By on May 30, 2012

The early 1990s was an interesting period for cheap small cars from Detroit with front-wheel-drive and enough power to edge into fun territory. You could get a Geo Storm GSi, or a Ford Escort GT, or even a Plymouth Sundance Duster. Or you could just give up completely and buy the vaguely sporty-looking Cavalier RS. These cars are surprisingly rare nowadays, considering how ubiquitous they once were, though they’re still easier to find than the somewhat quick Z24 Cavalier. Here’s an example I spotted a few days ago in a Denver self-service yard.
GM was hoping that memories of the Chevrolet “Rally Sport” cars of the late 1960s and early 1970s would help move this iron off the showroom floor. Look, it’s downtown Denver in the background!
95 horsepower from this 2.2 liter, Opel-designed pushrod four. Hey, at least it isn’t an Iron Duke!
The RS package was always just a bunch of appearance and convenience options, but imagine an alternative universe in which GM dropped the 180-horse Quad 4 in this car. It would have been quicker than the Beretta GTZ, and more sleeper-ish.
These plastic door-panel badges really don’t age well. Next stop: Crusher!

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49 Comments on “Junkyard Find: 1990 Chevrolet Cavalier RS...”


  • avatar
    NormSV650

    My parents had a 1989, the previous body style. It had a 2.0l in it but with the right transmission programming the thing was a blast for an automatic and didn’t have much problem moving out to pass.

  • avatar
    ciddyguy

    Wow, just wow. When I was a member of the Seattle JC’s, a member who was our president for one year (and almost ran the Seattle chapter into the ground) had a boyfriend who had one of these, though his was much later than this one in that jade green like metallic paint, and also a 2 door like this one. As far as ride was concerned, it was OK for a car of this class and they didn’t look too bad either.

    That said, this one definitely made it to the hooptie status. Looks like it had a minor fire in the trunk area, perhaps repainted as it looks like whoever did the respray, did a decent enough job applying to ALL surfaces, not just the outside as even the shock towers, inside the engine bay, the hood, the doors etc got sprayed red, but it’s PEELING otherwise.

    I also get the feeling it hasn’t had the best of care a good chunk of its life, based on the super cheaply made decals, door protectors and hokey Chevrolet sticker inserts for the door handles.

    From what I can tell, the interior looks to be fair, but perhaps not great shape for this subject.

    Nice find!

    • 0 avatar
      vwbora25

      door protectors…god those things were tacky, these cars were junk, the seats were only good for 1/2 hour stints before your back and but gave out. Glad to see it end up where it belongs

    • 0 avatar
      mccall52

      My favorites were always the “Fuel Injected” door handles.

      I’ve always liked the before “model refinement” version, with it’s trying to be a BMW E30 rear quarter windows and thin C-pillar. I assume those exterior mirror appliques were applied over the original door stamping, the one that curved sharply upward just before the window dew wipe, just like what’s been “designed” into the 2012 Camry.

      There’s always been one J-body that has stood out in my memory. About 20 years ago I used to see in the parking lot where my Dad used to work, a late 1980′s Buick SkyHawk. Don’t remember if it was a coupe or a sedan, but definitely not a wagon. Light blue with lots of chrome trim, pretty sharp looking for a J-body, in a certain 1980′s way.

      Anyone remember Oldsmobile Firenza? Not to be confused with Suzuki Forenza.

      I know everyone remembers Cimarron.

  • avatar
    BunkerMan

    Forget the crusher. Kill it with fire!!

  • avatar
    philadlj

    Look at that marvelous DLO!

  • avatar
    I_Like_Pie

    It is absolutely amazing to sit in one of these cars and then get out and sit in a Honda or Toyota of the same vintage. The difference is profound. I still see the old cavalier and saturn from time to time and peek inside just for a chuckle. They have interiors that are honestly comparable to toys in a child’s nursery in quality, look, and materials.

    By the ’92 introduction of the next gen Civic the game was 100% over…In comparison Honda could release the 92-95 with minor tweaks and it would still be a competitive car if they priced it right.

    • 0 avatar
      jmo

      Honestly, I think the pendulum has swung the other way. Back in the day, my family moved from an ’89 Cutlass Ciera to a ’93 Camry. It was like going from a Tata Nano to a Bentley Mulsanne.

      Now, you drive a Focus/Cruse vs. a Corolla and you’re like WTF? The Corolla is as much of a POS (in comparison) as the Ciera.

      • 0 avatar
        gearhead77

        My family did the same thing,jmo, went from 90 Lumina (coupe, I don’t know what my parents were thinking with three kids) to 92 Camry V6 and it made me swear off domestic cars almost forever, at least anything from GM. Well, my 1st car was an 81 Regal (in 1996) but it was given to me.

