Cavalier was to be import-fighter
Chevy needed a small-car hit in the early 1980s, and what it got was the Cavalier
Information from the launch of the 1982 Cavalier. Sales started slow, then peaked at 431,000 in 1985.
The Chevrolet Cavalier was the workhorse of General Motors' J-car platform developed in the late 1970s to battle the smartly packaged, well made small cars from Japan and Europe that were making a serious dent in the U.S. market.
By the 1980 model year, sales of subcompact cars had grown to more than 3.5 million, from a little more than 2 million five years earlier.
Chevy's previous small car, the Vega, had earned a bad reputation for shoddy quality and engine problems. The Chevette was Chevrolet's main entry in the subcompact segment in the early 1980s, accounting for 12 percent of subcompact car sales in the 1980 model year, according to Bob Lund, Chevrolet's general manager at the time.
"More than three dozen other cars -- most of them Japanese cars -- are battling for the rest" of the segment, Lund said in a 1981 press presentation. "And make no mistake about it: This is a battle."
Chevy needed a hit. What it got was the Cavalier.
The Cavalier debuted in the 1982 model year. It was offered as a sedan, coupe, station wagon and three-door sporty hatchback. Under the hood was a 1.8-liter four-cylinder engine producing 88 hp, teamed with a four-speed manual transmission. An automatic transmission was an option.
The car sat on the new J-car platform, which also underpinned the Pontiac Sunbird and Cadillac Cimarron. Engineers from Chevrolet and Opel worked to develop a platform that would work in both Europe and the United States.
At another 1981 press briefing, Lund said the Cavalier was intended to be a high-content, bigger brother to the Chevette designed to target import-brand shoppers.
Roger Masch, lead engineer on the J-car platform, said: "It was really more competitive in the compact car segment than the Chevette or the Nova or anything else" Chevrolet had.
But the market didn't bite as GM had hoped. Roughly 121,000 units were sold in 1982, the Cavalier's first full year of sales.
After a slow start, the Cavalier gained steam. In 1985 an optional V-6 engine was offered, and sales topped 431,000 units, the Cavalier's sales record.
Little attention was paid to the car's styling over the course of its more than 20-year lifespan. While Japanese small cars were being redesigned or given new sheet metal every four or five years, the Cavalier had just two major styling updates.
It was reskinned in the late 1980s, but its first complete redesign wasn't until the 1995 model year. By that point the Cavalier hatchback and wagon had been dropped, and a convertible had been added.
Toyota dealerships in Japan began selling the Cavalier with a Toyota badge starting in 1996 under a deal signed in 1993 by GM and Toyota. The goal was to sell 20,000 Cavaliers in Japan annually, but availability and marketing hiccups limited sales to just 11,467 in the first year of sales. Sales never reached hoped-for levels, and the Toyota Cavalier was scrapped in 2000.
The Cavalier was dropped in 2005 and replaced by the Chevrolet Cobalt.
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