2003 Chevrolet Cavalier
Click image to enlarge

By Chris Chase

There are many different opinions about what is most important when purchasing a car: some people prefer to buy only new cars to take advantage of the warranty. Others buy used to avoid the financial hit of depreciation. And then there is performance, looks, refinement, reliability and fuel economy and other subjective things.

But for some buyers, the only driving force (pardon the pun) in their decision to buy new wheels is price. This buyer could care less about what their car looks like, how smooth the ride is, how many fancy options it has or how fast it will accelerate to 100 km/h from a standing start. For them, there is no benefit to spending extra dollars on a car that’s proven to be reliable or one that looks like nothing else when they can save a bundle and still end up with a car that will get them from A to B with relatively little hassle.

It is thanks in large part to buyers like this that General Motors’ compact sedan twins, the Chevrolet Cavalier and Pontiac Sunfire, have been perennial hot sellers in the decade since their last major redesign, in 1995. That was the year the General bolted new sheetmetal on top of what was basically the same J-Body platform that had underpinned Cavaliers and Sunbirds for already more than a decade. And while that platform and powertrain were proven, the 1995 redesign didn’t do much to improve the cars dynamically, and they were the only ones powered by a four-cylinder engine with pushrod-operated valves (other compacts had more modern overhead cam powerplants).

1996 Chevrolet Cavalier
1996 Chevrolet Cavalier. Click image to enlarge

The 1995 Cavalier and Sunfire were the first J-bodies in a couple of generations not offered with a V6 option, offering two four-cylinder motors instead: the aforementioned pushrod 115-horsepower 2.2-litre and a twin-cam, 16-valve 2.4-litre unit making 150 horsepower. Neither one was particularly smooth, but the bigger motor was far superior in terms of performance, offering plenty of low-end torque to haul around these relatively lightweight coupes and sedans.

In 2002, the 2.4 litre motor was replaced by the newer 2.2 litre twin-cam Ecotec engine used in other General Motors vehicles, and in 2003, it became the only engine available in these cars. While none set a new benchmark for fuel consumption, they were reasonably efficient. The older 2.2-litre was rated by Natural Resources Canada as consuming 10.5 L/100 in the city and 6.5 L/100 km on the highway while the 2.4 litre used about 12 L/100 km and 7.5 L/100 km in the city and highway cycles respectively. The twin-cam 2.2-litre was not only smoother than either of the older motors, but it offered power similar to that of the 2.4-litre and fuel economy even better than that of the old pushrod motor, with ratings of 9.5 L/100 km city and 6 L/100 km highway. Keep in mind that these ratings all apply to cars equipped with a manual transmission and that automatic cars – particularly older models with the 3-speed auto – may not be quite as efficient thanks to the differences in gearing.

2003 Chevrolet Cavalier
Click image to enlarge

The Cavalier and Sunfire fared well in U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) frontal impact crash tests, with 2002 through 2005 models scoring four stars each for driver and front passenger protection. Sedans sold in 1995 through 2001 earned the same scores, while the older coupes got three stars for driver protection and four for front passenger protection. Side impact test results were poor, though: coupes scored one and two stars respectively for front and rear seat occupant protection while sedans did marginally better, scoring one and three stars respectively. The Cavalier and Sunfire also performed poorly in the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) frontal offset test, earning a “poor” overall rating.

2004 Chevrolet Cavalier
2004 Chevrolet Cavalier. Click image to enlarge

In terms of safety features, early models were well-equipped with driver and passenger front airbags and ABS both included as standard features. Curiously, in 2003, ABS became an option instead on all Cavaliers and Sunfire except the top-of-the-line Cavalier Z24. In the same year, side airbags were added as an option on all cars except the basic Cavalier VL coupe and sedan.

Overall reliability hasn’t proven to be so hot either, at least not according to Consumer Reports magazine. They note the electrical and brake systems as key trouble spots while most other aspects of the car get a so-so grade for durability.

