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LAS VEGAS — Weaving a path through parading sporty cruisers, tourist taxis and those high-roller stretched limousines clotting Las Vegas Boulevard, our set of wheels appears far less conspicuous in this ultimate gulch of glitter and neon.
It's small but sporty, with slick curves to its tidy proportions. And though there's only a modest engine aboard, it puts a spark in the pedal when commanded and still generates thrifty fuel-economy figures.
As the subcompact entry-level sedan from Chevrolet, the Cavalier clearly demonstrates that the American automotive dollar extends far further than you might imagine for back-to-basics transportation. Unlike those flashy machines passing by on the boulevard, this basic car comes with a price tag which tallies to a modest figure — less than $13,000.
Frugal and fashionable
It looks good too — smooth and round but still compact and to the point. If you didn't know that the Cavalier was born and bred in the U.S., you might mistake it for a cute little sedan imported from Asia. And if you could close your eyes and drive at the same time, you might also misplace its precise handling attributes and comfortable interior fittings for those found in a nice import. The Cavalier feels tight and drives responsively, proving that General Motors can build an import-busting economy car.
Chevrolet stickers the Cavalier
1999 Chevrolet Cavalier interior
The Cavalier’s interior is shapely and functional.
Both the base Cavalier and Cavalier LS sedans draw power from a 2.2-liter four-cylinder engine outfitted with sequential fuel injection and platinum-tipped spark plugs. With 115 horsepower, this powerplant’s best feature might be its fuel-economy numbers, which run as high as 34 mpg with manual stick.
The Cavalier offers two optional automatic transmissions. A three-speed automatic may be added to the base Cavalier for $600, but for only $180 more you can get an electronically controlled four-speed variation — the best yet from General Motors — and it has a built-in traction-control system to help corral the wheels on slick pavement.
If the small four won’t do, there’s always Chevy's twin-cam, 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine, rated at 150 hp. Mated only to the four-speed automatic, it’s a $450 option on the Cavalier LS.
Frills and features
Both Cavalier LS and the base edition are stuffed with standard features not normally found in the ultrainexpensive spectrum: cup holders, map pockets on both doors, a folding rear seat back, a front center console with storage bin, a theft-deterrent system and intermittent wipers. To that, the Cavalier LS adds a tachometer, an AM-FM radio package, a remote decklid release, a tilting steering column, variable-speed intermittent wipers, and larger 15-inch wheels and tires. Air conditioning is optional on all models, as are a package of power equipment for windows, door locks and trunk lid release; aluminum wheels; and a rear decklid spoiler.
Far from the mushy baseline transportation offered in the older Cavaliers, the newest Chevrolet compact responds quickly to obey a driver's commands. This lively response results from an upgrade to the Cavalier’s power-assisted rack-and-pinion steering and to its independent front suspension, which now incorporates dual-path struts to isolate front wheels and remove harshness and that shake-rattle-and-roll effect.
Also upgraded are the Cavalier’s safety systems, which include four-wheel anti-lock brakes and twin airbags, plus a steel safety cage with integrated crumple zones fore and aft to insulate passengers.
At its Filene’s Basement base price, Chevy’s Cavalier is among the least expensive products available to new-car buyers. But impressively, the newest entry-level Chevrolet doesn’t feel like a bargain-basement buy. With its complete safety equipment, clean styling and zippy feel, the Cavalier drives and feels a notch or two above its plebeian roots.