Chevrolet convertibles back by popular demand

January 19, 1992|By G. Chambers Williams | G. Chambers Williams,Orange County Register

Chevrolet's venerable Cavalier subcompact might not conjure up images of sporty fun in most people's minds.

After all, this line of cars, introduced in the 1982 model year as Chevy's new entry-level model, was designed for economy and practicality.

However, en route to becoming the nation's third-best-selling automobile and Chevy's top seller, the Cavalier went somewhat upscale.

The sportiest -- and most California-looking -- of the Cavaliers were the RS and Z24 convertibles. But as Chevy contemplated phasing out the Cavalier line by replacing it with the new Corsica/Beretta line that debuted in the 1989 model year, those convertibles disappeared.

Chevy announced in late 1989 that a Beretta convertible would be forthcoming in the 1990 model year. But that car was canceled, and in 1991 the Cavalier RS convertible was brought back by popular demand.

Now, for 1992, instead of seeing further declines in the Cavalier line, the even-sportier Cavalier Z24 convertible has been reprised.

That gives convertible buyers two good choices in the Cavalier line, at prices that lots of us can afford. Prices start at about $16,000.

Chevy appears to be holding on to the Cavaliers, due to their phenomenal success. They still hold the No. 3 spot in U.S. car sales, behind the No. 1 Honda Accord and No. 2 Ford Taurus, and it's hard to arbitrarily give up such a position.

The convertibles, however, don't contribute a lot to that ranking, because they're priced way above the average Cavalier (the base model starts at $8,900), and are sold in limited numbers.

These ragtops, however, are way above the average Cavalier in performance and pizazz, and certainly deserve consideration if you're in the market for a car that can go topless.

I tested the 1991 RS model, which returns virtually unchanged for 1992. It came with bright blue metallic paint, white vinyl bucket seats that I thought were leather until I read the fine print on the window sticker, and the zippy 3.1-liter V-6 engine. There's even a rear seat big enough for two adults.

With its tight-shifting five-speed manual transmission, rally-tuned suspension and 140-horsepower engine, this car is surprisingly pleasant to drive. Handling, particularly in tight curves on mountain roads, is virtually sports-car-like.

It takes off like a jackrabbit, which comes as a shock to motorists in adjacent lanes who expect nothing of the sort from a Cavalier.

But the thing I noticed the most with this car was just how much it was noticed wherever we went. People would come up to it when it was parked, talking about how pretty it was. Maybe it was the blue exterior/white interior combination that grabbed them, but whatever it was, this car demanded and got a lot of attention.

One of the nicest features of this convertible is its easy-to-operate power top. When you consider that the $60,000 Cadillac Allante doesn't even have a power top, the $16,000 Cavalier starts looking like a real bargain.

For 1992, the V-6 engine is standard on the Z24 convertible, but optional on the RS. But the base engine for the RS for '92 is an improved version of the 2.2-liter electronic-fuel-injected four-cylinder engine from last year. The new one gets 15 more horsepower, up to 110 from 95, and an increase of 10 foot-pounds of torque.

Added as standard equipment on all '92 Cavaliers are General Motors' new ABS VI antilock braking system and power door locks that latch automatically. RS models get full wheel covers and accent striping.

Both convertibles come with power front-disc, rear-drum brakes, power rack-and-pinion steering and five-speed manual transmission. A three-speed automatic transmission with lockup torque converter is optional.

The RS we tested goes from zero to 60 mph in just 10.4 seconds; it's 12.8 seconds with the automatic, but that's still pretty quick for a car in this class.

EPA fuel-economy ratings for the 1992 models with V-6 engine are 19 miles per gallon in the city and 28 on the highway for manual-transmission models, and 20 city/28 highway for automatics. The four-cylinder version gets 25 city/36 highway with manual gearbox, and 23/32 with the automatic.

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