2003 Pontiac Sunfire

2003 Pontiac Sunfire
2003 Pontiac Sunfire. Click image to enlarge

Cavalier and Sunfire transmissions stand out with a nearly-flawless reliability history, according to the magazine – not totally surprising, as GM has a history of building excellent automatic transmissions, with which the majority of J-body cars are equipped. Take a look at the long list of Cavalier and Sunfire recalls that follows this article and ensure that all that apply have been addressed for any car you’re considering purchasing. This is a sign of a car that’s been well-maintained by previous owners – an important factor for any used car purchase, but especially one with a spotty reliability history. Maintenance can’t fix inherent design flaws, but it will help reduce the chance of problems appearing.

If the Cavalier and Sunfire suffer from below-average reliability and poor safety performance and offer little in the way of refinement and performance, why even bother considering buying one used? Well, if you’re anything like the car buyer described at the beginning of this article, then there’s a good chance you’ll be quite satisfied with one of these cars. Certainly they lack many qualities that make other cars “good” cars, but a relatively low M.S.R.P. coupled with the kind of aggressive incentives that GM is known to offer means that used values for Cavaliers and Sunfires are very attractive.

Canadian Red Book values a 2005 Cavalier Z24 coupe at a little over $17,000 – already a decent savings over its $22,230 M.S.R.P. – but peruse the used car classifieds and you’re likely to find the same car priced in the $15,000-$16,000 range. Obviously, lower trim levels and older models will be even cheaper, and if you find one with any of its three-year/60,000 km warranty left, then that’s better still. If you are considering a car in the one to two-year-old range, however, you might want to consider tracking down a used Chevrolet Cobalt or Pontiac Pursuit, the cars that replaced the Cavalier and Sunfire. The two were sold alongside each other in 2005 and while used examples may be scarce, Canadian Red Book values these newer cars at anywhere between $12,300 for a base Cobalt coupe to $17,400 for a well-equipped Cobalt LT sedan. If that’s the range you’re shopping in and you can find a used Cobalt or Pursuit at a competitive price, it will offer a significant boost in comfort, refinement and performance over any Cavalier or Sunfire.

The Cavalier and Sunfire are far from the best used cars available and many drivers look down on them. But if your automotive needs are simple, then one of these practical and inexpensive cars could be a simple way to fulfill them.

Online Resources

J-body.org � You’d think the Internet would be awash with websites dedicated to cars as ubiquitous as the Cavalier and Sunfire, but J-body.org is one of a surprising few websites that cater to J-body owners. That’s allright, though, because the site is a very comprehensive resource, offering � among other things � a very busy forum, a detailed FAQ section and a number of how-to articles. Basic membership is free and grants access to all of the site’s features, but a premium membership level adds a few extra goodies to your account.


Transport Canada Recall Number: 1995023; Units affected: 11,971

1995: These vehicles may have been built with welds omitted from the front suspension lower control arm assemblies. This condition could cause excessive loads on existing control arm welds, and could result in separation of the front bushing-sleeve subassembly from the control arm. This could result in reduced steering control and a crash without prior warning. Correction: suspension lower control arms will be inspected and those found with omitted welds will be replaced.�

Transport Canada Recall Number: 2000109; Units affected: 254,055

1995-1999: On certain vehicles located in Ontario, Quebec, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island and Newfoundland, Moisture entering the Powertrain Control Module (PCM) as a result of corrosion can cause illumination of the “Check Engine” light or cause the engine to run rough. If these symptoms are ignored, the engine may stall and may not be able to be restarted. Correction: Dealers will inspect, clean and/or replace the Powertrain Control Module (PCM), then seal the PCM in a protective shield/cover assembly. �

