1999 Chevrolet Cavalier Expert Review:New Car Test Drive
New Car Test Drive
Sporty looks at an affordable price.
Chevrolet's Cavalier is the best-selling small car in an extremely competitive market of compacts. First offered in 1997, the Rally Sport sits in the middle of the Cavalier spectrum, although there is nothing middling about this car. Its appeal is its appearance and performance for the price.
The Rally Sport model delivers good handling and peppy acceleration at a reasonable price of $13,641. The Cavalier Rally Sport comes with a 2.2-liter 4-cylinder engine that revs well and is always at the ready. ABS and power-assisted rack-and-pinion steering come standard.
There are a lot of choices in the compact class. Choosing what's best depends on the buyer's needs and budget. What the Cavalier Rally Sport buyer gets is an engaging driving experience as well as a car that has a lot of sass due to body-colored front and rear fascias, wheel covers and a rear spoiler, all of which enhance the fastback body style.
Cavalier presents a wide variety of models, all attractively priced: a $12,381 Coupe, a $13,641 Rally Sport Coupe, a $12,481 Sedan, a $14,921 LS Sedan, a $16,481 Z24 Coupe and a $20,081 Z24 Convertible.
The Cavalier Rally Sport looks sporty compared to the Honda Civic Coupe, Ford Escort and Dodge Neon. It lacks in power compared to the Escort ZX2 or the Neon R/T Coupe, but that's answered by the more muscular Cavalier Z24 Coupe. A 2.4-liter Twin Cam engine comes on Z24 Coupes and Z24 Convertibles and is an option on LS Sedans.
The Rally Sport's visual appeal lies in not looking like a two-door sedan. This coupe succeeds in a relatively long and sleek presentation for a compact without resorting to a wedge style. The wedge effect is avoided by front fenders with some nice curves, slender doors when measured from the rocker panels to the windowsill, and the long arch of the C-pillar that lends a fastback sensibility.
At the back, the rear window segues quickly into a high, short rear deck. That's where the integrated spoiler sustains the lengthening of the car's lines instead of some more obvious announcement. The standard P195/65R15 tires are the right complement for filling the wheel wells as well as for the maneuverability desired in a smaller car. Also, the Rally Sport's 104-inch wheelbase nicely apportions the car into a pleasing balance, another appealing dimension to a compact design.
Like a sports car, the Rally Sport looks like it rides low to the ground, but in fact has a standard ground clearance. The test car came with optional five-spoke aluminum wheels ($295) that, like the rear spoiler, complement the fundamental design cues without overstating them. They maintain the twirled effect of the standard wheels, but have a pleasantly understated aggressiveness with more relief than the original equipment design with bolt-on wheel covers.
At the subtly curvaceous front, the car maintains its sleekness with the body-matching front fascia and narrow headlights. A Chevy Bow Tie is the only badge on the front, while a new Rally Sport badge written on both rear flanks provides model distinction.
If there is a disappointment to the car's visual appeal, it arrives when looking from the inside out. The Rally Sport comes with attractive, cloth-covered seats, which include embroidered RS identification in the headrests. But that's where the visual appeal of an otherwise Spartan interior ends. The cloth motif extends to a small center section of the doors, but otherwise the interior is unrelieved composite.
The functional dash has a small speedometer and tachometer. Except for the door lock and light switch, all the operating switches are stalk-mounted. The center console offers a large tray under the dash, a cup holder, plus storage box, which also includes a second cup holder (when open) and a clever third cup holder for the rear seat when the top is flipped back. The heater/AC unit and radio with minimal functional controls occupy the center of the dash.
The cloth seats are comfortable, resilient and supportive with firm foam contours. But what becomes most quickly apparent is what the exterior gains in design appearance is given back when it comes to front and rear visibility. When compared to the more upright Civic, Escort or Neon greenhouses, the view is not nearly as open. The narrow doors offer excellent side visibility. But they also come with a noticeable trade-off. The long doors are quite heavy; they require some effort to operate and some care in tight parking areas.
The long doors combined with sliding front seats make it easy to get in and out of the back seat. As in the front, the rear passengers will feel as if they are sitting quite low, necessitated to accommodate enough headroom. While there is ample head and shoulder room, legs have to be folded up with knees closer to one's chin than some would deem comfortable. Only a child could handle the center seat in the back, which is too small for an adult. The rear passengers do have the convenience of heat ducts.
In the trunk, the Rally Sport offers excellent cargo space for the class, with 13.2 cubic feet of storage area and a standard cargo net. Rear seats fold down to expand the rear storage area.
The Cavalier is a fun car to drive, one that enjoys being tossed around. Its light weight adds to the fun. The front suspension uses McPherson struts and coil springs. In the rear, trailing tubular control arms locate wheels along with a twist beam axle. The suspension is taut and gives the driver a good feel for the road, yet the Cavalier RS handles road bumps with aplomb. Not untypical of compact cars, the higher the speeds the more noticeable the bumps become.
The 2.2-liter, inline-4 produces 115 horsepower and 135 foot-pounds of torque, which are not necessarily numbers to brag about when compared to the more powerful engines offered in the sport categories of other compacts. With a low first gear, the 5-speed gearbox does not offer comparable close ratios, either. But they're close enough. Combined with sequential fuel injection, overhead valves, hydraulic lifters and roller cams, the drivetrain encourages high revving and quick getaways.
The engine tends to be heard in compacts. In the case of the Cavalier, the noise level was acceptable, and, perhaps more important, the little four-banger sounds sweet.
The rack-and-pinion power steering makes this a rapid response vehicle. The excellent turn-in as well as precision in the steering adds a lot to the enjoyment of the Cavalier, although the body roll was sometimes excessive in cornering. The gear shift clicked predictably into place, adding to the desire to run quickly through the gearbox, not to mention through corners.
The anti-lock braking system comes with disc brakes in the front and drum brakes in the rear. The system worked well under extreme braking conditions. But under normal braking, the brakes grabbed slightly in the rear and one had to pay attention to applying pedal pressure smoothly.
The Cavalier Coupe appeals to younger buyers; and more than half are female. The Cavalier Rally Sport is a likeable car due to its styling and its excellent standard equipment, both appealing to younger shoppers. In appearance, the Rally Sport lives up to its name. The standard features include an adjustable tilt wheel, cruise control, and intermittent variable wipers in addition to the ABS, power rack-and-pinion steering and 15-inch wheels.
If there is a drawback to this package, it is an engine that does not quite live up to the car's image, especially in comparison to some other two-door sport compacts. If a buyer starts adding options, such as air conditioning, sun roof, power doors and windows or a cassette for the AM/FM radio, the price can climb quickly. If the standard package offers what a buyer is looking for, the Cavalier is highly recommended for value and enjoyable driving.
Options As Tested
Air conditioning, rear window defogger, aluminum wheels, CD player, power windows and mirror, remote keyless entry.
Rally Sport Coupe.
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