For Chevy, "moving on" at the bottom of the line meant moving to smaller, more-efficient front-drive models. The compact Citation had been the first. Cavalier and Celebrity would follow for the subcompact and midsize segments, respectively.
Celebrity was one of four GM A-body lines announced for '83 in early 1982. All were essentially X-cars in tailored suits. Inner structure, chassis, even drivetrains were all the same, but squarer, more-formal notchback styling contrived to make Celebrity look more expensive than the slopeback Citation -- which it was, by some $1500-$2000. Two- and four-door sedans were the only body styles at first, but an attractive wagon arrived for '84. All could be dressed up with trim packages variously called Custom, CL, and Classic.
Also new for '84 was a Eurosport option group, available for any model. A gesture to enthusiasts, this delivered Chevy's firmer F41 handling suspension, plus special emblems, less exterior chrome, and sporty accents inside. It gilded a very middle-class lily, but the result was good enough to beg comparison with much costlier European sports sedans.
Planned to replace Malibu, Celebrity ran alongside the old rear-drive line through 1983, then soldiered on alone. Not that Chevy needed to worry, for the Celebrity handily surpassed Malibu's peak sales in this decade (278,000 for '80) by averaging 350,000 a year for 1984-87 peaking at nearly 405,000 for '86.
Sales dwindled thereafter as the two-door was killed after '88 and the mainstay four-door departed after '89. But this was only because a replacement was at hand. Overall, Celebrity was a winner.
The same could not be said for the Citation that spawned it. Buyers spurned the first front-drive Chevy in rapidly growing numbers amidst a welter of safety recalls, drivability problems, and damaging publicity about weak brakes that locked up too early in panic stops.
The division tried to stem the tide for '84 with detail changes and "Citation II" badges, but fooled no one. A high-output, 135-bhp V-6 arrived for the 1982 X-11 package, then became optional for any model, but that didn't help either.
In unit volume, debut 1980 would be Citation's best year: over 811,000. The tally plunged nearly 50 percent for '81, dropped under 166,000 for '82, then fell well below 100,000 through the last-of-the-line '85s. It only seemed to prove what some critics had been saying -- that GM left final "shakedown" testing to its unwitting customers.
Far fewer complaints attended the front-drive Cavalier subcompact. Replacing Monza for '82, it rode the new 101.2-inch-wheelbase J-body platform, the first ever offered by all five GM divisions.
Cavalier was basically "right" from the start. Nobody much liked the original engine -- a new Chevy-built 2.0-liter four with old-fashioned overhead-valve head (some called it the "junkyard engine") -- and the four-speed manual transaxle wasn't the slickest around, but that was about it.
And there were some tangible strengths: decent room for four, neat styling, initial choice of four body styles -- two- and four-door sedans, four-door wagon, and two-door "fasthatch" coupe -- and competitive prices, initially less than $6000 base.
Customers responded strongly to Cavalier, snapping up better than 195,000 for the extra-long '82 model year, over 462,000 of the '84s and some 432,000 of the '86s. Steady improvement helped: a five-speed manual option, throttle-body fuel injection, more power, a neat convertible for '83, new frontal styling for '84, "mini-muscle" V-6 Z24 coupes for '85, a major facelift and a Z24 convertible for '88, and detail changes most every year.
Sales continued strong through 1994, last year for the original J-body. Demand throttled back some in the face of fresh competition, yet Cavalier did no worse than 225,000 for 1992. Even the '94s managed almost 274,000, not bad for a basic design in its 13th season.
Evolutionary changes helped. Budget-priced VL ("Value Leader") models bowed for 1988. A larger 3.1-liter V-6 making 135 bhp was added in '90. For '91, the pushrod four grew to 2.2 liters and 95 bhp; by '94 it was up to 120 bhp thanks to multipoint fuel injection and other improvements. The '91 Cavs also sported a minor facelift, a more-ergonomic dash, and better-equipped base models tagged RS.
Later years brought more cosmetic touchups and extra standard features like larger wheels and tires for some models, plus cupholders, extra instruments, automatic door locks, and GM's ABS VI antilock brake system. Still, starting prices remained comfortably below $10,000, though the natty Z24 convertible was pushing $20,000 by mid-decade.
For more on Chevrolet cars, old and new, see:
- Chevrolet New Car Reviews and Prices
- Chevrolet Used Car Reviews and Prices