Not so long ago, when it seemed the Japanese tide might wash the entire American auto industry out to sea, GM took a page out of the traditional Japanese book. With a pair of calipers and a Honda Accord, then the definition of a sophisticated small car, they performed the sincerest form of flattery.
The product of that effort was GM's original J-cars, the Chevy Cavalier, Pontiac J2000, Oldsmobile Firenza, and Cadillac Cimarron. They weren't the best small cars ever, but evolved through the years enough to stay with the pack.
Now we have a new J-car, available as the Cavalier and Pontiac Sunfire. GM started with a clean sheet of paper for this redesign, and has produced a car with plenty for others to copy.
Those merits begin with value. The pricing of the Cavalier is astonishingly good; our tested Z-24, whose considerable merits follow, went out the door for less than $15,000. But in the case of the new J-cars, money truly isn't everything.
Like engineering. We've driven a variety of new Cavaliers and their Sunfire siblings, and the strongest impression one gets from them is how remarkably stiff the new chassis is. As the Europeans will tell you, begin with a good solid platform and you can create almost any kind of car you want. Chevy has chosen to build three body styles: a rounded sedan, a convertible, and a two-door coupe, available in vanilla and Z-24 versions. The Z-24 sports a bigger engine and upgraded suspension. (Is it any wonder which we chose for our full review?)
Styling, too, hits the mark. I find the coupe particularly attractive, resembling the Mark Jordan-designed Opels that get me all tingly. The body panels are flat and simple, but the overall shape is taut and athletic. But don't take my word for it:
"Approaching the two-door from the front, it has a pleasing set of curves on both front and transitioning to the side, and I like the shaping, the curvature of the body panel on the sides and the way it sort of scoops up in the back just a little bit. Very, very, very pleasing," adds the Splendid Co-Driver, who knows from loveliness.
Part of the Z-24's good looks come from tacked-on body trim; unlike many such, it integrates very well with the look of the car (although we could take or leave the Z-24 standard spoiler.) The grill treatment, unique to the Z-24, makes it look tougher than the regular Cavalier, and includes ancillary driving lights. The brilliant red paint on our test car was applied smoothly and looked unusually deep. One slight disappointment with the exterior: rear turn signals are red instead of high visibility yellow.
A surprisingly deep trunk comes with a cargo net. The opening goes down to bumper height for easy access. And the seatback flips down as a single piece, allowing massive pass-through room.
The SC-D, in a fit of ill judgement, went so far as to call the five-spoke alloy wheels "dorky." The official Hard Drive position: The Z-24's five spoke alloy wheels are very attractive. (So I like exposed brake discs. So sue me.)
You can't see the brake discs from inside. Instead, you see storage. A deep compartment in the center console. The center console cupholder held a Big Gulp, with its rubber can insert removed. Map pockets in the doors sport a separate compartment accessible by rear seat passengers. The seatbacks also have mesh pockets on them for carrying maps and things for the rear seat people to play with. The center console has a second recess for a cup, and there's a flat tray in front of the shifter. And if you don't get power windows, there's a small bin in the center console almost perfectly shaped and sized for a microcassette recorder. (If you do get power windows, that's where the switches go.) We give it three Golden Cupholders.
The seat is comfortable and well molded. The SC-D fit into it right away; I found it offered a bit of the classic Italian long arms-short legs position. The steering wheel settings were just a little too high or just a little too low, albeit with a good view of the instruments in either position. The speedometer is large and in the center; the tach is smaller. At night, the Cavalier's instruments are very well lit and clear.
Our red test car had a gray interior with red flecks in the velour of the seats. The SC-D: "Actually, I like the flocked red and gray upholstery. It's kind of sporty... The material doesn't give me the impression that it will look ratty immediately, which is nice, especially in an inexpensive car."
The cigarette lighter is high up, well located for powering dash mounted items. HVAC controls are simple and well-labeled with pictures. Switchgear feel is commendable, and the column-mounted stalks can be operated with even smaller hands remaining on the wheel.
Ventilation is pretty good. There's two vents in the center console, one on each side of the dash, and one in the center of the windshield. You get the very clear sense that you're sitting well back from the front of the car, because it's got a fair bit of windshield rake and the roof curves down visibly to meet the windshield. As a result, the base of the windshield is somewhat far away, and there's a lot of roof in view. Given the high bustle of the car (and the spoiler), the rearward visibility is quite good, although the SC-D had some trouble eliminating the right-side blind spot. Because one sits so far ahead of the B pillar, the seatbelt rides higher than I'm accustomed to.
The rear seats are short, although the front seatbacks have been dished out to allow more knee room. Similarly, the side panels in the back are recessed to increase elbow room. In the coupe, at least, they likely wouldn't suit adults on a medium to long trip.
Disappointments? If you don't get power mirrors, there's no lever to adjust the right-side mirror, which means, (a) it's hard to do from the driver's side, and (b) you get smudges all over it. With the seat forward, as for shorter-legged people, the window crank interferes with the seat. And there's a little too much plastic that looks like plastic inside this car. The shifter is probably the most disconcerting example; it feels a little better than it looks and it's not badly placed, but it just looks tacky. The SC-D notes a lack of grab handles for passengers who find the Z-24's performance beyond their expectations.
