The Cavalier first went on sale in early 1981 as a 1982 model with front-wheel-drive, a choice of two four-cylinder pushrod engines, and coupe, sedan, hatchback, and station wagon body styles.
1983 Cavaliers offered electronic fuel injection, and a V6 engine became available in 1985, uncommon for a compact car. 1985 also brought minor styling changes.
The Cavalier was largely identical to the Pontiac Sunbird. Before the Pontiac brand was officially introduced in Mexico in 1992, Cavaliers sold there featured Sunbird body panels, as opposed to US-spec Cavalier panels. From 1993 on, the sibling marques were both offered, as in the United States.
1988 Cavaliers were redesigned with fresh styling and modified engines. The hatchback disappeared from the line, but the other bodystyles continued. The exterior and interior were freshened in 1991.
The Cavalier was redesigned for 1995 with expanded dimensions and styling that was a departure from the two boxier previous generations. The wagon was discontinued, but the coupe, sedan, and convertible body styles returned.
The Cavalier was facelifted in 2000 and in 2003. The convertible disappeared after 2000.
The third-generation Cavalier earned several low scores in crash tests by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety and National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Also, IIHS fatality risks statistics rated the Cavalier among the "Highest rates of driver deaths," with 150 (4 door) to 171 (2 door) driver deaths per millon registered vehicle deaths. Average for the Cavalier class (small) was 103(4 door) to 134(2 door) driver deaths per millon registered vehicle deaths.
The Cavalier was replaced by the Chevrolet Cobalt in 2005.
Most Cavaliers were built at Lordstown Assembly, although they have also been produced in South Gate, California (1982 model year only), Lansing Car Assembly (1996-1998 coupes), Lansing Craft Centre (1996-2000 convertibles), Janesville Assembly, Ramos Arizpe, and Leeds Assembly.