Home » Dueling Horsemen: 1985 Chevy Cavalier Convertible vs 1990 Chevy Cavalier Z24

Dueling Horsemen: 1985 Chevy Cavalier Convertible vs 1990 Chevy Cavalier Z24

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Welcome to another exciting week here on Shitbox Showdown! This week, we’re going to limit the purchase prices to three digits, and try our damnedest to find something cool that’s worth having. Will we succeed? You’ll just have to read on to find out.

Last Friday, we didn’t have a poll, but that doesn’t mean we don’t have results. The general consensus seems to be that the Grand Am would make the best daily driver out of the bunch, and I’m inclined to agree. But a lot of you want to attempt to track that Infinit convertible and set the Pinto ablaze, and to me that seems backwards. The Pinto is a blank slate, and there are just so many things you can turn it into. The Infiniti, while a fine second choice as daily driver, would be useless on the track, slow on a dragstrip, and probably too bendy for off-roading.

Anyway, let’s take a look at today’s competitors. I make no secret of my fondness for GM’s J-body cars, even though I’ve had mixed luck with them: I have a tale of woe and misadventure that I may tell someday involving two Cavaliers that rivals some of David’s exploits, but I’ve had plenty of good experiences with them as well. What’s less well-known is my love of history. The name “Cavalier” was first applied to mounted soldiers in support of King Charles I of England, who had a bit of trouble during his reign. (His son, Charles II, did a bit better after some trouble early on.) I have no idea why GM chose to name a compact car after these guys, but as the UK welcomes King Charles III, we here at Shitbox Showdown felt it was only fitting to honor him with a pair of Cavaliers.

Or maybe I just really like these crappy little things. Either way, here they are.

1985 Chevrolet Cavalier convertible – $800

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Engine/drivetrain: 2.0 liter inline 4, 3 speed automatic, FWD

Location: Portland, OR

Odometer reading: 98,000 miles

Runs/drives? Unclear

The first generation of Chevy’s Cavalier was available in four bodystyles: a four-door sedan, a four-door wagon, a two-door fastback hatchback, and a two-door coupe, which was really more of a two-door sedan, sharing the same squared-off roofline as the four-door. Starting in 1983, ASC beheaded a few two-door Cavaliers (and Pontiac Sunbirds) every year and turned them into convertibles, as a response to the newly-introduced Chrysler LeBaron and Dodge 400 convertibles. They were never as popular as Chrysler’s ragtops; this 1985 model is one of only 4,108 produced that year.

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This Cavalier appears to be a Type 10 model, an appearance and option package available for a couple of years in the mid-1980s. Type 10 Cavaliers had a few more standard goodies and red side trim instead of chrome. Under the hood, it’s standard-issue J-car, with Chevrolet’s “122” overhead-valve four-cylinder, equipped with throttle-body fuel injection, sending power to the front wheels through a three-speed automatic. It’s nothing ground-breaking, but it gets the job done.

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The seller doesn’t give us much to go on; all they say is that it has been sitting a while and has “issues.” It appears to have 2021 registration, so it hasn’t been sitting for too terribly long. They also only give us three lousy photos, but what they show is encouraging. Mechanically, these are simple and durable cars, and the top is shown both up and down, so evidently it works. For eight hundred bones, it seems worth a look, at least.

1990 Chevrolet Cavalier Z24 coupe – $995

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Engine/drivetrain: 3.1 liter V6, 5 speed manual, FWD

Location: Portland, OR

Odometer reading: 251,000 miles

Runs/drives? Well, according to the seller

In 1988, Chevy redesigned the Cavalier and in the process dropped the hatchback. The 2 door received a new sleeker roofline, while the sedan and wagon carried over the square look. The top of the line was the “Z24” package, which included a V6 engine, some suspension tuning, a front spoiler and ground effects, and couple of “power bulges” in the hood. This one sends the V6’s power through a five-speed manual to the front pair of those wonderful checkerboard-looking alloy wheels.

