By on July 29, 2021

The Buy/Drive/Burn series has taken on a late Nineties theme lately: Our last two entries represented midsize sedans from 1997. Based upon a suggestion in the comments, we return once more to the period. On offer today are three very basic American compact coupes from 1998.

Note: We’re using 1998 as there was no two-door Escort model at all in 1997.

Chevrolet Cavalier

The faithful Cavalier is in its third generation in 1998, after a debut in 1995 on the same J-body platform it’s used since 1981. It’s even on sale now in Japan as a Toyota! Cavalier is GM’s best-selling car this year and is available in coupe, sedan, and convertible forms. The coupe is available in Base, RS, and sporty Z24 guises, but today we’ve opted for the Base. Spending $11,700 nets us a 2.2-liter inline-four good for 115 horses, paired to a five-speed manual.

Dodge Neon

The Neon has been with us since 1994 and still looks as fresh as ever. A new face to replace Chrysler’s dated K-car offerings, the Neon is available as a sporty coupe or slightly less sporty sedan. Unusual in the class, Neon features stylish frameless windows in both its forms. The coupe is available in base Competition and Highline trims and asks for $11,100 as a Competition. At that price, you’ll receive a class-topping 150-horse 2.0-liter inline-four, paired to a five-speed manual.

Ford Escort ZX2

The Escort was new in 1997 but had no two-door availability at that time as Ford waited for the Probe to finish out its last year. 1998 sees the debut of the new ZX2 model, which carries the sales expectations of Probe and Escort GT simultaneously. ZX2 is lower and more aggressive-looking than its sedan and wagon counterparts, with a unique front and rear clip. Two lamely named trims of ZX2 are on offer: Cool and Hot. All examples are powered by a 2.0-liter inline-four of 130 horses, and the base Cool asks $11,580 with a five-speed manual.

As cheap as can be, and all better than any compact available for purchase a decade prior, which one is worth a Buy?

[Images: GM, Chrysler, Ford]

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44 Comments on “Buy/Drive/Burn: Basic American Compact Coupes From 1998...”

  • avatar

    I think you might be off on some of your base engines.. if I recall I think the Neon had base SOHC motors with 132 hp.

    I had the Z24 of this vintage and it was quick and was super fun to drive. I used to lay waste to other kids in civic SIs that didn’t know how to drive because I had the torque advantage. But if they knew had to drive they’d take me.

    Buy: cavalier because it was better than the others all around.

    Drive: the neon was fun to drive and zipper than the base cavalier but wouldn’t want to own it.

    Burn: Escort because it was okay to drive but my sisters shook like crazy at a stop light, had electicral gremlins and had that stupid rubber shift boot that screamed economy car!

    • 0 avatar

      Neon had a 1.8 SOHC, but for export market only.

      • 0 avatar

        The base NORTH AMERICAN market Neon engine is the 2.0 SOHC 16V I4. The DOHC was available and standard on R/T trim.
        So; your counterpoint is correct Corey, but you’re STILL wrong about the standard engine in the Neon. Shall I get a brochure (one of several I have collected) to prove it?

    • 0 avatar

      Here are the two Neon pages from the ’98 Dodge brochure. I couldn’t find a Neon-specific brochure for ’98 posted anywhere.

      So it does look like a 132hp SOHC was the base engine, but it doesn’t really say if the 2-door was available in the base trim in ’98 so “Sport” may have been the starting point on the Neon coupe that year.

  • avatar

    I suppose I’m buying the Chevy because like so many of these 90s GM cars it will just keep on going.

    I’ll drive the Neon for the power.

    Never really cared for this generation of Escort, so it’s getting burned.

    In real life I’d have burned them all and bought a Saturn.

  • avatar

    This one’s a little easier than the others. Have you done Japanese cars of each size from that era as well? I recall a late 1990s Accord/Camry/trying to remember the third one not too long ago, but sport coupes – small ones like the MX-3, Geo Storm, NX1600/2000; Larger ones like Prelude, 240SX, MX-6, etc…that could get interesting.

    Buy: The Escort. Probably the one that has held up the best of the three. Although the whole ZX2 thing drives me crazy. It’s like a group of marketers came up with a suffix of “what letters sound cool in radio station call names” and threw them together. What, no “Q”?

    Drive: The Neon. By far the most fun. 150 hp and stick and light weight = a blast. But I wouldn’t want to own it. Too cheap feeling, iffy quality, poor paint, too many corners cut. But it would shred those small tires.

