As I do more and more of these Meh Car Monday articles, I’m realizing there’s a spectrum of meh that these cars fall into. Some are capable, well-made, and functionally decent vehicles, but just lacking any sort of character or soul; that’s about the best a meh car can hope for. At the other end are cars who derive their meh-ness from the incredible, all-consuming lack of giving a shit about the car’s design and construction itself—these are cars that were meh because they were phoned-in, half-assed attempts at best. The first-gen Chevrolet Cavalier is a member of the latter group.
Now, most of the 16 brands and models (!) that GM and its partner companies sold the J-body-platform cars under had some pretty meh cars in the mix—the Oldsmobile Firenza, Buick Skyhawk, Isuzu Aska, Opel Ascona, and so on, for example, but even among these the Cavalier stands out as among the meh-est.
Some of the J-bodies ended up not being meh at all, not because of how good they were, but because of how awful, like the Cadillac Cimarron, which can’t be truly meh because it was the most cynical, miserable example of badge engineering ever afflicted on a motor-coach.
But take away the absurd Cadillac pretentions of the Cimarron, and what are you left with? A Cavalier, one of the most bloodless, joyless, passionless cars ever farted together by the disinterested sphincter of man.
That first, 1982 to 1987-era Cavalier was designed to compete with the Honda Accord, and to measure how far it missed that mark you’d have to paint an aircraft carrier like a ruler. Where the Accord was a well-designed, well-built, cleverly engineered car, all the Cavalier managed to be was roughly the same size and, um, more squarer.
The Cavalier’s ruler-only design was the visual equivalent of the diet your doctor puts you on to try to rebuild your bowel movements after a particularly nasty bout of diarrhea; bland, forgettable, and almost entirely undesirable outside of its ability to bind stools.
Sure, GM’s compact-car predecessors, like the Vega, were pretty terrible. But the Vega at least had some style, at least for the few minutes you could look at it before it disappeared into an orange cloud of rust.
The Cavalier was just boring, period. The design was capable enough, in that it had room inside to sit and a box out back to throw groceries and stacks of Rubik’s Cubes and VHS tapes or whatever the hell people put in trunks in the ‘80s. It worked, and it looked like the default symbol for a car that you’d see on a no parking sign.
The interior felt dated and wasn’t nearly up to the standards of the Hondas the car deluded itself into seeing as a competitor. Even worse was the engine, which was a crude straight-four called the 122 engine.
In its original carbureted, 1.8-liter form, it made 88 listless horsepower and was a sluggish, ponderous lump, getting to 60 MPH in 16.3 tedious seconds. Later it was bumped up to 2.0-liters and the carb was replaced with throttle-body fuel injection. Using GM’s patented engineering process known as “Stepping On Your Dick,” the new, bigger, fuel-injected engine made 86 HP.
Great job, fellas.
The new engine supposedly made better power at lower RPMs, but it barely mattered, because the car was still a joyless box of defeat. I had a girlfriend once who drove a gold Cavalier of this era, and I can absolutely attest that it’s one of the most soporific and depressing driving experiences known to man.
We can’t say the Cavalier was a total failure because they did sell a baffling shit-ton of these things, and for the most part, they did their sad little listless jobs of moving otherwise happy people around from place to place, all the while those people had to be dreaming of the day they could ditch these flavorless transportation objects.
Chevy’s ads for the Cavalier sometimes were eye-rollingly delusional:
“It could be a BMW!” the idiot says. Bitch, please. How did this guy keep a straight face? Also, what is that gray crap they’re washing off the car? It looks like they dumped about 50 full vacuum cleaner bags on it.
Other commercials just felt like the sort of soul-murdering videos you’d get shown while trapped in a sales pitch for a time share:
Then, there was the false exuberance approach, which involved driving through glowing tubes and people whisper-yelling “HOT!”
Ugh, I can’t go on anymore. Just remembering this thing makes me want to open my wrists, just to feel alive for a few moments before expiring. I’m so happy almost all of these miserable lumps of ennui have disappeared from the roads.
Screw the Cavalier.