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This car has a ton of miles on it, a little over a quarter million, but the seller says it still runs and drives well. I have seen this car for sale on Craigslist for a long time, years maybe, so it may have some issues now from sitting. The ad does say its registration is two years out of date, so we know it has been sitting at least that long. I believe the two reasons it has been for sale so long are the mileage, and this:

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Ouch. I’m certain that trunk lid doesn’t seal properly any more, and it may not even open. At least it didn’t break the rear window. Someone stuck a replacement taillight in place of what I’m sure was a smashed one and taped it in place. It works, but it ain’t pretty. And it’s not really fixable either.

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It’s a shame, because the rest of the car looks passable, especially for less than a grand. It still might make someone a good beater, but it’ll never be “nice.” It’s just not worth the effort and cost to make it so. But since it has been available for so long, if you’re willing to put up with the damage, you could probably show them $500 cash and drive off with it.

Love ’em or hate ’em, GM’s J-cars are likely to be a fixture in the cheap used car market for quite some time to come, despite having been out of production for seventeen years now. They make good beaters, and the end of their useful lives has a long tail. These two are at the bottom end of the price spectrum, and neither is perfect, but both are at least interesting. Which one is more your speed?


Quiz Maker

(Image credits: Craigslist sellers)

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59 Responses

  1. My parents bought an ‘89 Sunbird 2 door (5-speed!) as a second car when I was in high school. It survived 160,000 miles of teenager, then college student, then young professional abuse before I donated it to charity years later. With the original clutch. That had never missed a shift.

    The car rattled from day one. It had (as I recall) 96 hp. It was SO bad in SO many ways. But it was faithful. And gave me 160,000 absolutely trouble-free miles. I named it “Argus” after Odysseus’ faithful dog from Greek mythology.

    I’ll take the convertible.

  2. You’re doing it again, selecting cars that I’ve previously owned (technically, it was my wife’s car but she wouldn’t drive it). I can testify the Caviler is a POS. It would literally leave parts on the road every time we took it out. After we sold it, the new owner came after us with an attorney, demanding a refund because we sold him a “lemon”. My defense was “It’s not a lemon. It’s a Caviler.” Never heard another word.

  3. At this f* it money price point, it is pretty much a coin toss for me. I went Z24, mostly because this thing is certainly headed to the junkyard if someone doesn’t step in. I have a soft spot for true automotive rescues.

  4. All you guys voting for the convertible are missing the first and most important law of shit boxes. Running shit box > Non running shit box. I’ll take the Z24 please.

  5. Well 2 POS Cavaliers that nobody would want. Didn’t bother to vote, which seems to be happening more and more often. I haven’t seen a car I would want at twice better condition and half the money. If finding something decent is so hard raise the threshold, ask for submissions or something. How about which project is a better deal? Frankly I get the POS thing but Cavaliers? 2 cars noone wants in shit shape that would cost more than their worth to fix and even then who wants them. It should be workable DD or affordable project. But seems like the top two cars in a Craigslist search with nothing but a cost ceiling. Heck I have dealers that have more interesting cars at Decent prices. And one last time 2 frigging Cavaliers. Waste of time and money.

    1. Mark spoke well for himself, but I’d add from the pov of a commenter, aren’t we just playing for fun here?

      Nobody here is actually buying any of these cars in real life (side note – the Autopian so needs a rule that if anyone ever does & can prove it, they get a guest column to write about it). Rather, it’s a chance to discuss these fantasy, rigged matchups often of two cars nobody would ever cross-shop, and at their best, there’s a element of damned if you do/damned if you don’t, so it’s enjoyable to hear everyone’s reasoning when forced to choose. I mean, doesn’t the internet already have enough “should I buy a new Mustang or a Camaro” content?

      Like here – two cockroaches, one with a terrible engine and auto but a drop top, the other the “performance” version with a stick, but a seemingly horrific rear-end injury as pointed out by Rootwryn and others.

