Have you ever had a really nice beverage on holiday, only to come home and realize it’s actually appalling? I certainly have, and so, weirdly enough, has Toyota. It all boils down to captive imports. After the fuel crisis, American car brands realized they didn’t want to bother with making small cars, so they simply signed deals with the Japanese and the Koreans. Remember the Dodge Colt, Geo Metro, and Ford Festiva? All decent cars, working to get America on wheels. Well, sometimes the whole captive import thing works in reverse. After touching on such weirdness as the Chevrolet Forester and Saab 9-6X, it’s time to give the people what they want: The Toyota Cavalier. Welcome back to GM Hit or Miss, where we sift through the remnants of old GM in search of, I don’t know, a gold star or something.
Look, in a Jack Daniels-fueled haze during the year National Lampoon’s Senior Trip hit theaters, bringing the Chevrolet Cavalier to Japan may have seemed like a decent idea. As harebrained as that might sound, you have to remember that in 1995, the Toyota Corolla looked like this:
Not the most inspiring sheetmetal in the world, right? Meanwhile, the new-for-’95 Cavalier was swoopy, sleek, and could be had with a strong 2.4-liter engine. GM’s styling department ground their hands to the bone for this shape, and if I’m being bold, it still holds up. The 1995 Cavalier was many things, but it certainly wasn’t frumpy.
Mind you, the Cavalier also wasn’t refined, upscale, sleek, efficient, or any of the traits you’d really want in a premium import. A Toronto Star road test of the badge-engineered 1995 Pontiac Sunfire reported that quality deficiencies were present from new, with the reviewer noting that, “the doors on my test car rattled in their frames on sharp bumps, and a bit of wind noise leaked around the driver’s door.”
You know what door rattles and wind leaks wouldn’t have been acceptable on? Literally any Japanese car of the time. The Toyota Tercel wasn’t as spacious or as stylish as the Cavalier, but it was built like a bomb shelter in comparison. Clearly, the Cavalier would need some finessing if it were to have a hope of surviving in Japan, so that’s exactly what Toyota did.
The most obvious alteration for the Japanese market was the shift from left-hand-drive to right-hand-drive. Yes, the Japanese Cavalier got a brand new dashboard that looked almost exactly like a mirrored version of the American dashboard. Aside from a different glovebox latch, relocated mirror controls, a relocated ignition, and a relocated handbrake this cabin is intimately familiar for many Americans of a certain age.
While the Cav’s interior was equally-unspectacular no matter which continent you were on, Toyota claimed that the JDM Cavalier’s “Pedals and seats have been carefully set up taking into account the generally smaller physical characteristics of Japanese people.” I’m not sure if that’s calling the Japanese short, the Americans fat, or both, but either way, it’s not entirely inaccurate. In addition to interior alterations and subtle styling tweaks on the coupe, Toyota tweaked the chassis tuning to align with Japanese tastes, with claims of improved roadholding, steering, ride comfort, and braking over American counterparts. Predictably, Toyota also opted for the top spec of Cavalier, equipped with the 2.4-liter LD9 four-cylinder engine and four-speed automatic transmission.
Toyota set the lofty aspiration of 20,000 annual units, a figure that seemed optimistic given how the Cavalier clashed with Japanese regulatory framework. See, in Japan, car tax is based on displacement. Because the Cavalier featured GM’s LD9 2.4-liter engine, it sat in the same tax band as the Nissan Skyline and Toyota Chaser, and not in the desirable sub-two-liter tax bracket. This was a problem because the Chaser and Skyline didn’t feel like they were made to punish Arby’s managers for not studying harder in high school. As a result, Toyota sold 36,216 Cavaliers in total from 1996 through 2000, but not without trying its damned hardest. You know where this is going, bring in the TRD Cavalier.
This glorious shitpost-come-to-life asserts its vision of authority with cosmetic add-ons like a deep front fascia, chunky side skirts, a phat rear lip, partial headlight covers, and a wing you could land a 737 on. While it didn’t add any actual gusto, it was brimming with macho posturing, and it wouldn’t be the only time the Toyota Cavalier dipped its toe into enthusiast culture. Let’s take it to the track, with the All Japan Grand Touring Car Championship, commonly known as JGTC.
— SA????TA (@w5_sata) February 12, 2023
JGTC is a weird by American standards, mostly because Japan is weird by American standards. It wouldn’t surprise me to learn that America is weird by Japanese standards, mostly because America is also weird by Canadian standards. Anyway, show an uninitiated friend a GT 300 race, and you’ll get questions like “Who’s winning?; Who should I root for?” and “Is that a Hatsune Miku-themed AMG GT?” The only response to that last question is “Yes.”
lmao holy shit i just learned this had a turbo 3S-GE and was FWD still. pic.twitter.com/J3MxSdsnFi
— Matt Wood (@mwoodski) May 2, 2020
In 1997, Team Kraft, no stranger to weird race cars, decided to take America’s favorite ‘90s shitbox racing at a national competitive level. Despite withstanding monumental abuse at the hands of American teenagers, the 2.4-liter LD9 wasn’t right for the job at hand, so these cars got Toyota’s 3S-GTE turbocharged four-cylinder engine. Funnily enough, certain JGTC Toyota Supra race cars of the time also got 3S-GTEs, which means these Cavaliers are a bit like the Toyota version of Face/Off, except the Cavaliers were front-wheel-drive as opposed to rear-wheel-drive.
— demodori6 (@demodori6) December 28, 2021
In hindsight, ditching GM’s internal combustion engine of perpetual durability may not have been the right idea. The JGTC Cavaliers were reasonably quick, but also reasonably unreliable. Between mid-pack finishes and DNFs, the Kraft Wise Sports Toyota Cavalier never made much of a name for itself.
With all this failure in one spot, you might think that Japan would just be a nation hostile to imported cars. I can assure you that’s far from the case. From Minis to Lamborghinis, European cars enjoy fair success in Japan. Hell, Mercedes-Benz sales have historically been strong enough to warrant a Japanese branch of AMG long before Mercedes bought out the tuner. Flip through a Japanese car auction run list and you’ll find Alfa Romeos, BMWs, Volkswagens, and Audis lurking between domestic sheetmetal. Even American cars enjoy a cult following in Japan, from the lowriders of Pharaohs car club to the surprise growth of Jeep. Notice common threads here? All the cars listed are either enthusiast vehicles or simply good cars.
This one was easy to call from the start: The Toyota Cavalier was a miss in every conceivable measure. Its legacy is largely the hilarity that GM part number 22649423 is a Toyota badge, although weirdly, it wasn’t the last time Toyota brought a GM-built product to Japan. More on that next week. As it stands, though, the Toyota Cavalier is more than a punchline without a joke, an answer to a question nobody asked, or an odd mistake from a titan of the automotive industry. It’s an excellent example of how universal success is never guaranteed. It should’ve served as a warning, but did anyone at GM hear the alarm bells?
(Photo credits: Toyota, Chevrolet, Mytho88 – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0)
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