Pros: Nice styling, comfortable interior, & power everything. A rare convertible for only about $1,200!
Cons: Overall quality is terrible. Components will break down, often unpreventably.
For three and a half years I was the proud owner of a gorgeous, mint condition, white over dark blue '85 Cavalier convertible. I purchased it while a Freshman in college and had added 55,000 miles to the odometer by the time it was burned to the rims by a bored 16 year old homeless kid my Senior year. My initial investment in the car was only $1,700 but repairs over the years removed another $3,600 from my paychecks. Despite the fact that things seemed to break on it almost weekly, I look back fondly on my old car. It's been a while but I'll try to remember as much as I can about it.
The '85 Cavalier is a GM J-bodied car, which means it shares many of it's major components with all of GM's other brands: the Pontiac Sunbird and J2000, Oldsmobile Firenza, Cadillac Cimmeron, and the Buick Skyhawk. These cars were produced from 1982 until 1987 (the Cavalier convertible was introduced in 1983) before they were given a major facelift. Because of this, engine, body, and suspension parts are super easy to find at just about any domestic junkyard in America, and parts are usually pretty cheap. All of these cars offer good suspension systems that make for comfortable trips on even the roughest roads. Steering is quick and nimble due to these car's small size, but braking hard leads to the wheels locking up and the car sliding during a panic stop. The rear wheels use old drum brakes, so quick stops in bad weather require some caution.
Engine performance was minimal despite a 2.0 liter 4 cylinder engine (the more powerful but problem-plagued 2.8 liter V6 became a Cavalier option in 1986). These engines are extremely loud due to a faulty iron exhaust manifold that gets too hot at it's seams and develops unpreventable holes. I used to amuse my friends by setting off everyone's car alarms if I revved the engine just a little as I was driving in residential areas. My fuel economy averaged only about 28 mpg on the highway and 20 in town, probably because I had an automatic transmission. Upon my car's death, the little engine was still going strong, though.
Because the convertible was made from the top-of-the-line RS model, these cars are quite comfortable. The foam-filled seats are supportive and plush, and the top, windows, steering, trunk release, door locks, brakes, and driver's seat are all power operated, making for a nice luxury feel. You also get a tilting steering wheel, dual mirrors, four speakers, GM's superb "dial type" intermittent wipers, and cruise control...all standard! But alas, all these nice perks are attached to GM's cheapest brand's cheapest model, so quality is lacking throughout.
The Cavalier wasn't a very well-constructed car, so expect things to fall apart on a regular basis. The first thing to go on my car was the power top (at 105,000 miles), when the hydraulic hoses cracked and the fluid leaked out behind the rear seat (My interior smelled like transmission fluid until it's dying day!). Next the fan went, and I had an electric one installed to stop the overheating. Before the car had seen 120,000 miles, I'd replaced the alternator, water pump, catalytic converter, oxygen sensor, timing belt, radiator, every hose, all four brakes, the entire exhaust system (it just fell apart one day), battery, and the wiper motor.
By 150,000 miles I'd replaced the transmission ($1000), heater core ($550 due to labor costs - of course it died in December of 1996, Portland's coldest month in 30 years, making for some very unpleasant drives), in-tank fuel pump $350), top and rear window, CV joints, shocks, exhaust manifold, muffler (again), and the front window motors. By this time the cruise control, horn, air conditioner, back-up lights, power seat, a power window button, a door unlock button, the top motor, and the front speakers had also quit working. The trunk was getting rusty on the underside and there were numerous squeaks and rattles coming from the chassis. I also had to push on the rear windows as I was putting them up so they would close properly. The driver's side window would slip out of it's track and fall to the bottom regularly. I'm not hard on my cars and I maintain them on a regular basis, changing fluids, filters, gaskets, and ignition components as they're needed. All the things that failed on the car were unpreventable and occured due to age, wear, or the fact the AC Delco brand parts were made too cheaply to begin with.
Though my review comes down pretty hard on the quality of these cars, they're a total blast to drive around in when the weather's nice. Wind noise isn't too bad compared to other convertibles I've owned, and you get a back seat big enough for one person or a dog. Leg room is incredible up front, and all displays are easy to see and read at a glance. The defrost and air vents work great and the controls are easy to see and use. The top closes snug on top of the windshield, has a rear window that can be unzipped for ventilation on hot days, and doesn't leak too much in automatic car washes. The trunk is also quite roomy and can be unlocked using a button in the glove box. The boxy styling is quite nice, as well, though it gets mistaken for an old Mustang or LeBaron often, as most people have never seen one of these cars due to their rarity.
Those similar looking mid-80's Mustangs and LeBarons are equally unreliable (worse in the Chrysler's case) and more expensive to insure and repair, which is why I rate the Cavalier as "average" overall - it's par for the course with the others. If price is your deciding factor for getting one, it's hard to beat. If you're looking for quality, however, check out some of the imports (Celica, Cabriolet, Miata, Metro, etc.) and pay less in the long run.
For photos of my Cavalier or for any questions, feel free to e-mail me.