After a four-year gestation period, the new front-wheel drive Cavalier was introduced on 26 August 1981, this time using the same underpinnings as the Opel Ascona C. On its launch, it offered class-leading levels of fuel economy and performance which had previously been unseen in this size of car. Sales began the following month.
This model was part of GM's family of compact "J-cars", along with the new Opel Ascona, the Australian Holden Camira, the Brazilian Chevrolet Monza, the Japanese Isuzu Aska, and the North American Chevrolet Cavalier, Pontiac Sunbird, Buick Skyhawk, Oldsmobile Firenza (which made use of a Vauxhall nameplate from the 1970s), and Cadillac Cimarron. In the United Kingdom, the new Cavalier was a huge success and challenged the supremacy of the Ford Cortina as the company car of choice. Indeed, it went on sale only a year before the Cortina was discontinued.
By 1982, Ford and Vauxhall had an effective two-horse race at the top of this sector on the British market, as sales of the Talbot Alpine (previously a Chrysler until Peugeot took over the European operations of Chrysler) had tailed off by 1981, while British Leyland was winding down production of the Austin Ambassador hatchback and Morris Ital saloon and estate in preparation for the launch of all-new car (which would be sold as the Austin Montego) by 1984. Popular foreign competitors at the time included the Renault 18, which had arrived on the British market in December 1978. The MK2 Cavalier also debuted in the same year as the MK2 Volkswagen Passat.
Following the British public's reluctance to embrace the Ford Sierra's radical styling in 1982, the Cavalier overtook the Sierra in sales and outsold the Sierra in 1984 and again in 1985, although the Sierra had comfortably outsold it in 1983. The Sierra narrowly outsold it in 1986, and a facelift for the Sierra at the start of 1987 helped Ford build a wide lead at the top of the large family car sector as nearly 140,000 Sierras were sold that year, while Cavalier sales fell below 100,000.
By the time the second generation Cavalier was discontinued to make way for the third generation model in October 1988, the Sierra was almost twice as popular.
It was Britain's second best selling car (behind the Ford Escort) in 1984 and 1985, and at its peak, this version of the Cavalier came with the choice of 1.3 or 1.6 L engines derived from the smaller Vauxhall Astra (also sold as the Opel Kadett), while for 1983 a 1.8 L engine was launched, which had electronic fuel injection. A diesel of 1.6 L was added about the same time, while the 1.8 L was supplemented by a 2.0 L for the 1987 model year.
Perhaps surprisingly, it was narrowly beaten to the European Car of the Year award for 1982 by the Renault 9, with third place going to the Mark II Volkswagen Polo.
This model was produced as a two-door or four-door saloon and five-door hatchback. An estate version followed in October 1983, based on the Holden Camira wagon with rear body panels imported CKD from Australia.This proved a slow seller. The two-door saloon was soon dropped from the Cavalier range, although it remained part of the Ascona range in other markets. A convertible, based on the two-door and converted by Hammond and Thiede in Germany, was subsequently offered.
The Thatcher government in the United Kingdom created a tax break at 1.8 L, with any company car having a larger engine than this attracting higher personal benefit taxes, thus effectively giving the Cavalier an advantage over its rivals soon after its launch.
On its launch, the MK2 Cavalier was well received by the motoring press, and like its predecessor was the catalyst for another surge in Vauxhall sales. In 1981, just over 33,000 MK1 and MK2 Cavaliers had been sold in the UK, although it was still Britain's seventh best selling car. A year later, sales more than trebled to over 100,000 cars as Britain's fifth best selling car. In 1983, it attained more than 127,000 sales (some 7% of the new car market) and was the fourth best selling car, although it still trailed behind the new Ford Sierra. For 1984 and 1985, however, it was Britain's second best selling car, with more than 130,000 sales each year, comfortably outselling the fifth-placed Sierra. In 1986, it was narrowly outsold by the Sierra, which then underwent a major facelift and became available as a saloon for the first time, and gained a wide sales lead over the Cavalier for the next two years.
Over the course of the model's lifetime, there were two facelifts mirroring changes made to the Ascona - firstly for the 1985 model year which saw revised grilles, modified rear lamp clusters, new steering wheels, upgraded equipment, new upholstery options and different instrument graphics - some of these changes came direct from the recently introduced Kadett E/Astra Mark 2.
Despite the launch of an all-new Cavalier being just a year away, a further update in 1987 saw the grilles and rear lamp clusters revised again in a style similar to the larger Senator model together with further improvements to equipment levels. A new 2.0L engine option became available on CD, SRi and GLS trim, whilst the availability of the fuel injected 1.8L unit was extended down to L trim.
By the end of its life cycle, the top of the range version was the powerful 2.0 SRi130, which had 130 hp (97 kW) and could exceed 120 mph (193 km/h). This had the same engine as the Astra GTE 8v (20SEH), though it was more powerful owing to a better exhaust route.
For the first time, Vauxhall began exporting cars in LHD to other European countries, badged as Opels, which was a boost to GM's confidence in its once-troubled British division. In November 1987, the then head of Vauxhall, John Bagshaw, told Car magazine that the Asconas built in the United Kingdom were considered of equivalent quality to those built elsewhere in Europe, adding that "they can't tell them from the German ones", welcome news for the British car industry after the quality issues which had affected many British cars during the 1970s. When the Cavalier was first introduced, the cars were built at Opel's plant in Belgium, but production quickly moved to Luton. The estate version's panels were built by Holden in Australia.
The last version of the Cavalier Mark II to be launched was the Cavalier Calibre. Based on the SRi130 with styling from Aston Martin/Tickford and the bodykit, sports suspension and exhaust being produced by Irmscher, it was a limited production run of only 500 cars. The car came with a very high specification including a trip computer, Recaro seats, power windows and power steering. It cost around £13,000 when released in 1987.
Vauxhall sold 807,624 examples of the second generation Cavalier between 1981 and 1988. By December 1989, it was the third most common model of car on British roads, although these government statistics mostly calculated each car by its generation rather than by different nameplate, with pre and post facelifted versions of an unchanged basic design (for example the Ford Sierra) being counted separately.
In August 2006, Auto Express named it as the country's sixth most scrapped car of the last 30 years, with just 6,343 still in working order. The only car to cease production after the Cavalier Mark II, and which disappeared at a greater rate, was the Skoda Estelle (which was withdrawn from sale in 1990). By December 2009, that figure had fallen to a mere 1,289.