Lamest Classics: The new-for-’95 Chevy Cavalier

Buckle up, kids: It’s time for Lamest Classics, our fortnightly look at what now qualifies for classic car plates in most states, and we’re starting with a bang.

There aren’t many cars that say mediocrity better than a General Motors J-body, regardless of generation. But if you want real sadness, look no further than the first bottom-up redesign of Chevy’s compact car since 1982.

The 1995 Cavalier comes with your choice of 4-cylinder engines, but the one you really want is the base 2.2-liter pushrod engine — yes, a 4-pot with pushrods, even in 1995. Was there another pushrod 4-cylinder in any other passenger car at that time? God, I hope not.

Don’t be tempted

Maybe you’re tempted to suggest that the Corvette still manages impressive specific output (horsepower divided by displacement) for a pushrod engine with 2 valves per cylinder. This is emphatically not the case with the Cavalier’s engine. It’s a coarse and wheezy hunk of iron with an aluminum head. Sure, the 5-speed manual will get you an impressive 37 mpg highway, but you can opt for the 3-speed automatic — also a holdover from the first years of the ‘lier — and get the worst of it all.

 

This car is an anachronism. You’re well into the mid-’90s but you’re looking at refinement worthy of the Reagan era. Even the twist beam rear suspension was bottom of the segment.

All that compromise and you don’t even get into the cheapest option on the market: The Dodge Neon undercut the $10,050 Cavalier by more than $500. The only reason to buy one of these is if you’ve just gotta have a vehicle from the bowtie brand.

This is a lame classic

So go ahead. Find yourself a base model with an automatic transmission. Look for unpainted bumpers to maximize the misery. Browse the local dirt lots and Facebook Marketplace, but you can probably skip Craigslist. Their $5 ad charge makes it hard to find real high-quality garbage like this. You can probably find a few running examples near you for less than a grand.

Want to really alienate yourself? Get yourself the Toyota-branded Cavalier that was sold in Japan. The JDM kids 30-somethings will still hate you.

It’ll all be worth it just to show up at the Steak & Shake cruise night and park next to the over-waxed Corvettes and F-bodies. After all, the DMV says you’ve got a classic, and J comes after F anyway. That means it’s better.

The Cavalier gets an 7 on the Lamestain Index.

About Alan

I'm a giant nerd and lifelong iconoclast who happens to like cars, especially terrible ones. I've built many low-budget race cars, driven in many Lemons races, worked at a Real Deal Print Car Magazine, and gave up that lifestyle in the interest of life balance. I also wear khakis and ride bicycles, though rarely at the same time.

36 Comments

  1. Here in Texas, you still see these on occasion, but a lot of ’95(-ish) Escorts, Neons, Proteges, Esteems, Accents, Jettas, Sentras, Saturns, etc. have vanished.

  2. Last photo:

    Q: Which would cost less?:

    a) A new factory headlight assembly to replace the fogged-out unit on the white BMW.

    b) A different color Craigslist Cavalier for each day of the week.

    1. While we are talking parts, the Cavalier was responsible for this, Toyota badges with GM parts numbers. https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/25606535bae7c0ae04f0b37ecb122206851db6b76943be6048306556110a4887.jpg

      As the article states JDM Cavaliers were sold in Japan after being imported from America and, somewhat inexplicably, being marketed as an up market, fun to drive, luxury conveyance, by Toyota, with Toyota badges, as the Toyota Cavalier. The JDM cars all seem to have tan leather interiors. In aid of this luxury marketing, extensive rectification work was undertaken on the US-made cars that arrived in Japan. So much in fact that Toyota put as many hours, on average, into each Cavalier that they put into the entire manufacture of the similar size Corona.

      But of course they weren’t selling the Coronas for BMW 3 series prices, though in the end they weren’t selling the Cavalier for those prices either.

      More than a few have been imported into New Zealand by dealers confused by the Toyota badges and their promise of peerless reliability and easy parts availability. They are very uncommon now. Having driven a few I can honestly say I’d rather drive a Corona with 200,000 km than a Cavalier with 20,000 km.

      https://s3-prod.autonews.com/GLOBAL02_302069935_AR_-1_BKTEYXJLRSGS.jpg

    2. While we are talking parts, the Cavalier was responsible for this, Toyota badges with GM parts numbers. https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/25606535bae7c0ae04f0b37ecb122206851db6b76943be6048306556110a4887.jpg

      As the article states JDM Cavaliers were sold in Japan after being imported from America and, somewhat inexplicably, being marketed as an up market, fun to drive, luxury conveyance, by Toyota, with Toyota badges, as the Toyota Cavalier. The JDM cars all seem to have tan leather interiors. In aid of this luxury marketing, extensive rectification work was undertaken on the US-made cars that arrived in Japan. So much in fact that Toyota put as many hours, on average, into each Cavalier that they put into the entire manufacture of the similar size Corona.

      But of course they weren’t selling the Coronas for BMW 3 series prices, though in the end they weren’t selling the Cavalier for those prices either.

      More than a few have been imported into New Zealand by dealers confused by the Toyota badges and their promise of peerless reliability and easy parts availability. They are very uncommon now. Having driven a few I can honestly say I’d rather drive a Corona with 200,000 km than a Cavalier with 20,000 km.

      https://s3-prod.autonews.com/GLOBAL02_302069935_AR_-1_BKTEYXJLRSGS.jpg

  3. Ugh! So, so, soooo bad. And to think, this embarrassment was in production for a DECADE! Back in my dealership days, we sold quite a few of them – used – because they were so cheap at the auctions. Even car dealers didn’t want them. My least fondest memory was actually delivering a brand new, 2005 Cavalier to a guy, and on the drive out to his place the factory sunroof just completely blew out of it. The trim, the glass and the rails just flew out of the car and bounced on the highway behind me.

