Who Else But Chevy Is Offering A 4-seat Ragtop For $17,210? The Cavalier Costs Less Than The Defunct Lebaron Convertible. Plus, The Cavalier's Top Rivals Mercedes'.

Posted: August 25, 1995

If there is cheaper topless fun for four than the new Chevrolet Cavalier convertible, it is probably illegal or immoral.

The cute new Cav-ertible is certainly fun to drive. And it certainly is inexpensive. I mean, who else is building a four-seat ragtop with a starting tag of $17,210? (The obsolescent Chrysler LeBaron convertible, which started at $17,469, went out of production last month.)

For those kinds of bucks, you get a reasonably well-equipped car whose standard gear includes dual air bags and an antilock braking system. You also get one of the slickest power-top assemblies in the business.

The top on the Cav is darn near as automatic as the one on the $120,100 Mercedes-Benz SL600 roadster. The only essential difference is that the Benz assembly automatically places a steel cover over the folded top, while the Cavalier setup obliges you to snap a boot in place.

To lower the Cav's top, you simply pull down a lever from the windshield frame, or header, and then pull back on it. This triggers a mechanism that breaks loose the top from the header and then simultaneously lowers the top and the rear windows.

To raise the top, you simply press the lever forward. That raises the rear

windows and top and secures the top to the header.

The convertible is the last of the redesigned Cavalier models to be released. The others are the coupe ($10,060), the sedan ($10,265), and the higher-performing Z24 coupe ($13,810). For 1996, these prices rise to $10,500 for the coupe, $10,700 for the sedan, $14,200 for the Z24, and $17,500 for the convertible.

The base coupes, sedans and convertibles are powered by a 2.2-liter, 120- horsepower four. A 150-horsepower version of General Motors' 16-valve, 2.3- liter Quad Four engine is standard in the Z24 coupe and optional in the convertible.

The base engine is frisky enough to make the Cavalier fun, especially when teamed with the standard five-speed manual gearbox. But the optional Quad Four I found in this test car was even more pleasurable.

After driving the Quad Four-powered convertible, you would wonder why anyone would buy this car with the standard engine. The Quad Four brings 30 extra horses and a lot higher redline to the party and only tacks $395 onto the car's price.

Well, on second thought, maybe I can understand why some people might buy the car with the base engine. It has EPA mileage ratings of 25 city and 37 highway. The Quad Four gets 21 on the city rating and 31 highway.

The convertible proved a satisfying driver on several levels. The high- revving engine and smooth five-speed were certainly part of the story. So were the car's competent handling and pleasant ride.

Part of the Cav convertible's cornering prowess is derived from tire size. The standard Cavalier's 14-inch tires give it a better bite in the corners than most small cars. The convertible's 15-inch rubber makes things even stickier.

While it didn't seem quite as tight and solid as Chevy's Camaro convertible, the Cavalier was pretty noise-free by ragtop standards. In fact, it rattled a heck of a lot less than the last Audi convertible I tested.

Like most small convertibles, the Cavalier doesn't have a generous back seat. But it is roomier than the toy back seat in the Camaro and can accommodate two mid-sized adults in reasonable comfort.

And unlike most small convertibles, the Cavalier has a decent trunk.

The Cavalier soft-top is an attractively styled automobile that gets even prettier when you equip it with the optional alloy wheels ($259).

I also like the car's interior. The dash is comely enough and provides ready access to the instruments and controls. The seating is comfortable and supportive, if forgettably upholstered.

CAVALIER LS CONVERTIBLE

* Base vehicle: Front-wheel drive, 2.2-liter engine, five-speed manual gearbox, power steering, power disc/drum brakes, antilock braking system, 15- inch steel wheels, P195/65R15 all-season radials, stainless-steel exhaust system, dual air bags, knee bolsters, power top with glass window, intermittent wipers, battery-rundown protection, stereo.

* Test model: 2.3-liter engine, air conditioning, 15-inch alloy wheels, rear-window defogger, power outside mirrors, alloy wheels, upgraded stereo with CD player, tilt steering, speed control, power door locks, power windows.

* Base price: $17,210

* Test model: $19,416 (inc. shipping)

* EPA city rating: 21

* Test mileage: 22

* Warranty: Three years/36,000 miles, roadside assistance.

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