Transport Canada Recall Number: 2002041; Units affected: 293,250

1995-1997: On certain passenger vehicles if the engine fails to start and the driver holds the key in the “start” position for an extended period, high current flows through the ignition switch, and sometimes produces enough heat to melt internal switch parts. If the switch is damaged, a fire could occur in the steering column, even with the engine off and the key removed. Correction: Dealers will install a relay kit in these vehicles to prevent high current from flowing through the ignition switch. �

Transport Canada Recall Number: 2004033; Units affected: 337,025

1998-2001: On certain vehicles, if the engine fails to start and the driver holds the key in the “Start” position for an extended period, high current flowing through the ignition switch may produces enough heat to melt internal switch parts. If the switch is damaged, a fire could occur in the steering column, even with the engine off and the key removed. Correction: Dealer will install a relay kit to prevent high current from flowing through the ignition switch.�

Transport Canada Recall Number: 1996208; Units affected: 33,204

1995-1996: These vehicles may not comply with C.M.V.S.S. 108 – lighting equipment. Vehicles may exhibit a condition in which the front and/or rear hazard warning lamps (four-way flashers) do not flash when the hazard switch is activated. Correction: vehicles will be inspected and hazard lamp switch replaced if necessary.�

Transport Canada Recall Number: 1998023; Units affected: 34,777

1996: These vehicles do not comply with C.M.V.S.S. 101 – control location and identification. The interior lamps may turn on by themselves, five to thirty minutes after the vehicle is started and cannot be turned off by the switch. The lamp control module will turn them off after thirty minutes. If the interior lamps turn on while the vehicle is being driven at night, the increased glare could make it more difficult to see objects outside the vehicle. Correction: lamp control module will be tested and replaced if necessary.�

Transport Canada Recall Number: 1998136; Units affected: 151,361

1996-1997: Because of certain calibrations in the air bag’s computer, there is an increased risk of an air bag deployment in a low speed crash or when an object strikes the floor pan. Correction: the SDM module will be recalibrated to reduce the sensitivity to short and mid-duration commanded deployments.�

Transport Canada Recall Number: 1998247; Units affected: 43,247

1996-1997: These vehicles may have a condition which could result in one of the rear suspension trailing arm bolts breaking. If this were to occur while the vehicle was in motion, vehicle control would be affected and a crash could occur without prior warning. Correction: dealers will replace the rear suspension trailing arm fasteners.

Transport Canada Recall Number: 1995188; Units affected: 87

1996: The accelerator control cable may have been damaged (kinked) during vehicle assembly. A kinked accelerator control cable may result in high pedal effort, sticking cable, or broken cable. If the accelerator control cable sticks or breaks, unwanted acceleration and/or loss of throttle control may result. If this were to occur while the vehicle was in motion, a crash could occur without prior warning. Correction: dealers will replace the accelerator control cable assembly. �

Transport Canada Recall Number: 1996094; Units affected: 2,020

1996: These vehicles may not comply with C.M.V.S.S. 1105 – Evaporative Emissions. Fuel injectors may exhibit leakage of fuel vapour due to a stress of the plastic encapsulant. Correction: fuel injectors on affected vehicles will be inspected for involved date codes and replaced if necessary.�

Transport Canada Recall Number: 2002199; Units affected: 238,877

1996-1998: On certain vehicles, the lower pinion bearings retainer tabs were not crimped properly. These and some other retainers used in vehicles assembled between January 1, 1996 and October 31, 1997 may fail and permit the ball bearings to escape. If the problem were to occur, the driver would have to exert more effort to turn the steering wheel. Correction: Dealers are to inspect the condition of the lower bearing, and replace the lower pinion bearing or the rack and pinion steering gear assembly, if necessary.�

