For years, the Detroit Three (Chrysler, Ford and GM) watched haplessly as the Asian automotive juggernaut became increasingly powerful and popular in the United States. While Japanese cars were originally scoffed at as too small, too light, and “made from beer cans”; after the two Arab oil crises of the late 1970’s resulted in the price of gas rising sharply, for many Americans, the qualities “small and “ light came to be seen as attributes. Further, the prospects of significantly better fuel economy and the resulting lower costs of operation outweighed the patriotic desire to “drive American.”
Woefully late to truly come to grips with this, America’s largest car manufacturer, General Motors, initially fielded a number of half-baked “small” cars to give U.S. buyers something to buy in the compact car arena. Ironically, back in the 1960’s Chevrolet had a strong player in this arena in the form of the rear-engined air-cooled Corvair. Killed for a number of different reasons, GM never really tried diligently to do a small car again until the late 1970’s, when the company introduced the Chevrolet Vega.
Initially, the Vega, with its scaled-down Camaro looks, was warmly received. Then the quality problems made themselves apparent. Vega was followed by Monza, which basically was a Vega in disguise. The engines and platforms were pretty much carried over—though the styling was different. By 1981, Chevrolet had abandoned the rear-drive small car, in favor of the packaging efficiencies attainable with a front drive layout.
Cavalier was one of the first compact cars from GM to take this approach. Introduced in 1982, Cavalier replaced Monza and was offered as a coupe, a sedan, and a station wagon. There was eventually a convertible version of the coupe as well. Interestingly, there was even a version of the Cavalier badged as a Toyota and sold in Japan. There were three generations of the Cavalier built between 1982 and 2005. This article picks up with the third generation of the Cavalier, introduced in 1995.
In case you’re wondering, Cavalier’s descendant in Chevrolet’s current (2012) lineup is the Cruze.