        But seeing the Cruze (or Focus) compared to the Corolla is a definite WTF. Saw a commercial for Corolla last night and the only thing they can say is ” It’s a Toyota, it’s a Corolla and you can get Entune”. A true sign that Toyota got too big and too far from doing cars well. I damn near bought a 92 Camry Wagon V6 a two years ago instead of leasing a car because of how well those cars are made. You won’t find me saying that about much from Toyota in the mid 2000s and on.

        As for the Cavalier, I did drivers ed in one and that was it, but they were EVERYWHERE, especially where I live. Although I did love the idea of the V6 in the Z24 versions and I think the convertible was a pretty good looking car for it’s time ( I’m not saying it was great or well-made, but good looking)

      • 0 avatar
        I_Like_Pie

        You are absolutely correct. Right now on the car lot the very opposite has happened. The Focus and Cruise just slaughters the Civic and Corolla…at a better price.

        The thing is that the real difference in this cycle is not quality, but features for your money…bang for your buck. It is sad that there is not a bone jarring simple car with high quality and decent price right now.

  • avatar
    dts187

    I had a babysitter who had simliar 91 Z24. 7 year old me liked riding in it because it was so much “cooler” than my mom’s 92 Bonneville SSEi. Oh memories. . .

  • avatar
    APaGttH

    Thought I’ve belted you
    And I’ve flayed you
    By the living God that made you
    You’re a better man than I am
    Gunga Din

    ================================

    Another GM interior that has held up way better than I would have ever expected. Looks like this car (based on prior explanation on paint damage) spent some time outdoors not moving and got blasted by hail and sleet for a few years – never mind the trunk fire.

    • 0 avatar
      geozinger

      I’d actually like to have those orthographic interior door logos. Those are really pretty cool. I’d forgotten about those.

      • 0 avatar
        JuniperBug

        Ditto the 3.1 in Dad’s ’92 Cutlass Supreme. By today’s standards, 140 hp didn’t do much to motivate 3300 lbs of sedan, but at least the car sounded the part.

  • avatar
    Slab

    Did the RS designation ever mean anything more than cosmetics? I was looking at a Camaro RS about a year ago, and I don’t think anything in the package was related to performance. One thing I remember was “unique headlights and taillights”. The headlights had a ring of LEDs. I stared at the taillights for about 5 minutes, but I never did figure out what made them “unique”.

  • avatar
    Zackman

    Shouting out to GEOZINGER – You’re on stage, as this is right up your alley!

  • avatar
    multicam

    My step-dad had a convertible version of one of these. It’s why he’ll never consider another GM product ever again. Terrible quality car, terrible dealership experience, etc. The usual story.

  • avatar
    jco

    had a silver RS, automatic. this was my first car. it was.. boring. after it met a tree that wasn’t fond of it.. i eventually got ANOTHER cavalier. a Z24!! with a manual transmission! it actually was reasonably quick, and that 2.8 had a distinct exhaust note, as also featured on trailer-park Camaros of the same vintage. it was less boring. i still fondly recall the terrible multi-square wheels that looked like calculators

    • 0 avatar
      JLGOLDEN

      I recall the VERY distinct exhaust note on almost everything which had the GM 2.8L V6…be it a Grand Prix, Cavalier, 6000, Corsica. I have to say…it was a nice baritone bark.

      • 0 avatar
        texan01

        They had a distinct warble around 2500/3000 rpm. My 6000-STE had a low restriction muffler on it and it sounded vaguely like a small V8. the 2.8 after I blew it up and rebuilt it even could move that car pretty well only having a 135hp and 170 ftlbs of torque.

      • 0 avatar
        geozinger

        I never liked that sound. It sounded to me like someone was defiling a trombone. To my ear, it was a flat metallic rasp, not pleasant at all.

      • 0 avatar
        texan01

        they can sound good given the right muffler, certainly better than most of the fart can equipped cars out there now. I even managed to hear a G35 coupe sound like complete ass thanks to whatever exhaust was on it. I swear it sounded exactly like a clapped out Civic 4 door with a ‘performance’ exhaust and APC stickers all over.

        Funny thing is, I grew up with heavily muffled cars and while I like a bit of rumble, I like em quiet enough to not be obtrusive.

      • 0 avatar
        geozinger

        @texan01: Yes, when properly equipped, they sound very good. When my Quad 4 powered Sunfire GT needed a new cat, I got a Magnaflow. The car went from a wheezy raspberry to a nice mellow rumble, through the factory silencers.

        The factory cats/mufflers were just awful sounding.