    Burn: The Cavalier. I know that the mist of memories and time might cause some people to falsely remember what was good in some things, and I laugh my butt off when I see people post on this and other sites about how much they miss their Cavaliers and how good they were. Sorry. These were garbage. Especially the two I had as rentals that left me stranded on the side of the road, before everyone had cell phones. One blew a transmission to pieces. Everything about this car screams “lowest bidder.” From the amazingly high cowl and everything underneath with hard, brittle plastics, to the poor utilization of space in the interior, to the rough and coarse engines and transmissions…it was not a good car. If people want to spend $10,000 and buy a low miles Cavalier these days, more power to them. It’s their money. But it’s heaps like this, and my experiences have forced me to REALLY HATE this car, that allowed Japan to send GM packing time and time again with small cars.

    • 0 avatar

      And yet once again, the Cavalier is the one you’re still most likely to see on the road today.

      • 0 avatar

        I might see a last-gen Neon roaming the streets with blue smoke trailing it these days, but the other two in this area…I think salt and winter and time took them all out.

        • 0 avatar

          I wonder how regionally dependent this is.

          I don’t remember the last time I saw even a second generation Neon on the road here in Indiana, let alone a first generation. Similarly, ZX2s have all been in the junkyard for close to a decade now, but I still see rusted out Cavaliers moving under their own power from time to time.

          • 0 avatar

            You are right, man. A Neon is a very rare sight around here, but Cavaliers and Cobalts are everywhere.

          • 0 avatar

            I’m not sure if I’ve seen a Neon in ages. They were everywhere in the 90’s. I think many of them had headgasket issues.

          • 0 avatar

            In the southwest you can still see some ZX2 and plenty of Cobals. Some Cavaliers as well.
            No Neons though.

      • 0 avatar
        Shockrave Flash Has Crashed

        With a huge rust hole in front of each of the rear wheels…

      • 0 avatar

        Cavalier sold more units than Neon and Escort, but guess what: most of those were 4dr sedans.
        I don’t see any 1st gen anymore but I still see the ocassional ZX2 and J body.

      • 0 avatar

        Cavalier sold more units than Neon and Escort, but guess what: most of those were 4dr sedans.
        I don’t see any 1st gen anymore but I still see the occasional ZX2 and J body.

    • 0 avatar

      When I got married my wife had a 98 sedan. When we sold it at 135k miles we had replaced brakes and an alternator. Had comfortable seats and got decent mileage and had a great A/C system.

    • 0 avatar

      How were you driving it? I would have loved to have seen that! Ham hands and club feet.

  • avatar

    No brainer

    Buy Ford

    Drive the snot out of the Dodge

    Burn the Chevy

  • avatar

    The Cavalier is getting bodied here because the other two coupes have their uplevel engines as standard (?) while in the Chevrolet you had to go Z24 to get 150hp in the coupe.

    Buy Escort ZX2: I was actually kind of into these as an “attainable” future vehicle back in middle school before I knew I was automatic-transmission loving scum and how hard it was to earn $11K. So I guess the youth marketing and attractive price was effective.

    Drive Neon: I’ll admit that when these were new I basically wrote them off as “girl” cars sure to the cutesy styling. But the DOHC is a lot of power and they seem to have held up okay.

    Burn Cavalier: in Z24 trim this could have contended but in base form I don’t see any upside.

  • avatar

    While I prefer the styling of the Cavalier over the Escort ZX2 pictured, there’s something very Lilo and Stitch about the ZX2, I think the nod goes to the Escort. A Sunfire and Cavalier went through my family and succumbed to the interference engine and died nasty deaths when the timing chains snapped. Whether through abject neglect, a bad design, or a combination thereof (very likely), the engine seems finicky for an economy car. On the hand, a friend had an Escort lunch its timing belt. The belt was replaced in an afternoon and the car went on its merry way.

    I have recollections of the Neon being derided as a subcar, at least in my area, and they were generally laughed at. My only real memory was driving one of the more basic ones and being unable to find the power. Then again, that may have had more to do with the weight packed into the car.

    Per the directions though:

    Buy: Escort ZX2. Dad had a 99 Escort sedan that lasted 12 years until the insurance company refused to repair it after the third accident.

    Drive: Cavalier. I recall them being reasonably responsive and having decent power. My driver’s training school had these in the fleet and I liked it.

    For some reason, Cavaliers and Escorts had a reputation for perceived indestructibility when I vwas younger.

    Burn: the Neon. It was the last choice and needed a place.

    The interesting piece is that I still see random Neons trundling around, but not so much the other two. I may be missing some though.

  • avatar

    The crapfest continues!

    Buy: Cavalier
    Drive: Neon.
    Burn: ZX2.