      In real life, someone might buy either, but they’d never get to debate the two together like we do here with this feature.

      It’s one of my favorite features here…in fact, I just wish voting didn’t open up until later in the day, so you could read the comments before you made up your mind. Might make things even closer sometimes, and like in racing, isn’t that what makes it enjoyable?

    2. First, thanks for taking the time to comment. It shows you care, and you’re paying attention. I appreciate that.

      The overlap, at this price range, between “cars worth owning” and “cars that are interesting to write about, and more importantly read about” is pretty slim. I could write about $2000 Toyota Camrys all the time, I guess, but who would read that? If it’s a choice between “good car” and “interesting car,” I’ll choose interesting every time. It’s more fun for me, and it creates a better discussion.

      I actually do put quite a lot of thought into my car choices. It’s not always for a serious reason – sometimes I just find one car that “grabs” me and I go looking for a counterpart to it, sometimes I have a specific use-case in mind, and sometimes I just want to make a dumb joke and need the setup – but there is always a reason. I try to mix it up as well as I can, theme-wise. Chances are, if you hate both cars one day, there will be another day when you like both of them. I have my personal preferences, of course, but I’ve been trying not to focus too much on cars I personally like, and show a broader spectrum of what’s out there. And frankly, it can be tough; $2500 isn’t a whole hell of a lot of money these days.

      We talked about setting up a tip-line when we were down L.A., and it’s in the works, I think. I’m all for the idea, because it would take some pressure off me. Even if somebody suggests one car and I have to go find a mate to it, that would be a big help. It’s coming; just be patient.

      In the meantime, thanks for reading, and I hope tomorrow I pick something you like.

  6. I’d have to test drive them, but if the Z24 doesn’t dog track or otherwise wobble from that body damage, then it’s my choice. I’m the exact inverse of one of JurassicJeep25–If I’m going to let water in the car, I’d much rather it be in the trunk than the passenger compartment.

    I was talked into owning a ’90 Z24 for a few months in 2002 (while I was waiting for the repair of my S14 240SX) and it was surprisingly fun to drive. Sharp, hard handling, fast, a bit of a growl on the exhaust). It had some major title issues (the mechanic got the title as compensation for a repair, but then the original owner claimed the old one was “lost” and had it retitled in her name…sneaky sneaky!), so I ended up returning it to the mechanic…but not until I had already dumped money into a new radiator and water pump.

    Even if you could never insure it, it’d be fun for a Gambler vehicle or some other sort of destructive track-duty use.

  7. This is a genuinely touch choice. The Z24 would most likely be a more enjoyable thing to drive. But the convertible appears to be in nicer condition and is cheaper two boot. As has already been stated, at these prices buying both and combining them into one decent car would likely be the best best, if a little foolhardy.
    But barring that, I’m gonna go with the convertible. It’s been years since I’ve had a drop top, be nice to enjoy the sun again.

  8. Option : my bicycle for nice weather and a bus pass for winter. Because at those prices it’ll cost way too much to keep the worthless piles of shit running.

    Also, I have a deep, irrational hatred of the Chevrolet Cavalier in all it’s forms.

  9. I have a grudging respect for the Cavalier ever since a much younger zeppelopod was humbled by one at an autocross event. I had an RX-8 at the time and thought I was going to be hot shit on the autocross circuit; a crappy automatic Cavalier with a vastly superior driver put me in my place.

    So with that in mind, in honor to that nameless rando from Fayetteville, North Carolina, I’ll pick the Z24 because it looks more fun to autocross.

  10. It’s a perfect 50/50 split at the moment, after 49 comments. I have no desire to own either of these, and under most circumstances a V6 stick will be vastly preferred to a 4-banger with a slushbox, even in a convertible, but that nailed rear quarter is more than I want to deal with. I hate bodywork even on a good day, and that Z24 will need more than just superficial bodywork. I can fiddle with engines and transmissions all day until I get a drivetrain I like in that convertible (and I do love the scarlet interior), so that one gets my vote.

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