Transport Canada Recall Number: 2003162; Units affected: 224,528

1996-1997: Certain vehicles, after being exposed to substantial amounts of water, may experience deployment of either the driver or passenger front airbag without a crash. The owner’s manual for these vehicles does not provide specific information about this situation. Inadvertent deployment of the driver and / or passenger front airbag in a non-accident (non-impact) situation may cause damage to the surrounding vehicle environment (windshield / instrument panel), and create expensive vehicle repair, including replacement of the airbag module(s) and the Sensing and Diagnostic Module (SDM). In some instances, inadvertent deployment could cause minor injuries to vehicle occupants. Correction: GM will notify the owners of these 1996 and 1997 vehicles of the potential affect of water accumulating in the vehicle interior on the function of the airbag system (as included in the owner’s manuals of 1998 and later model years vehicles). �

Transport Canada Recall Number: 1997125; Units affected: 367

1997: These vehicles do not comply with C.M.V.S.S. 110 – tire selection and rims. The compact spare tire assemblies in these vehicles may have been assembled with rims that do not conform to dimensional and profile standards. If the tire is under-inflated it can separate from the rim. Correction: rim on the compact spare tire assembly will be replaced. �

Transport Canada Recall Number: 1998039; Units affected: 4

1997: These vehicles may not comply with C.M.V.S.S. 214 – side door strength. There may be mis-located welds at the joint between the left rocker panel inner reinforcement and the body side ring. In the event of a vehicle crash, the sheet metal structure may not perform as designed. This could result in reduced levels of occupant protection. Correction: vehicles will be inspected for mis-located welds and, if necessary, up to five welds will be placed between the involved panels.�

Transport Canada Recall Number: 2001096; Units affected: 99,174

2000: Certain vehicles do not comply with the requirements of CMVSS 101- Location and Identification of Controls and Displays. Vehicles exhibit a condition in which the “Generator Low Voltage” indicator light will not illuminate under low voltage conditions. Correction: Dealers will reflash the vehicle PCM with new calibration software.�

Transport Canada Recall Number: 1999155; Units affected: 1,423

2000: Certain vehicles may not comply with the requirements of CMVSS 101 – Control Location and Identification. The instrument panel backlighting may not function after adjusting the interior light intensity. If the instrument panel is not lit at night, the driver may not be able to see the controls and displays. Correction: Dealers will test the body control module (BCM) for the condition, and if necessary, replace the BCM.�

Transport Canada Recall Number: 2004388; Units affected: 79,716

2003: Certain vehicles were produced without the required dielectric grease being applied to the rear light bulb socket assemblies. Absence of the grease can result in electrical arcing between the light bulb major filament contact and the socket terminal that can render the stop and turn signal bulb inoperative. An inoperative rear turn signal lamp will not convey the driver’s intention to turn to drivers in following vehicles. If a stop lamp is inoperative, indication of brake application to a following vehicle will be reduced, although during braking, warning to the rear of the vehicle will be conveyed by the remaining functional stop lamp and the centre high-mounted stop lamp. Correction: Dealers will replace the rear lamp bulb socket assemblies.�

Transport Canada Recall Number: 2004211; Units affected: 32

2004: Certain vehicles do not comply with the requirements of CMVSS 209 – Seat Belt Assemblies, and CMVSS 210 – Seat Belt Assembly Anchorages. On some of these vehicles, the passenger-side rear safety belt may have been installed with an incorrect nut and bolt that may not withstand the loads required by the two standards. In a severe crash, the upper seat belt anchorage may separate. The effectiveness of the seat belt could then be reduced and the occupant could receive greater injuries. Correction: Dealers will remove the required interior trim pieces and replace the incorrect passenger-side rear seat belt retractor attachment hardware.�

Used vehicle prices vary depending on factors such as general condition, odometer reading, usage history and options fitted. Always have a used vehicle checked by an experienced auto technician before you buy.

For information on recalls, see Transport Canada’s web-site, www.tc.gc.ca, or the U.S. National Highway Transportation Administration (NHTSA)web-site, www.nhtsa.dot.gov.

For information on vehicle service bulletins issued by the manufacturer, visit www.nhtsa.dot.gov.

For information on consumer complaints about specific models, see www.lemonaidcars.com.

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