    My friend had a Neon of this vintage. The 3 speed auto needed a total overhaul by like 60k, but man we lived in that thing. The backseat was GIGANTIC, especially for a car of that era. It would constantly bottom out with 4 normal sized teens in it. But ah, memories.

    • 0 avatar

      “Crapfest” is right.
      Cavalier: A definite “no, thank you”.
      Neon: Ah, no thanks.
      Escort: I wouldn’t buy it, wouldn’t want to drive it, but wouldn’t mind seeing it crushed.
      Good thing there were Japanese vehicles to choose from. Lots of ’98 Toyotas and Hondas are still on the road. Neons, Cavaliers and Escorts of that era are few and far between.

  • avatar
    Arthur Dailey

    The correct answer is to burn them all and buy a car in this class from a Japanese manufacturer. Perhaps any Japanese manufacturer.

    Otherwise, just to play.

    Buy: Cavalier. By no means a good car. But one that will keep running for many years after the others have gone to the crusher.
    Drive: The Neon. I drove a couple of rental Neons and they felt like I was driving a go-kart.
    Burn: The Ford.

    • 0 avatar
      SCE to AUX

      Totally agree with your assessment.

      Funny part is, in 2000 I literally walked away from signing papers on a new Neon. Instead, I later bought a gently used 95 Stratus V6 (twin of the Cirrus featured in yesterday’s BDB).

    • 0 avatar

      Yes, Civic, Corolla or Mazda 3 (or whatever it was at the time) over any of these. But to play fairly:

      Buy: Cavalier.
      Drive: ZX2
      Burn: Neon

      Cockroach of the road, Mazda bones, and polarizing looks and brakes that could be heard a mile away when cold!

  • avatar

    Thats easy. Buy the ford. Its reliable thanks to its mazda dna.
    Drive the neon.
    Burn the crapalier. If youve ever ridden in one of these youll understand.

  • avatar

    I had a Neon as a demo for a couple of days and it wasnt awful, but it made the Plymouth Breeze that became my permanent car look luxurious in comparison. The Escort looks bizarre but probably the best quality wise of the trio. My partner had a Cavalier sedan he was very proud of, bought it from Carmax as the original owner did not care for it. I can see why, it was a torture chamber of a car. I have heard the term “agricultural” used for vehicles before but this car defined the term. Loud, seats that felt like cloth covered cardboard boxes, underpowered thrashy engine, ugly, wretched excuse for a car. I kept showing crash test footage of these garbage cans until he finally agreed to trade it. This was in 2007 when there were far better options available, such as walking.

  • avatar
    MRF 95 T-Bird

    Buy: Escort ZX2- The Zetec four with the manual is on par with their European cars and the ride is decent.
    The ovoid styling was just better tailored on these than the Taurus.

    Drive: Cavalier- The J- car was getting a bit long in the tooth by 98. I’ve rented these as well as the Sunbird/Sunfire at the time and found them to be ok but the interior furnishings below par. The Saturn SC2 was better constructed.

    Burn: Neon- Ok but not as refined as the others though 132 hp from the base 2.0 is nothing to sneeze at.
    The Saturn SC1 only had 88 hp.

  • avatar

    Buy the ZX2, this and the Escort twins of that era were a solid offering that were better than they needed to be for a “compliance car”

    Drive the Neon, it was a fun ride and a 90’s icon imo

    Burn the Cavalier. Had one for an extended rental, just a terrible vehicle. Ultimate tin can feeling, poor driving dynamics, just everything screamed cheap. And they really were everywhere. I know they were built alongside Toyotas and they are like cockroaches, but I’d rather make a few more repairs on a better vehicle.

  • avatar

    How messed up is it that gm poured billions into building saturn while forcing chevy to build and the j cars till 2005!

    • 0 avatar
      MRF 95 T-Bird

      Then GM replaced the J-car Cavalier with the Cobalt which became the basis for the Saturn S series replacement the subpar Ion.

      • 0 avatar

        The ion came out before the cobalt. Its just pathetic how much capital gm squandered in the 80s. Bankruptcy woulda come sooner if it wasnt for their truck and suv revinue. Theyre still hooked on that today. Bailout 2 is coming when they try to go electric.

