2003 Chevrolet Cavalier LS coupe
2003 Chevrolet Cavalier LS coupe, US model shown, Click image to enlarge

by Jim Kenzie

Last summer, TV ads began appearing for Chevrolet Cavalier and Pontiac Sunfire, announcing almost unbelievably low list prices. $12,800-odd, for a car that big, with that big an engine (2.3 litres, 115 horsepower), a German-engineered Getrag five-speed manual gearbox, and fair degree of other Good Stuff. How could you lose?

I myself wondered – if something looks too good to be true, it’s probably neither good nor true. Maybe it was one of those bait-and-switch deals: “Oh yes, that’s the price of the purple car with the lime green burlap interior. We can order it for you – should be here in six months. Meanwhile, how about that black one with the dark gray interior over there? That’ll be twenty grand…”

So Mr. Cynical went in to my local store, Richardson Chev-Olds in Milton. Brent Richardson said, “Yes, we have one – it’s the black coupe with the dark gray interior over there…” So the average punter can actually buy one of these? “Absolutely. We’ve sold a bunch. Wanna try that one?”

2003 Chevrolet Cavalier LS sedan
2003 Chevrolet Cavalier LS sedan, US model shown, Click image to enlarge

I didn’t have time on that day, but tried to arrange with General Motors of Canada for a proper test drive. They had trouble finding one – they were spinning off dealer lots faster than they could bring them in. Part of that was because the price kept tumbling. The final numbers were something like $11,398 for a Cavalier coupe or sedan, $11,488 for the Sunfire equivalents, with 2.2 litre engine, AM-FM stereo radio, reclining bucket seats, split-folding rear seat, etc.

OK, no air conditioning – that’d be a dealer-installed option. And if you wanted automatic transmission, that’s a different deal. But the el-cheapo (General Motors prefers the term “high-value”) sub-twelve-grand Cavalier/Sunfire was a real car.

The low price was actually achieved with various incentives and rebates – at one point, GM even ate the dealer prep and freight. One casualty of this price cutting was GM’s valiant attempt to make ABS standard, even for the entry-level segment. Sure, they weren’t great ABS brakes, but lousy ABS is better than none. But nobody else followed suit, the customers didn’t care, and GM eventually made ABS an option.

Still, the bottom line for the customer – the Cavalier VL or Sunfire SL was a lot of car for the money. They even dragged GM’s “no-discount-division” Saturn into the fray – Saturn was forced to offer their base-level cars for similar prices. In the entry-level segment, list price is king…

I finally caught up with a pair of 2003 model-year “J-Cars”, to use Cavalier/Sunfire’s corporate internal label: a bright blue Sunfire SL coupe in absolutely base trim, and a burgundy Cavalier VLX sedan. The additional “X” in the model designation signifies what would be considered “popular” equipment – tri-power (windows, locks, mirrors), tilt steering, single CD player. Plus, my tester had the optional auto, air and those ABS brakes. The list price for the Sunfire SL was $15,970 plus $795 freight and PDI; the Cavalier sedan hit $21,535 plus. The promotional plans for these cars keep changing, almost daily; current incentives can bring these as low as $12,985 for a Cavalier or Sunfire sedan, $13,170 for either coupe.

2003 Chevrolet Cavalier LS coupe

2003 Chevrolet Cavalier

2003 Chevrolet Cavalier LS sedan
US models shown, Click image to enlarge

OK, but price isn’t everything – what are these cars like to drive? Not all bad, actually.
They have always been good-looking cars, if you can overcome your prejudices. Clean lines, nicely-balanced, no frippery beyond the rear deck spoiler on the coupe. The “Fast and Furious” street-racing crowd has done lots with Cavaliers. A coupe, lowered, de-trimmed, with big wheels and tires? That’s a handsome car.

The exteriors have been refreshed for 2003; the Cavalier now has more of a Chevrolet family, um, “tie” (as in “bow tie”, geddit?….), while the Sunfire accentuates the typical Pontiac twin-nostril look. (Since I spent the majority of my time in the Cavalier, I’ll refer to it
from here on in; virtually everything is applicable to the corresponding Pontiac model.)

There’s lots of room inside, front and back, in the sedan. The coupe is predictably tighter on headroom, especially in the rear, but is still a reasonable proposition for average-sized adults for less-than-Trans-Canada journeys. The front bucket seats offer decent comfort and support, for my backside anyway, with even a fair degree of lumbar re-enforcement. The fabric
upholstery – as it always does – made me wonder why anybody would want leather in a car, at any price.