    1. It was definitely on my list for this series, but your comment on last week’s post convinced me that it should be the first. Thank you.

  4. Flush with new-hire money (and the complete ignorance of the real world cost of living somewhere other than with mom and dad) I leased a 2 door one of these for something like $99/month for my then girlfriend-soon to be fiancee-now wife in late 1998. It was a convenient answer to stop fixing (after already having thrown a short block at it, among other things) her 80’s Buick Century.

    The car itself was competent, cheap, and completely forgettable the second it left the driveway for it’s final time.

    But I’ll always be grateful for the convenience of it being a solution.

  5. So this is just a reskin of the 88 Cavalier my wife was driving when we met. That was a slug and the last car I ever saw with an old fashioned rear defroster fan (Florida car). The 85 Ford Ranger that replaced it was a major step up in driving experience.

    1. I remember a fast Cavalier at Autobahn several years ago, but I haven’t heard of any since. I’m sure they’re out there.

    2. Given the number of Cavaliers that were made and how quickly they depreciated to Lemons money, surprisingly few. And it seems most of the ones that have raced are the earlier, boxy generation. There was a total of two Cavs ran in the 2019 season, one from each generation, It seems teams who want a cheap GM vehicle go for a S10 pickup.

      And this does seem odd, because as Alan said, it is possible to turn these into really fast race cars.

  6. Even in showroom condition, that interior has a smell I can sense through the screen. Just a GM smell. Like a VW smell, but oilier.

  7. Here in Texas, you still see these on occasion, but a lot of ’95(-ish) Escorts, Neons, Proteges, Esteems, Accents, Jettas, Sentras, Saturns, etc. have vanished.

  8. I know these are objectively terrible, but they were great beaters. Parts are dirt cheap and abundant, there isn’t a mechanic alive in North America that couldn’t fix one with their eyes closed, and they’re the epitome of running poorly longer than most cars ever run. Before I went back to school, I was working at a Chevy dealer, and picked up a ’97 coupe that had been traded in for not much, had it safetied and on the road for about the same cost as its initial purchase price, and then proceeded to drive it for the next couple years with a heavy highway commute up to about 150k miles. During that time, I did nothing other than regular oil changes and replaced a blower motor resistor (one of the exhaust hangers rusted out, but I never ended up dealing with it), and only replaced it because I got a hand-me-down Hyundai Accent from my parents. Given that I had no great roads to drive on, just lots of highway and such, the Cavalier was actually sort of charming – it was a 5-speed, it had big windows and a sunroof so it felt nice and airy, and was quick enough for typical commuting.

    It’s not a classic, but it’s an honest workhorse that’s help kept the economy running by delivering millions of people to unglamorous but important low paid jobs.

    1. This is what makes this idea such a great fit for the Hooniverse. I can think of no regular who wouldn’t appreciate the glory of a shabby workhorse, just 25 years later. Test drive all the Lamborghinis you want, but checking out Cavaliers for classic plates is infinitely more entertaining.

  9. “Was there another pushrod 4-cylinder in any other passenger car at that time?”

    The BMC A-Series remained in production through 2000 for the variously-badged-but-ultimately-Rover Mini.

    Then again, VW Type 1 production continued through 2003 if we consider arrangements other than the inline four.

    1. I’ve had the dubious honor of owning two pushrod 4 banger cars from 1995 on:
      Skoda Felicia was still offered with skodas OHV engine.
      Fiat Cinquecento 899cc – updated version of an engine that can be traced back to 1955, the Fiat Panda/Seat Marbella was actually still around with the same/similar engines til 2003. 39bhp of raw power.

      1. Even the second-generation Skoda Octavia – essentially a Mk5 Jetta – had the old OHV 1.3 MPI engine as an option, and that was the mid 2000s.

        And, the Ford Kent engine was apparently used in the Ka and Escort into 2002.

  10. These were so awful and yet so inexplicably popular. This was the go-to car for teen girls to have bought for them by their parents in 1995-96.

    1. They were available in teal and purple. I’m sure there were dealer incentives to help move units, but it’s hard to track down that info.

  11. The only reason to buy one of these is if you’ve just gotta have a vehicle from the bowtie brand.

    If you gotta buy a bowtie in 1995 in this size/price range, there’s literally no reason to get a Cavalier because the Prizm exists and is better in every measurable and immeasurable way. Don’t know how GM effed that up, but they are GM.

        1. Touché. I had never noticed that before. Or I had forgotten. Sometimes it is hard to know which.

      1. Thats a Prizm not a Prism. Prism is a piece of glass that splits light into its component colors. The Prizm is the badge – engineered Toyota Corolla.

  12. You could get an Opel Frontera with a CIH engine in 1998. Sure, it doesn’t have pushrods, but it’s not an OHC engine either.

  13. What’s so lame about ’em? They’re dependable and I keep buying them up. Own three ’02s right now. You find one that an older person owned garage kept, low mile, $1000 and less, and you have a great car with NO car payment. They last many years. My 93 Cavalier had over 250,000 miles and still ran, but the deer that mashed it said otherwise. One of the best affordable, dependable cars made. Not everyone can own a Cadillac to drive to work everyday. I’ve saved a ton of money by buying them. I’m a nurse and these cars have never let me down. As far as I’m concerned, they are classics in their own right. Why knock em?

    1. I’m glad you made good use of all the ones you’ve owned, but I don’t think a suitable workhorse means it’s a great classic car.

      The things you said about your Cavalier, would you say the same about a Toyota Tercel?

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