  • avatar

    buy the ford, almost did buy a zx2 actually
    torn on which one to burn the neon or the cavalier, both are terrible cars but i guess drive cavalier and burn the dodge

    my dad drank the koolaid and bought a neon, 3 years later after 2 replacement head gaskets and numerous other things he traded it in on a olds alero which is whole other story. stopped at the gas station to put 5 bucks of gas in to get it to the dealer for trade in and the gas door fell off ! we had to tape it on so the dealer wouldn’t see it (hid the tape inside to hold it on) what a pile of s^%t

  • avatar

    Buy: The Neon because it had the most potential for cheap fun-time upgrades
    Drive: The ZX2 for overall reliability due to the Mazda heritage
    Burn: The Cavalier because it was a cockroach of a car

    I had a ZX2 for a time and it was a lot of fun to drive but so very narrow, occasionally I would forget it had that cramped greenhouse and bonk my head on the glass when I went to check over my left shoulder. It was an excellent commuter vehicle.

  • avatar

    Buy: Ford. It has aged the best out of these three, Mazda/Ford powertrain with VCT, Independent rear suspension, 0-60 in the mid 7s. Its dash was less prone to crumb to pieces. A friend from college had one of those until about 10 yrs ago. It held up better than Cavaliers and Neons from the era. I believe his mother still drives it.

    Drive: Neon. It must be fun to get 150hp on a 2500 lb car. Perhaps the better handler out of these three. IRS is cherry on top

    Burn: Cavalier. The base Cavalier was not on par with the other two. It’s the roomiest and the 2.2 is hard to kill but everything around it will crumble to pieces. Electronics going south including instrument cluster, ODO and HVAC controls, all of these would have cracked dashboards within a few years.
    Back in college a couple friends had Cavaliers, both 2dr coupes from the early 2000s, each year it was almost a rule one of these would break down. As a Latin American we would all agree on naming those Cacalier and it aptly described what these heaps were.
    PS. Had this been a Z24 it would have traded places with the Neon…

  • avatar

    I never drove a Neon but the magazines said that they go like stink. I haven’t seen one in probably 20 years, so they probably got used up quick.

  • avatar
    Offbeat Oddity

    Buy: Neon, because I actually bought a 1998 Neon many years ago. Started right up even in -30 weather, incredible heater, fun-to-drive, great styling, decent power, good ergonomics, and even survived a time when I drove it with little to no oil (my dad fixed the leak and it continued to provide good service for a decade after that). This is a rare case where I prefer the styling of the four dour to the coupe though.

    Drive: Escort. This was one of the few Fords of the time I wasn’t crazy about, but the coupe does have much better styling than the sedan, and it has the best quality interior of the bunch.

    Burn: Cavalier. I found that most Fords and Dodges of this time had better styling inside and out and didn’t feel as cheap as the GM products, and this Cavalier is no exception. They just phoned this one in.

  • avatar
    Polka King

    These are all nice-lookin’ cars. What the hell happened to nice-lookin’ cars?

  • avatar

    I had a Pontiac Sunbird Turbo and a Dodge Omni GLH. Throwaway cars, both, but they were also both big steps forward from what had been available in the last half of the 70’s. The Sunbird Turbo I had I recall 165hp. I believe there was one year when the Corvette has a base V8 that was 165hp.

  • avatar

    I have driven all of these more or less.
    Escort ZX2 1.9 5-Speed was a friend of mine’s.
    Neon R/T DOHC high school buddy’s girlfriend’s car.
    Cavalier (albeit later with the ECOTEC) 4-Speed automatic.

    DRIVE the Neon. It has the BEST power, handling, and looks of all three. Legendary on SCCA Circuits. Hell, it still looks modern today! A bit buzzy, but a great drive. Be prepared for head gasket, timing belt, and frameless window problems though! If only Chrysler hadn’t cheaped out on some of those key components. 3-Speed TorqueFlite? Why, great durability compared to the atrocious 4-Speed electronically controlled UltraDrive units! Besides, Toyota used a 3-Speed automatic in the Corolla until at least 2001 so I don’t want to hear the transmission gear number as any kind of demerit.

    BUY the Escort ZX2. My friend never had any severe mechanical problems with hers all the years she had it. I recall the HVAC system didn’t work right or something to that effect. At least it had heat in the winter. Decent manual transmission, decent fun to drive. The “thinnest” feeling of all three here though, and victim of Ford’s stupid and atrocious “Everything Oval” design era.

    BURN the Cavalier. Finishing out eventually after 24 years on the SAME J-Body platform?! I don’t care what updates it received. Every update made the Cavalier dopier, dumpier, and more clownish. Coarse OHV I4’s until the ECOTEC came along. Limp, flimsy feeling structure. I don’t care how durable they are. Those 2.2 OHV’s have some difficult maintenance items. Everything seems so… mushy and flaccid. Highly indicative of GM’s small car and small car customers disdain. The 2.2 ECOTEC has good power and durability, but unpleasant, rattling coin engine note at some RPM’s and throttle openings.

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