1984 Pontiac Sunbird turbo convertible
1984 Pontiac Sunbird turbo convertible; photo by Paul Steepe. Click image to enlarge

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By Bill Vance

General Motors was determined to do it right when it brought out its third round of import-fighting small cars. The first (the Cadet developed by GM just after the Second World War wasn’t marketed) was the 1960 Chevrolet Corvair with an air-cooled rear engine, a knockoff of the German Volkswagen layout. It was successful for a few years but succumbed to a viscious attack on its handling by consumer advocate Ralph Nader. The 1971 Chevrolet Vega suffered mechanical and assembly problems and never reached the potential GM had envisioned.

So the imports kept coming in larger and larger numbers. They had begun arriving right after the war as small English and French cars like Austins, Morrises and Renaults. Ford and General Motors imported their own “captive imports” but their hearts weren’t really in it. America was big car country.

The fast-selling, funky German Volkswagen dominated the small car market for over a decade, followed by the popular Japanese Toyotas and Hondas. Their sales continued to grow until GM finally realized that smaller cars were not just a passing fad fed by periodic oil price spikes. There was indeed an established small car market. It determined to fight back again, this time in earnest with a car between the small Chevrolet Chevette and mid-sized X-cars (Chevrolet Citation, et al.).

Oldsmobile Firenza
Oldsmobile Firenza. Click image to enlarge

Enter the 1982 GM front-wheel drive J-car (an internal factory code) introduced in mid-1981. It would come in five flavours, the ultimate manifestation of GM’s body shell game: Chevrolet Cavalier, Pontiac J-2000, Oldsmobile Firenza, Buick Skyhawk and Cadillac Cimarron. Not only was it to be an import killer, it would be a true GM “world car” in the genre of Henry Ford’s stark Model T and Ferdinand Porsche’s unorthodox Volkswagen. J-car versions would be built in Germany, England, Australia, Brazil, Japan and South Africa.

J-cars were to meet the foreign competition in performance and fuel economy, and they were also to eliminate the perceived quality gap between American cars and imports. Quality was Detroit’s new mantra, thus, panel gaps and paint lustre, called fit and finish, were to be equal or superior to the invaders. Parts suppliers were warned that inferior components would be ruthlessly rejected.

The intended highest volume Chevrolet Cavalier came in four body styles: two-door hatchback, two- and four-door notchbacks and four-door station wagon. Other divisions tailored their offerings to their target clienteles.

1986 Buick Skyhawk T-Type; photo by Sean Cornelis
1986 Buick Skyhawk T-Type; photo by Sean Cornelis. Click image to enlarge

When the 1982 Chevrolet Cavalier arrived in mid-1981 the automotive press immediately began comparing it with the Honda Accord, the vehicle targeted as the benchmark. The Accord had a technical edge. Its overhead cam 1.6-litre engine was smoother and easier revving than the Cavalier’s 1.8-litre overhead valve four, and the Accord’ five-speed manual transmission offered one more gear than the Cavalier’s, although Chevrolet would soon rectify this (a three-speed automatic was optional). The combined Transport Canada fuel economy ratings were equal at 7.1 L/100 km (39.8 mpg).

And despite the Cavalier’s 88 horsepower compared with the Accord’s 75, the Accord could scoot to 100 km/h in 12.2 seconds vs. the Cavalier’s 13.1 (Car and Driver 5’/82). This was mostly due to its extra 136 kg (300 lbs), caused in part by the cost saving expedient of using such components as suspension arms, steering, wheel bearings, air conditioning compressor and radiator from the larger X-car.

In keeping with American car practice the Cavalier was well equipped and luxuriously appointed. Its 2,570 mm (101.2 in.) wheelbase, 119 mm (4.7 in.) longer than the Accord’s, gave it a smoother ride and ample interior room.

1986 Buick Skyhawk T-Type
1986 Buick Skyhawk T-Type; photo courtesy GM. Click image to enlarge

There were minor changes over the first generation’s six-year run, but nothing major. The power deficiency would be somewhat alleviated by increasing displacement to 2.0 litres and adding throttle body fuel injection for 1983. The Pontiac, now designated as the 2000, began using the Brazilian-built, overhead cam, fuel injected 1.8-litre four. For ’84 they would call it the 2000 Sunbird, then in ’85 just Sunbird, and offer a turbo version.

Cavalier, Firenza and Cimarron got an optional X-car 2.8 litre, overhead valve V6 for ’85 and Cavalier offered a sporty Z24 Cavalier and an optional five-speed manual for ’87, the year Cimarron made the V6 standard.

Although the J-cars, except the Cimarron (it just wasn’t seen as a Cadillac), enjoyed reasonable sales success, they didn’t knock the foreign nameplates out of the ballpark. Strong sales continued for Accord and Toyota Camry “imports,” ironically now made in the U.S., and others.

The Cadillac Cimarron and Olds Firenza were discontinued in 1988 and the Buick Skyhawk in ’89. The Sunbird and Cavalier went into their third generation and continued into the new millennium before being replaced by more modern designs.

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