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Chevrolet Cavalier Convertible

Once upon a time, the Big Three each had a small car. Ford had the unreliable, slow Escort; Chrysler had the European-designed, quirky Omni; and General Motors had the relatively refined Cavalier, the only one of the three to survive into the 1990s. (The current Escort is actually a reskinned Mazda). It is also the only one of the three to be sold without a roof.

With the top up, the Cavalier doesn't seem much noisier than an older, hard-roofed economy car. This is mainly due to a rather clever folding-frame system which seals the windows nicely or, depending on which way it is going, folds itself neatly away. The control is well designed, and putting the top back up again was no problem except for latching it into place, which required muscle. At highway speeds, a strong breeze came from behind, making for a cold neck. However, the windshield protected the driver and passenger from most of the wind. The top protected the driver from rain quite well.

The engine quickly warmed and, thankfully [test conducted in November], provided scalding hot air. It was surprisingly powerful at all rpms, racing forward with an exciting, throaty sound. Gas mileage was good at 31 mpg considering the power: convertibles are heavier than cars with roofs, and the Cavalier had good torque at low engine speeds.

The gearbox has a long throw and a mechanical feel. It was pleasant to use, not exactly refined, but satisfying. The clutch was heavy and could be smoother.

The Z24 is a fine machine for those who want to feel their car doing its thing. It does not shield mechanical sounds or feel, and there's something to be said for not smoothing out all the edges. In keeping with this, the optional 150 hp engine has the highest torque in its class, with 155 lb-ft. Try to get that in an Accord, much less a Civic!

The seats are specially designed for the convertible, and look as though they can deal with rain; they were comfortable and easy to adjust. The back seats fold down if needed for trunk space. The seats were very comfortable, and could be easily adjusted. The doors are, in the GM tradition, large heavy.

Controls were logical, and the cruise control was more responsive than on most cars; if you pushed the accelerate button, the car lept forward. However, getting the keys out of the ignition proved to be a battle each and every time; even pushing the pointless little key release button, the car did not want to give up the little key (which contains an theft-control device).

GM's unavoidable daytime running lights activate the brights, not the normal lamps, annoying other drivers; they run at a fairly high intensity. A headlight symbol is always lit on the instrument panel, except, perversely, when the headlights are on. The horn was easy to activate though not very effective.

The convertible's low roof may be a problem for tall drivers; the metal window frame is just the wrong height for six-footers. One has to be careful to avoid the curving windshield. The seat belt was placed in the body of the car, too low to reach for easily and too low for taller drivers.

The radio was superior to most in this class of vehicle, and its automatic speed/noise compensation control was handy. The bass does tend to bottom out.

As a convertible, we did not expect the Cavalier Z24 to handle very well. It does not match up to the class-leading Neon, but was good enough for most driving.

Overall, we found the Cavalier Convertible to be a refreshing change from cars like the Corolla, which pour syrup over the sound and feel of the car. Driving the Cavalier was a very tactile experience, and that is what convertibles are for.

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