995 is a major improvement over the vehicle it replaces and that's likely to bring many longtime Cavalier customers back to their local Chevrolet dealer.
Still, one is left with the feeling that Chevy set its sights lower than its competitors. The car doesn't quite come up to world-class standards. Maybe Chevy engineers know their market a little too well: The Cavalier has the feel of a car designed for the rental fleets.
We wouldn't discourage you from buying the new Cavalier. But we do suggest you check out the competition before you sign on the dotted line.