Past Master: Vauxhall Cavalier

We look back at the once popular but now oft forgotten repmobile that was our 1989 and 1990 Family Car of the Year: the Mk3 Vauxhall Cavalier...

Vauxhall Cavalier Mk3 front

Can you remember a time when 'cavalier' wasn’t merely the attitude of the White House’s incumbent but one of the most prolific automobiles on UK roads? Then settle into a bout of nostalgia as we look back at our 1989 and 1990 What Car? Family Car of the Year winner, the Mk3 Vauxhall Cavalier.

Its genesis was in 1975 with the rear-wheel-drive Mk1, which headed into a cutthroat battle for fleet sales against the ubiquitous Ford Cortina. But by the time the Mk3 was thrust into action, the Cortina had bitten the dust, leaving its replacement, the Sierra, to pick up the baton. And for years, it was these two titans alone vying for the top of the new-car sales charts, leaving other rivals, such as the Austin Montego and Nissan Bluebird, picking up the scraps.

Where it all started

To understand the significance of the Cavalier Mk3, we need to go back to the Mk2. It was launched in 1981, a year before the Sierra, and outsold its arch-rival every year until 1987, when Ford's 'fortress of the fleets' finally sneaked ahead. Some argue that this is a measure of just how long it took us sceptical Brits to adjust to the Sierra’s jelly-mould looks, by which time we were ready for some svelte.

Vauxhall Cavalier Mk3 dashboard

Just as Ford execs were tugging at their Gordon Gekko braces and supping the Bollinger of success, though, Vauxhall unveiled the Cavalier Mk3 in 1988. Boom – with its sleek, swoopy lines, boy, it cut a dash – and promptly pooped on Ford's party.

This was also an era, don’t forget, when fuel efficiency was starting to become an issue. But unlike today, when it's all about downsized engines and hybrid technology, in the late 1980s the buzzword was aerodynamics. And with its thoroughly modern lines and flush-fitting windows, the Cavalier Mk3 boasted a slippery drag coefficient of just 0.29 versus the Mk2’s 0.37. Overnight, it had made every one of its rivals look faintly prehistoric.

Our 1989 and 1990 Best Family Car of the Year

We made note of this in our 1989 group test of the Cavalier, describing "the miles whipping by in a quiet comfortable blur", thanks to "the car’s attractive aerodynamic styling, which cuts wind bluster and improves performance".

And it wasn’t just externally where things had changed. Sure, underneath was basically the same front-wheel drive setup as the Mk2, but the heavily revised suspension, we explained, gave it "a far more compliant and comfortable ride at speed". What's more, "the Cavalier is a car you know is going to be a joy to drive almost as soon as the wheels start to turn", due to its "stability" and "crisp turn-in".

Vauxhall Cavalier Mk3 rear

Performance was also virtuous. the Mk3’s Family II range of engines, which were carried over from its predecessor, were always so much stronger and more efficient than Ford's outdated Pinto or limp-wristed CVH lumps in the Sierra. And the 16-valve GSi model aside, the 115bhp eight-valve 2.0i engine we tested was the most coveted.

Why? Well, while the Sierra was fed by an old-fashioned carburettor, the Cavalier had that 'i' for injection in its name. This gave it the legs not just over the Sierra but also the Fiat Croma and Mazda 626 we ran it against, vanquishing their top speeds with a heady 120mph flat out and streaking from 0-60mph in 8.9sec – one second clear of the Sierra and two quicker than the Croma.

Right there was the sort of chest-puffing bragging rights Mr Company Car Man loved. But his fleet manager was decidedly chuffed, too: its fuel economy of 51.4mpg at a constant 56mph was pretty parsimonious for the time.

And returning to the environmental theme, and demonstrating how far we’ve come today, we gave the Cavalier extra "greenie points" for being the only car in that test to have a "switchable microchip that enables it to run on unleaded fuel". Hell’s bells, that cutting-edge gizmo meant that, with the flick of a connector under the bonnet, this microchipped marvel could run on the funny new petrol from the green pumps.

