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Cars and Concepts

Toyota Cavalier hits Japan

The Toyota Cavalier, built in Ohio and refitted with right-hand drive, was one of the first American cars to hit the Japanese market when it was introduced in October 1995. Photo credit: GM

Toyota Motor Corp. and General Motors sign a historic agreement on Nov. 19, 1993, that calls for Toyota, beginning in 1996, to sell GM’s Chevrolet Cavalier in Japan under the Toyota brand.

The Cavalier, built in Ohio and refitted with right-hand drive, was one of the first American cars to hit the Japanese market when it was introduced in October 1995.

The symbolic deal that created the Toyota Cavalier was designed to help open the largely closed Japanese market for American imports. Under the plan, Toyota would sell 20,000 Cavaliers at its Japanese dealerships every year. The arrangement was derided by some as a crass political ploy by Toyota to undercut America’s trade hawks at a time when sales of Japanese light-vehicle imports in the U.S. were soaring.

The Toyota Cavalier was not identical to its American cousin. Besides right-hand drive, the Japanese Cavalier had longer accelerator pedals for shorter drivers, different exterior lights that complied with Japanese regulations, a flat fuel door, folding side mirrors and flared front fenders that covered the tires. It did not have cruise control. But it did have the same engine as its Chevy counterpart -- a 2.4-liter, four-cylinder -- and the same American-built GM-Delco radio.

Chevy had engineered and built the Cavalier to compete with compact imports that had become popular in the U.S. during the 1970s oil crisis.

The Cavalier replaced the Monza, a sporty coupe with poor fuel economy. It went on sale in 1981 as a 1982 model.

It was offered as a sedan, coupe, station wagon and three-door sporty hatchback. Under the hood was a 1.8-liter, four-cylinder engine that generated 88 hp and was paired with a four-speed manual transmission. An automatic transmission was optional.

The Cavalier rode on GM’s new J-car platform, which also underpinned the Pontiac Sunbird and Cadillac Cimarron. Engineers from Chevrolet and Opel aimed to develop a platform that would work in Europe and the United States.

After a slow start, the Cavalier found its stride and in 1984 became the best-selling U.S. car.

In 1985 an optional V-6 engine was offered, and sales topped 431,000 units, the Cavalier's sales record.

But little attention was paid to Cavalier styling over its more than 20-year life span. While Japanese small cars were being redesigned or given new sheet metal every four or five years, the Cavalier underwent just two major styling updates.

It was reskinned in the late 1980s and its first redesign wasn't until the 1995 model year. By that point the Cavalier hatchback and wagon had been dropped, and a convertible had been added.

Despite the marketing support behind Toyota’s biggest retail channel in Japan, buyers there never found the Cavalier that appealing. Annual sales in Japan peaked at 11,467 in 1996 and overall, sales totaled just 36,216 between October 1995 and March 2000, when GM canceled the deal.

In 2005, the Cavalier was dropped and replaced by the Chevrolet Cobalt.

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