The cars we loved.
Few Americans realized that our beloved “J car” peddled by GM in America under the names Cavalier, Sunbird, Skyhawk and others, was actually just a part of a larger family of cars whose reach was quite international in scope. Nearly every continent had some variation of a J Car. Australia had its Holden Camira and Brazil a version called the Chevrolet Monza (not to be confused with the US 70’s Monza). Europe as well as Asia had its variations also. All these cars had one thing in common (to varying degrees): they were successful sales wise. Although they were for the most part engineered in such a way to put them at a disadvantage when compared to more modern Japanese and sometimes European cars, they sold well nevertheless due to low price and simplicity. The Cavalier name had been used by Vauxhall in England before the name was used in 1982 for the car that replaced the Monza in the US. Like the cars in the US, Vauxhall made coupe, sedans, wagons (estates) and convertibles.
Gaining sales momentum since its beginning in 1975, the Mark II (second generation)Vauxhall Cavalier had become one of England’s biggest sales stars. It was a clone of Opel’s Ascona and vaguely resembled the American Cavalier which made its debut around the same time. Like its Yankee cousin, the Vauxhall shared the angular lines common to all J cars. Unlike the American car, the Vauxhall was available in many more trim lines. In addition to the four body styles you could buy in America (sedan, hatchback /notchback coupe and wagon), the Vauxhall came in the very European 5 door hatchback form. It would eventually come in a poorly selling convertible. Engines choices were more diverse also. In America your Cavalier came with one of three choices, a 1.8 then later 2.0L fours or a 2.8L V6. Cavaliers in Europe came only with inline four-cylinder engines ranging from 1.3 to 2.0L displacements. Of the five engines that were available over the course of the MKII’s development, one 1.6L diesel option was offered.
Even though the Cavalier on both continents were based on the J-car platform, Vauxhall’s car was rated as large vs. compact in the US. The difference in class would explain some of the perceived differences in quality between the two cars. In America, the Cavalier was seen as the low-end option in the emerging compact car market. Its overall performance, interior and build quality was not in keeping with its initial goal as a BMW competitor. Eventually Chevrolet dropped that goal and just tried to keep up with the Escort and Civics of the world. Vauxhall on the other hand was competing against larger cars like the Ford Sierra and Rover 400. These slightly larger mid-level cars offered buyers a level of refinement and kit that would be expected when making the step from entry-level. Like a kid growing up in a tough neighborhood, these cars made the Vauxhall Cavalier more competitive than its American counterpart. An example of this advantage could be seen with 1983 inclusion of electronic fuel injection in 1.8L engines while the American cars would not get an equivalent feature until 1992 in the form of multi-point injection. As a source of pride Vauxhall claimed that the Cavalier was assembled carefully as opposed to manufactured at its Luton factory. The sporty SR model was assembled at its Antwerepe facility. Two major updates occurred with the Vauxhall Cavalier, one in 1985 and the other in 1987. With each update refinements in the headlights and grilles made the cavalier more rounded and modern looking.
Performance wise the Vauxhall cars compared well against European peer competition, especially in the sporty Sri trim. The Thatcher government in England passed a series of laws that favored smaller engines, putting the cavalier at an advantage. Development of engines less than 2.0L was always a strong point of Vauxhall. The emphasis on smaller engine performance was apparent in the contrast between Americas Type 10 and later Z24 Cavalier and the Vauxhall Sri130 which used a 2.0L four vs. the US car’s 2.8L V6. While the Sri130 could reach a top speed of 120mph, it’s 0 to 60 time was 9.0 seconds, only a second more than the V6 powered Chevy Cavalier. The differences in speed may have been small, but the two cars diverged sharply with their road holding abilities. The MacPherson strut front suspension with torsion beam at the real was similar to the American Cavalier’s setup, but good handling could be had without getting the top models.
Despite having a smaller engine than the US based Cavalier, the Sri130 had 5 more horse power than the 2.8 in the Chevy. The lower weight improved the Vauxhall ability to respond to twisting roads, while the Chevy was more at home on the straight interstate. One of the last Sri130’s to be produced was a special edition called the Cavalier Calibre. It featured styling from Aston Martin/Tickford and a grounds effect kit, suspension and exhaust from Irmscher. There were only 500 cars made, each with Recaro seats and power windows and steering. The Calibre offered performance similar to BMW’s 3 Series, but for significantly less money, even as a special edition. The Calibre’s effect on the rest of the Cavalier line was mostly positive, but not always with car buyers. The Cavalier (like its US counterpart) was high on the most stolen list. Partly because it was an easy car to break into and the reward of doing so was getting to drive a car with good performance. Audi and BMW’s were much more difficult to break into to, but for the common teen looking for a joy ride, the Cavalier was more than good enough. The American car was simply an easy car to break into.
The Cavalier progressed like the rest of the J-car platform with a new generation in 1988. The sleek new car paid more attention to aerodynamics and was particularly attractive in its five door hatch form. The divergence from the American Cavalier grew even wider as Chevrolet continued with a reskined version using much of the same old technology of the first generation car. The Vauxhall had made the switch to front wheel drive with an optional all wheel drive model. In America the Cavalier (and all J-cars for that matter) have a poor record for quality, even being cited as repeatedly on the “Used Cars to Avoid” list by Consumer Reports.Once again, we in America got the short end of the auto stick.