Vauxhall Cavalier Mk3 rear seats

But what’s it like today?

In certain circumstances, time is a healer. But after that glowing build-up, it seems time has wounded our once great champ. Climb inside the Mk3 Cavalier now and you’re met with a driving position that simply wouldn’t cut the mustard today. The non-adjustable steering wheel is offset so far to the left that you’re left wondering if your passenger should be the one steering, while the La-Z-Boy-esque seats lack any form of lateral support, sending you sliding sideways round the first bend.

Thankfully, the rest of the interior is far more commendable. Soft-touch plastics cover the entirety of the dashboard and, despite the interior looking a tad bland in its monochrome colour scheme, this being a later top-of-the-range V6 CDX model, there's at least plenty of kit to keep you entertained: air conditioning, heated seats, an electric sunroof and a fancy Blaupunkt CD player.

It’s stomping the major routes that the Cavalier still shines. On a fast-moving motorway, it's surprisingly subdued, with minimal wind or road noise, demonstrating that all those hours in the wind tunnel were fruitful. And this 2.5-litre V6 engine has even more grunt than the 2.0-litre in our test, delivering effortless performance, despite being paired to a rather sluggish four-speed automatic gearbox. It’s easy to see why 'the Cav' was the repmobile of choice.

Vauxhall Cavalier Mk3 side

Removed from its natural habitat and heading down a demanding country road, it’s less supreme. With vague steering and relatively soft suspension, the Cavalier feels unwieldy and often gets pitched off line by mid-corner lumps and bumps. It’s easy to see why, in 1993, Ford regained the upper hand – and its pride – with the Sierra’s ground-up replacement: the sharp-handling Mondeo.

How much do Cavalier's cost now?

If you fancy shelling out your hard-earned for a slice of 80s or 90s objet d’everyday, then we have good news and bad news. You can get your hands on a potentially ropey example with an MOT of varying longevity for as little as £200 – less if that MOT has got just seconds to run.

Spend between £500 and £2500 and you can find examples ranging from respectable to really rather resplendent, but beyond that things get a little incongruous. We witnessed adverts for clean, 12,000-30,000-mile examples for £3000-£5000 and one 1994 2.0 Turbo 4x4 for… wait for it… nigh on £10,000. Despite its What Car? Car of the Year provenance, we may be so bold as to suggest exercising a little caution before spending that sort of folding on an old Cavalier; it may require some pretty heavy-duty explaining before your significant other shares your joy.

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More Past Masters >>

Read our full review of the Vauxhall Insignia Grand Sport >>


Prefer something modern?

The Cavalier is obviously long dead, but what are the best cars in its class today? Here we count down the top 10 models in what we now call the executive car class – and reveal the ones to avoid.

10. Mazda 6

Save money on a new Mazda 6 with What Car? >>

Mazda 6

The latest Mazda 6 offers strong but quiet diesel engines and plenty of room for passengers, plus Mazda's infotainment system is second only to BMW's for ease of use. Only the fact that the 6's low-speed ride is firm and the handling less precise than you might expect stops it finishing higher.

Read our full Mazda 6 review >>


9. Jaguar XE

Save money on a new Jaguar XE with What Car? >>

2019 Jaguar XE front

Taking on the German brands in the executive car market is a big task, but Jaguar has made a good go of it with its junior saloon, the XE. It's offered with a strong range of engines and rewards keen drivers with excellent steering and sharp handling. It's let down a little when it comes to interior quality, but a generous equipment list should entice company car drivers.

2019 Mercedes C-Class front

The C-Class is one of the big three when it comes to executive cars – the other two being the Audi A4 and BMW 3 Series, which feature further up this list. Merc's car does a lot well, too, combining strong and efficient engines with a smart interior and lots of toys. However, the ride is rather firm on standard suspension.

Read our full Mercedes C-Class review >>


Next: the top 10 continued >>

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