So Much Cavalier Underglow: How GM Took On The Import Scene In 2001
General Motors went hard in the paint and created some sick, dank, and rad rides.
Late 2001: I had just seen The Fast and the Furious on the silver screen for the second time with my good buddy Chris. Incubus’ Morning View was a part of my daily routine. And General Motors was about to bask in the underglow of the import tuner car scene.
For myself and many other youths across the United States at the time, TFATF opened our eyes to the wide world of import tuning. Small subcompacts with buzzy exhaust systems, complicated body kits, cold-air intakes, wheels bigger than 16 inches, the lot. We learned that gaps between the car’s body and the ground could be easily filled in with fiberglass, and that frosted tips and baggy bowling shirts were very much in style. Surprisingly, some people think they still are.
GM noticed the sudden jump in import tuning fever and wanted a piece of the action, too. It realized life ain’t a game, so to speak, and had to roll deep at SEMA to grab American youths’ ever-shortening attention spans.
The thing about calling it import tuning is it’s, well, focused on imports. Hondas, Nissans, Toyotas, Mazdas, and even Volkswagens got repped pretty hard at Wendy’s parking lots around the country. GM had to convince kids that Sunfires, SC2s, and Cavaliers could be their ticket to Hot Import Nights and NOPI glory, too.
Enter SEMA, October 2001
GM went hard in the paint. SEMA 2001 was chocked full of collabs between the General and various tuning companies to show the youth of America that Cavaliers and Sunfires could hang with the culture’s best. More than that Steve Buscemi “How Do You Do, Fellow Kids?” meme. GM had shown some effort there before, but nothing like SEMA 2001, post-Fast.
Luckily, a lot of what went down is well-documented. Per Hot Rod, John Middlebrook, GM Vice President, General Manager for Vehicle Brand Marketing and Corporate Advertising (holy shit what a lengthy title) put GM’s focus into a brilliantly brief statement: “We’re broadening our appeal to the youth market… and we’re creating ‘look fast and go fast’ accessories for our current products.” Look Fast Go Fast should’ve been a NOPI windshield banner. Maybe it was.
37 GM-supported concept cars were in attendance at SEMA 2001, plus an additional 140 that were created by tuners themselves, independent of the Detroit institution’s hands. The majority of them were Cavaliers and Pontiac Sunfires, but they also threw in a bunch of other GM vehicles. Pontiac Grand Prixes (Grands Prix?), Chevy Silverados, a twin-turbo Cadillac Escalade, a decked-out GMC Savanah, and more.
Let’s take a glimpse at the 2001 modded Cavalier, Sunfire, and Saturn SCX game; there’s plenty of fod- I mean discussion there, and man it’s all so delightfully of-the-era.
The Pontiac Sunfire HO 2.4
Starting off this highlight reel, feast upon this magnificence. Per Hot Rod Magazine, “The Sunfire HO 2.4, introduced at the Specialty Equipment Market Association show in Las Vegas, features a sporty exterior appearance and a race-oriented interior, with the backseat removed to reduce mass for optimum performance.” Alright, a sporty exterior, but pop the hood. Pop the hood? Pop the hood!
Underneath lived a 2.4-liter inline four, presumably an LT3, with a supercharger strapped to it and massive, five-inch diameter exhaust pipes at its business end. No word on what the power numbers were, but I imagine it was a screamer. All bark and bite; well done GM. I’m not going to lie, it actually makes me think some updated, less-rice-more-race-car styling might do this one well. If someone had the inclination to find a Sunfire and mod it in our modern era. Essentially: follow the All Cars Look Better As Race Cars formula, and boom, something that’ll haul ass and look decent doing it.
This actually doesn’t look too bad by today’s standards. Besides the hideous wheels, it looks like they kept the ground effects to a minimum. Though, adding the front, presumably-non-functional splitter supports makes it look like some kind of goofy snake.
The Chevy Cavalier 263 Super Sport
It’s been a minute since I’ve seen a stretched-marshmallow body kit design. Plus, those projector-like headlights with painted covers! What’s actually quite cool, regardless of tuning era taste, is this thing’s upgraded Baer Racing brakes and three-piece HRE wheels. This Cavalier’s got a modest drop, too; the rest of the drop is accomplished by the melty looking body kit.
More commendable however is yet another supercharged four-cylinder under the hood, a 2.2-liter Ecotec (I think this was early in the Ecotec’s lifespan?). Via Super Chevy:
“The engine produces 262.6 hp at 6500 rpm and 228 lb-ft of torque at 5000 rpm. The Super Sport also is a showcase for a ‘roots’ type supercharger with a liquid-to-air intercooler system, consisting of: liquid-to-air intercooler, cast aluminum inlet and outlet tanks with structural mounting supports…”
Pretty rad, except it’s all sent through a GM four-speed automatic transaxle. That’s ultra-lame; why throw so much badassery under the hood and then leave the drivetrain untouched? I’m shuddering just thinking about how this thing ripped, or rather slipped, through gears.
If you want a fun time machine experience, check out more specs over on Angelfire.
The Chevy Cavalier Maui 155 Lifestyle Sedan
This might be the most heavy-handed attempt at drawing away JDM tuners’ attention, ever. Looks like somebody was trying to split the difference between tribal tattoo and cherry blossom aesthetics and the result is just awful. Emblematic of the era, though, to say the least.
The 2002 Chevy Cavalier Supercharged Concept
I think this actually affirms the timeless of subcompact styling. It’s pretty reserved looking and, hell, I’d buy it off Craigslist if it ever actually became a mass-produced variant. The Cav is also a platform that I find to look better as a four door than a coupe, which is rare. Imagine picking one of these up, giving its Ecotec engine a refresh (which would be incredibly cheap), mounting up some custom coilovers, sticky 100-treadwear tires, and proceeding to wheel it on track? I bet it’d be a lot of fun, and with a modest diet it’d be quite light.
Ultimately, GM did do a sport compact version of the Cav’s replacement; my The Drive colleague Peter Holderith got one last year for a song. But man, it would’ve been so cool if the modest four-door Cav got the same treatment.
The Saturn SCX
What better ride to crank period-correct music like Machine Head’s The Burning Red inside of? That red-to-bright-yellowish-white paint job, and aggressive, achieved-by-body-kit stance -it’s all so period correct. Apparently the thing is a naturally-aspirated screamer, too.
According to Motor Trend, “Its 1.9-liter DOHC four-cylinder has been radically modified by Saturn Motorsports of San Diego. The inline engine boasts JG Engine Dynamics head, custom-made JE pistons, JC Sports big-bore throttle body, and Crower rods. Combined, these hot-rod components produce 300-horsepower, more than double the engine’s normal output.”
These are very respectable numbers for a street-able, non-turbo four-cylinder in the early aughts. Plus, these chassis were actually successfully campaigned as race cars back in the day, too. So you know there’s a lot of potential hidden under that hideous paint job.
These were just a few of the compact car concepts and collabs repping the GM name at SEMA 2001. I wonder if any of these cars are still kicking around? Mazda keeps a lot of its concepts and ex-race cars in their Irvine, CA headquarters’ basement, it’d be cool if GM did the same. Or, perhaps they were auctioned off and squirreled away to one day fetch six-digit stacks, like this bad Larry.
I’m genuinely curious if these GM creations are, or someday will, be collectible. They’re really of the era, and are a testament to the brand’s realization that probably went something like “well gosh, these baggy-panted youths have cash. So do we. Let’s create some wild rides” (that’s to be read in a middle-aged Michigander voice, by the way).