    • 0 avatar
      jco

      yeah that 2.8 V6 was in so many amazing different badge-engineered contraptions. I was amused that it sounded exactly the same as our EUROSPORT wagon, which even featured the same Rallye ‘wheels’ (hubcaps). even better was that my RS and that wagon had the same black/red trim on silver body theme.

    • 0 avatar
      nickoo

      Try the 2.8L with a bigger cam and a free flowing intake/exhaust and chipped in my ’89 camaro RS. That thing positively growled at idle and screamed when you got on it. Too bad it couldn’t get out of it’s own way even with the borg warner t5 behind it.

      Aha! I found a video on youtube, I can’t link it, though.
      “1989 Camaro RS 2.8L V6 0-60″ that was about what it sounded like, closest I could find.

    • 0 avatar
      NoGoYo

      I honestly have a thing for the 88-90 Z24 with its funky wheels and two-tone paint. Well okay, the majority of early Z24s I’ve seen had two-tone paint. Usually blue over silver.

  • avatar
    geozinger

    This car looks about right. Bought cheaply, taken care of the same way, not surprised it ended up in the boneyard.

    The 2.2 and 5 speed man trans is a solid drivetrain combination, I’d bet with mild hypermiling techniques, one could net over 40 MPG with this car. I have a 97 Cavalier with 2.2 & 4T40 autobox (I think the final drive is the same), and on long trips I can get about 37 MPG.

    This was the refresh done on the original J body, I thought it was a nice job. This car (and the original) had much better sight lines than the cars that replaced them.

    Here in rust country, these things have largely disappeared from the landscape. They were quite common, but usually as a second car or a kid’s first car. They didn’t get a lot of love and are probably all Haier washing machines by now.

    There were two models to get as sleepers. The RS’s were mostly a trim level, but IIRC the V6 versions got better shocks & such. The V6 RS, which could have the same drivetrain as the Z24, only less flashy, if that was a word you could use in conjunction with that era of Z24. Also, the V6 RS Wagon, for the same reasons.

    • 0 avatar
      Zackman

      @Geo;

      We bought our daughter a 1997 Cavalier in 2000 after the 1990 Acclaim had had enough – of her!

      The Cavalier was a great little car – and she actually liked it and took care of it, too. Used it back-and-forth to Miami U, about 22 mi. from the house. She kept it three years and bought a new 2003 Civic. She absolutely HATED that car. Kept it three years until she bought her tank – I mean – her 2007 Trailblazer, which she loves.

      The Cavalier? Our neighbor across the street bought it for their daughter and it was passed around the family for about seven more years until one of the kids got something newer.

      Cockroaches of the Road© for sure…

      ©Geozinger

      • 0 avatar
        geozinger

        @Zackman: I just got our 1997 back from my mechanic buddy, I was too lazy to replace the parking brake cable, so he fixed that for me. My youngest loves the car, even though it’s 15 years old and has over a quarter million miles on it. She just needs to get a better job, and I will be happy to retire the old Cavy. The body IS pretty rough…

        I lent the Cavy to a family friend when her Jeep died earlier last winter. Once she got the tax refund, we got the car back, but in the interim, she liked the simplicity of the Cavy.

        Apparently her daughter did too, so she went and bought a 2004 Cavalier LS after her truck died recently. She’s looking forward to not having to fill the fuel tank every three days like she did with the other truck.

        They have their charms, if you’re so inclined. Different strokes and all that.

  • avatar
    Pig_Iron

    I have the Pontiac version of that as my daily driver. Once my probation’s up at my new job, I will be shopping for a new buggy for the first time in 22 years.

    I’m looking for a subcompact wagon, so feel free to suggest…

  • avatar
    Russycle

    “These cars are surprisingly rare nowadays,”

    Not that surprising really. Given their rather spotty build quality, after 20 years most of them have experienced a major component failure. Who in their right mind would spend a few grand to get a 20 year old Cavalier back on the road?

  • avatar
    NewLookFan

    2.2L engine? Here’s the story:

    Head gasket fails. Engine slowly purges coolant. Overheats and seizes. Trip to junkyard. Crusher. Bonus points if the head cracks.

    I have seen this at work, and in my family. And I still have the 2.2L in my current S-10.

    Toyota hate is the flavor of the month, but my S/O has never had to put up with this nonsense in her Corolla.

    My apologies to geozinger, who has perhaps unlocked the secret to making the 2.2l live without having to change the coolant every other month.

    • 0 avatar
      Geekcarlover

      A coworker had one years ago. When she noticed it running a little hot, but not overheating, she had the system flushed and replaced the radiator with a heavier one. That and fanatical devotion to oil changes got her 10+ years out of it. I think it’s just a design that’s very susceptible to heat damage.

