The Neon is a fun, fast, and furious little car, but it's not for everyone. Some people just don't want to buy from a foreign company, even one that was American just a little while ago. Some don't want frameless windows or a 2000 model. Some don't want a roof.
If you call Chrysler German, there is only one small American car: the Chevrolet Cavalier (also sold as the Pontiac Sunfire). The Ford Escort is a reskinned Mazda Protege, and has no more claim to be American than the California-assembled Toyota Corolla/Chevrolet Prizm. (The upcoming Ford Focus was designed by Ford Europe...whether that's an American company is your call).
The Cavalier has less wind noise than one would expect when the top is up, even at highway speeds. In fact, it didn't seem any noisier than an older, hard-roofed economy car. This is mainly due to a rather clever folding-frame system which seals the windows nicely. The motorized top went down quickly and folded itself neatly away. The control was simple and easy to understand, and putting the top back up again was no problem except for latching it into place, which required some muscle. No water leaked in when it rained, even at highway speeds.
With the top down, there wasn't much wind from the front, but at highway speeds a strong breeze came from behind, making a scarf and hat handy in cold weather. 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.
The gearbox was interesting, a throwback in some ways with a long throw and a mechanical feel. It was pleasant to use, not as refined as a Corolla's or Neon's, but more satisfying at a "feel" level. The clutch was heavy and not as smooth as the Neon's, certainly not as smooth as the Corolla's.
This brings us to what other reviewers have called crudeness, what we would prefer to call personality. The Z24 does not hide the sound of the engine, you can feel the stick going into the gears, and the suspension is stiff. This is not the stuff Toyotas are made of, and it is not bad if you like more excitement in your driving. There's something to be said for not smoothing out all the edges. Frankly, I feel that, especially compared with a Civic, you get a lot for the price when you buy a Cavalier with a roof. (The convertible, on the other hand, is in Camry territory - the invoice price for our Z24 ragtop was nearly $20,000). Certainly, the Cavalier's optional 150 hp engine has the highest torque in its class, with 155 lb-ft. That means that, while it is nominally as powerful as the Neon DOHC (150 hp), it has more power in reality due to the torque advantage; more power seemed to be available at the low end, as well. I'll take a little roar in exchange, thanks. (The Civic Si's 160 hp engine has very little torque - about 100 lb-ft - so it's unlikely to outrun a Cavalier in normal conditions)
The seats appeared to have been designed to handle moisture if needed - the back seats fold down if needed, revealing a canvas flap which is all that stands behind the back seats and the trunk. The seats were very comfortable, and could be easily adjusted. There was no problem getting into the back seat.
The controls were all logical and easy to use, and the cruise control was more responsive than on most cars; if you pushed the accelerate button, the car leapt 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, by the way, is a special theft-control device).
GM still puts daytime running lights onto all of its cars, running the brights at a lower, but still too high, intensity. As you drive, you will always see a headlight symbol lit up on the instrument panel, until - get this - until you actually put on the headlights. This, like overloading the stalks, seems to be a GM thing.
Speaking of GM things...I had assumed that, since my Camaro was made, GM had stopped making their doors large and excessively heavy. I was wrong, as I found early on, when the door broke free and whacked my neighbor's car. Oops. This is not common to other makers' coupes.
The horn was easy to activate but, like its competitors, puny in volume and light in tone. Fortunately, horns can be easily replaced.
If you're tall, you might have a problem with the convertible Cavalier. The standard version, with a metal roof, provides enough headroom for most people, but the convertible's roof is a bit lower, and a six foot tall driver may find that his head is level with the metal window frame. Getting into the car, one had to be careful to avoid the curving windshield. On the other hand, the pedals seemed to be placed in the right position for tall people, an interesting paradox. The seat belt was placed in the body of the car, too low to reach for easily and also too low to stay in the right over-the-shoulder position for taller drivers. To be fair, it's hard to do seat belts in convertibles, and the standard Cavaliers don't have this problem.
The radio was surprisingly good, and like all new Delco radios it was easy to use and tune; it had an automatic speed/noise compensation control. Toyota could learn a lot by studying this radio; it's easy to use and you don't need to use your eyes or keep your fingers away from the wheel for too long. The sound from the CD player is clearly superior to the Corolla's or Neon's premium radios, even though it is not especially difficult to bottom out the bass.
If you get a standard (roofed) Cavalier, we strongly suggest also getting the optional 2.4 engine.
In short: a fun and worthy car not without quirks, and with a refreshing rough edge.
Inside, the standard Cavalier looks a lot like a Neon. Our convertible's distinctive white seats and plastic trim were surprisingly stylish against the bright red outside paint.
The Cavalier Z24 feels a lot more peppy than a standard-gear-ratio Neon, especially on the highway, where the Neon's gear ratio and small low-end torque interferes with its acceleration. It is less jarring to tap the accelerator slightly, too. On the other hand, the Neon R/T and ACR models have gear ratios designed for acceleration rather than economy, and they are probably more comparable to the Z24.
The Neon's ride is far superior to the Z24 convertible's, which is fairly stiff and jarring on bumpy roads. The Cavalier does not have the Neon's road-gripping confidence. On the other hand, ride, like many other things, is a matter of taste, and most people will never hit the limits of the Cavalier's handling. The trunk, on the other hand, seems larger in the Neon, and that can come in handy.
Do you get a Neon or a Cavalier? Well, if you don't want a roof, the choice really becomes Cavalier or a more-expensive Sebring (actually a Stratus convertible), Mustang, or Camaro.
If you are willing to take a roof, or can't pony up the dollars for a ragop, the choice becomes more complicated. The Neon is a fine car, but the Cavalier has some advantages, especially with the optional engine. The Neon R/T and ACR both have a performance edge, mainly in handling. Try them both...but take them over a bumpy road and around some sharp turns before you make up your mind. Don't forget the California- or Canada-made, Toyota-designed Chevy Prizm.
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