"Practical" probably best describes the 2003 Cavalier LS sedan, though GM's best-selling car is also fun to drive. A 2.2-liter DOHC four-cylinder Ecotec engine smoothly churns out 140 hp and 150 lb-ft of torque. Twin balance shafts in the cylinder block cancel the shaking forces inherent to inline four-cylinder engines.
Our test model came with a five-speed manual transmission. A four-speed automatic is also available. Speaking of the manual transmission, kudos to GM engineers for selecting a top gear ratio that keeps engine rpm at reasonable levels (less than 3,000 rpm) for highway speeds. This is in sharp contrast to some four-cylinder-powered cars I've driven recently that strained to keep up with highway traffic. The higher gearing no doubt contributes to a respectable 33-mpg highway estimate as well as less wear and tear on the engine. The use of platinum-tip spark plugs extends time between tune-ups, while a stainless-steel exhaust system keeps owners out of the muffler shop.
Outside, what GM terms "mid-cycle" changes to the front and rear facias and lamps, help differentiate the 2003 Cavalier from last year's model. Aluminum sport wheels shod with fat P195/65R15 touring tires add a sporty touch. The grippy tires improve handling helped by rack-and-pinion steering. Standard four-wheel antilock disc brakes provide plenty of stopping power.
Inside, the cockpit appears well thought out. Standard dual front air bags and LATCH child restraints can be supplemented with optional side-impact air bags. The steering wheel has an especially nice feel due in part to ergonomically shaped sections at the 10 and 2 o'clock positions. The bucket seats are reasonably comfortable but the driver's seat could move back more than it does. I'm of average height and found leg room somewhat lacking.
The instrument panel and controls are what you'd expect. The 100-channel XM digital satellite radio, however, exceeded my expectations. The $425 option is worth every penny, eclipsing the Onstar system and hands-free cell phone as best onboard toy, though it's a close call.
XM's 71 music channels (about 30 are commercial-free) with names like "Fred" and "Unsigned," 29 channels of news (CNN, Bloomberg, CNBC, BBC), sports (ESPN, NASCAR), and two comedy channels, are a refreshing break from commercials and low-wattage, static-prone college stations. Pressing a button on the tuner knob displays the artist and song title currently playing. GM says XM's sound is near-CD quality. I agree. Expect to pay about $10/month for the service.
All told, the 2003 Cavalier is a nice, quality car that does everything fairly well. I could even see myself driving one except for one nagging problem: the $17,905 sticker price.