  • avatar
    JLGOLDEN

    A close gal-pal had a new ’90 Cavalier (basic coupe)during our Junior year in high school. I remember driving it all over Houston, and critiquing the design details…a lot. There were numerous mis-aligned trim parts and the headlamp-parking lamp units were fitted with uneven gaps. Mechanically, it felt weak and coarse. The alternator, a/c compressor, and power steering pump were whiny-loud. Every hinge, latch, and switch felt clumsy and imprecise in its range of motion. One test ride in a then-4-year-old (1986) Camry was a total reality awakening: “Wow, this Camry’s ride is supple, the knobs and handles feel slick, and the engine doesn’t moan pitifully…”

  • avatar
    JuniperBug

    I always thought that a ’93-94 with the 3.1 V-6 and 5 speed could’ve been a good time. 160 hp in a small car was nothing to sneeze at, especially given the torque that came with it.

    When I was shopping for my first car in ’02 I test drove a Z22 (with the 4 cyl) and even that felt considerably punchier than the Jetta Coupe I wound up buying. The VW won in every other metric I could think of, though.

  • avatar
    Crabspirits

    What an unloved turd.

    The interior materials remind me of a used sweatshirt you would find in a thrift store. Was there a premium option where you could upgrade to at least malaise-era tweed in this thing?

    Would rather have a Spectrum. Hell, would rather have a Yugo. At least it would be interesting enough to compel me to give it all the repairs it demanded.

  • avatar
    nickoo

    I remember these being all over 10 years ago. I had several friends who had these. The manual z24 was a fun ride for what it was.

  • avatar
    pack66

    As an employee of GM, my Dad had one of these…he also had a 2 door Grand AM with a Quad4…God I loved that car. A lot of fun to drive when you’re a sophomore in HS.

  • avatar
    ranwhenparked

    I remember when these things were new – thought they were tinny, unrefined, pieces of junk then, and the perception has not improved with age. The amazing thing is that GM somehow managed to go on selling so many of them for so long, which just proves the adage that nobody ever went broke by underestimating the intelligence of the American public. Except GM (eventually), but it took them way longer that it by all rights should have.

    Also, is it really necessary to have “Chevrolet” on the door in two spots? I would think the mouse fur and Playskool interior, chalked paint, and misaligned panels all do a better job of representing the brand than a couple cheap badges ever could.

    • 0 avatar
      mikey

      @ranwhenparked….Misaligned panels? Where?

      • 0 avatar
        ranwhenparked

        Please, I’ve never seen a single J-body with anything close to consistent panel fit. It was a problem on most GM products of this era (even my old Cadillac), but the cheaper cars always seemed to be even worse.

      • 0 avatar
        mikey

        If you look at the Japanese stuff from that era, objectivly, you might see there is not a whole lot of difference.

      • 0 avatar
        84Cressida

        Oh please, Toyota and Honda had far better build quality than anything Detroit was shamefully spitting out during this time. It wasn’t even close. Stop with the revisionist history.

        Out here in CA, the only time you see one of these Cavaliers or any J body is in the junk yard. Seeing one on the road that’s actually running is a rare event. Meanwhile, Toyota and Hondas that are of similar age or older still roam in high numbers.

      • 0 avatar
        Volts On Fire

        @mikey – Picture 21, the very first one I clicked on at random. The lower edge of the passenger door is overflush to the fender panel behind it.

        Took all of three seconds to find that. Then again, it’s easy to see when your glasses aren’t rose colored.

      • 0 avatar
        Volts On Fire

        Picture 21, the very first thumbnail I clicked on that appeared to show a side profile. The lower edge of the passenger door is overflush to the fender panel behind it, though the door is obviously closed fully. The side trim also doesn’t match up.

        Took me all of three seconds to find that…

        Then again, it’s easy to see how inadequate GM products were/are/will forever be, when your glasses aren’t rose colored.

  • avatar
    mikey

    Last fall I bought a 2009 Cobalt coupe for my wife. Three weeks later, her licence was revoked for medical reasons. {Nuff said}

    I could of sold that car ten times over. However, I kind of like its simpliciy. I’ve turned down some good offers. Its great in the urban area I live. Gas is 4.80 a US gallon around here. I also own an Impala and a Mustang.

    My adult children,and my friends think I’m nuts. “What have ya gotta have three car for”. {Well, its only two and half,because the Mustang sleeps all winter}. I tell them all, “I just like my Cobalt”

    “geozinger” has nailed it “different strokes” eh?

  • avatar
    MusicMachine

    I love the shot with the skyline!!


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