A good value doesn't mean skimping on safety. Dual air bags are standard on the Cavalier, as are 4-wheel anti-lock brakes, 5-mph bumpers, and daytime running lights (which sparked a lengthy debate between Your Humble Reviewers.)
Our test Z-24 had a poorly-fitted trim panel below the dash that hung down and interfered with my feet while driving. This was pretty obviously a build (or press-car) quirk, as other Cavaliers we've driven didn't have it.
Since GM put two counter rotating balance shafts in the Quad 4, it has gone from being an almost agricultural motor to one that's quite acceptably smooth. Right now it seems to have a broad torque band that's not too fat at any point. It starts to wind out at 3,000 and really seems to surge at 4,000. Get it above 4,000 revs and the car really pulls well. This makes passing a blast, especially on the highway. It's clearly not a six, but nonetheless a pretty good four.
The Cavalier's rather quiet at speed. Aside from just a hint of flutter above the center of the windshield, there's almost no wind noise on the car. That was obviously a goal; Chevy engineers even wrapped a little wire around the antenna to cut down wind whistle.
We mentioned earlier the advantages of a stiff platform for suspension tuning. In the current model, the Z-24 has Euro-style long-wheel base, long-wheel travel handling. While that's not bad in a touring car, the Z-24's package suggests more aggressive handling than it delivers. You expect this to be a short coupled slice and dice car. As it is, when you ask this car to do something, it thinks about it for a moment and then it does it. And then when you try to stop doing it, it keeps doing it for a little while. You have to think ahead of the car and anticipate. For example, turn into a corner (with the very direct steering) and the P205/55R-16 Goodyear Eagle RS-A's seem to stick decisively. But there's a tenuous connection between the tires and the solid body, and the body rolls considerably, so weight is still transferring after the line for the corner has been established. In the middle of the corner, the outside wheels load up and you have to make continuous adjustments to get through at all well. "The handling should be a lot more precise," commented the SC-D. "It should be a lot more closely attuned to what it is that you want the car to do. I'll ask the car to go someplace, and it says, 'Yeah, just a minute, I'll be there.' There's a lot more lag than I would expect between asking a car to do something, and it actually doing it."
The upside of that handling is that changing throttle position during maneuvers doesn't really do much to the Cavalier because the change in energy goes into rolling the body, rather than altering the line through the corner.
But it's equally clear that with just a little more suspension tuning -- a little more damping and some more serious stabilizer bars -- this could really be a hot vehicle.
Indeed, "just a little more work" seems to be a theme of the Z-24's performance attributes. The throttle and the clutch both feel a little light and imprecise. "I don't like the shifter very much," says Her Splendidness. "I don't get any kind of instinctive feel for what it's doing or anything. I'm trying to figure out a more articulate way of saying it. I don't know, it seems poppy and springy and I don't enjoy using it." Pedal placement for heel and toe could be better. The brake is just a little too close to you and the throttle is just a little too close to the brake.
The Z-24 also has, to a smaller extent, a trait we first noticed in the Nissan NX2000. As you get on and off the throttle (particularly if your hand's on the shifter), you can feel the engine shift forward and back, as the whole motor cradle shifts. It's more distracting than perilous.
The Z-24 -- and indeed, all Cavaliers -- break with GM tradition in a very positive way. The brakes are just fantastic, a good rival for our company-favorite Saturn units. They are very strong without being abrupt, and allow easy modulation.
An intelligent upshift light cues you to keep the mileage up, coming on at different points for different gears, 2,500 revs for the 3-4, 2,000 for 4-5. The Z-24 does reward the performance driver for ignoring the upshift light. It's going to cost you in mileage, but you get it back in fun.
In spirited driving (and some runs to the grocery store), the Cavalier Z-24 returned 28.5 mpg, which is very good for a car this sporty.
I don't think so. It's a good effort. But it's obviously a first draft. In 1995 guise, the Cavalier Z-24 feels like a sporty car designed with the insurance industry in mind -- as Nissan did with the 240SX. Close but not quite there.
There's lots of good news, though. If you're looking for a solid, good-looking small car, the Cavalier line delivers at an impressive price. And, considering the price of the Z-24, Chevy can do a lot to fix the details and still come in well under the stickers of other sporty vehicles. This car is really a challenger for something like the Talon or the Probe if it's properly rigged out.
The Z-24 is wonderful in a lot of ways (structure, styling, brakes, value), and it's close in others . Our Lordstown, Ohio-built test car was very good on build quality, fit and finish. The Cavalier gives you a lot for the dollar. A little bit of tuning, a little bit of maturity and Chevy could have a killer car here -- one that didn't have to be a good value to sell.
1995 Chevrolet Cavalier Z-24
©Copyright 1995, Backyard Aerospace
Hard Drive is a trademark of Backyard Aerospace.