During my time in these cars I got to thinking about all the stuff I used to whine about in the old days – steering column stalks for lights and wipers; side-view mirrors on both doors; cup holders; round “oven-style” knobs for HVAC; proper seating; high-torque (as opposed to high-revving) engines. The Cavalier has them all, even if the left-side steering column stalk for lights, turn signals and high beam is too far away from the wheel rim. There is even fairly high-end stuff like delayed interior lighting with “theatre dimming” – the lights fade, rather that snap off; electric trunk release; tachometer; stainless-steel exhaust system; intermittent wipers (albeit with fixed interval); block heater; two-side-galvanized body panels, except for the roof. The heater heats, instantly. The air conditioning cools, almost instantly. This is important real-world stuff.

The 2.2 litre twin-overhead camshaft Ecotec four cylinder engine, now standard on all J-Cars, generates a more-than-competitive 140 horsepower at 5,600 r.p.m., and a ‘way-more-than-competitive’ 150 lb.-ft., of torque at 4,400 r.p.m. Whenever an engine generates more lb-.ft. than horsepower, you know it’ll be flexible, and offer good real-world performance. Even with the four-speed automatic transmission, the Cavalier is nothing short of quick off-the-line.
The engine is a little noisy, due mostly to induction roar, but the revving itself is smooth.

GM knows from automatic transmissions – if they’re good enough for BMW, they should be good enough for you. This one shifts smoothly under all levels of stress. The five-speed I drove briefly was a bit notchy, but it had only 500 km on it; it’ll loosen up with a few turns around the block.

The Cavalier rides decently, and doesn’t even get unduly upset if you try to lean on the handling a little. But just a little, OK? This ain’t no sports sedan, although VW fans will cringe when I mention that the suspension basics are identical to a Golf or Jetta – MacStruts up front, twist beam axle at the rear. The large-for-the-class tires (195/70R14s) generate cornering power sufficient for anyone who’d be interested in a car like this in the first place.

2003 Chevrolet Cavalier LS

2003 Chevrolet Cavalier
US models shown, Click image to enlarge

Back in the early 1990s, I recall saying that if General Motors would only spend about ten bucks more into body structure and twenty more on suspension, Cavalier/Sunfire would be 100 percent better cars. I’m not saying my words are piped directly into General Motors’ War Room, but for the 1995 models, they did just that. No surprise then that Cavalier was the best-selling car for eight years running in this country. (If they’d combine Cavalier and Sunfire sales, they’d be pretty close to that still.)

But – you knew a “but” was coming, didn’t you? – that was then, this is now. There have been great strides taken in refinement in recent years. Even car makers like Hyundai have engineered quietness, reduced NVH (noise, vibration, harshness), tighter interior panel fits and higher-quality plastics into their cars, and urged higher levels of assembly quality. These are the areas where Cavalier falls behind the class. The steering wheel in my car wasn’t on completely straight. There are large gaps between interior trim panels – that may not be a function of the
assemblers, but of the initial design and specs for the component suppliers. Still, if Honda and Toyota can do it at these price levels…

Should you hit a bump while taking a corner at anything but a crawl, the noise coming from the suspension will leave you quaking in your boots. A couple of years ago, GM abandoned – or at last postponed – a plan to put the J-Cars onto a more modern, more rigid, European-engineered platform. As Ford discovered when they went the European route with the overpriced, hence unsuccessful, Contour, this doesn’t always work in a very price-sensitive market segment. So GM opted to continue with the fully-amortized tooling of the existing J-Car. It won’t go down in history on anybody’s All-Time Great Cars list. It won’t be the car you’d pick for a weekend of driving entertainment, or the one you’d rent to attend your high school reunion. But if you’re laying down you own hard-earned, after-tax dollars for a new car, and if you buy cars on a cubic-metre-per-dollar basis, you could join tens of thousands of Canadians in a Chevy Cavalier or Pontiac Sunfire.

Highs:

  1. Low, low price.

  2. Strong engine.
  3. Excellent performance/economy balance.

Lows:

  1. Rough-and-tumble assembly quality.

  2. Lack of refinement.
  3. Cheap interior fittings.

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