After perhaps the longest new-model launching in the history of the automobile, the last of the 1982-model Chevrolets has finally hit the road.
The hard-pressed General Motors car division, which spent more than $3 billion on its car and truck lineup for '82, has been fielding its new vehicles over the last eight months -- since May, in fact, when it introduced the slow-selling Cavalier, the Chevrolet version of the GM subcompact J-car.
Now the corporation's biggest division has rolled out its new A-car, the front-drive, midsize Celebrity, plus a dramatically restyled Camaro; the S-10 compact pickup truck; and the last Corvette in its present configuration.
Further, in an effort to prop up the sagging Cavalier and X-car Citation, the division has introduced two lower-priced Cavaliers -- a 4-door sedan and a 4 -door wagon dubbed the Cadet -- and a bare-bones 2-door Citation.
The new stripped-down cars are hundreds of dollars cheaper than the base-priced Citation and Cavalier up to now, a desperate move by Chevrolet to get the cars on the move again.
''Everything is now in place for 1982,'' asserts Thomas A. Staudt, marketing manager at Chevrolet. And it's about time, the Chevrolet management seems to be saying between the lines.
If it had a choice, it would not have had three tiers of new-product announcements for the '82-model year. The division, in fact, went into the new-model year last fall with no more than half its new products on the street. This put it in a desperate noncompetitive position vis-a-vis the imports as well as the domestics.
''This meant we were taking on the industry with '81 products instead of '82s ,'' Mr. Staudt sighs.
To make matters worse, he adds, ''We had very limited supplies of some of the '81s, such as the Camaro.'' The big GM division is also a factor in some big-volume markets, such as the Chevette, and it didn't have an '82 version of the car. Also, some of the brand-new '82 products, such as the Cavalier, were priced at a disadvantage, in some cases, and demand sank.
Chevrolet is now trying to pick up the pieces and get in the act once again.
The contrast to three years ago is dramatic. Chevrolet sold some 3,690,000 cars and trucks in calendar year 1978, a record high that may not be broken for a long time. Other carmakers, including GM's other auto divisions, were also reporting heady sales figures at the time.
''It was a rather nervous kind of celebration,'' Staudt now admits.
Before the end of 1979, the auto market had collapsed and sales sank -- and sank. Chevrolet car and truck sales for calendar-year 1981 hit 2,117,909, down even from what was seen as a disastrous 1980.
In explanation, Staudt admits that the pricing of the new lines didn't help to sell cars. ''We have not done as good a job in marketing our products as we should have done,'' he concedes.
Always bullish on the outlook, however, the Chevrolet marketing chief predicts a return to the 1980 sales level of about 2.4 million cars and trucks for 1982 -- ''a milestone year for Chevrolet,'' he calls it.
In the last eight months Chevrolet has introduced four brand-new Cavaliers, three Camaros, two Celebrities, and the S-10 compact pickup truck, in addition to a brand-new 6.2-liter V-8 diesel engine for conventional pickup trucks and a 4.3-liter V-6 diesel engine for the Malibu and Monte Carlo.
Scanning the newest cars, Staudt says that fuel injection is now standard on four out of the division's nine car lines.
The Chevrolet management at some point will have to face up to a nagging identity crisis which afflicts the division.
What is a Chevrolet, anyhow? Is it a Buick, an Oldsmobile, or a Pontiac with a few visible, yet unimportant, changes on the surface, or is there something about a car that makes it a Chevrolet? Even when the Chevrolet division has had a design all to itself, it is sometimes not as attractive a car as that sold by the other divisions at a slightly higher price.
GM got into trouble a few years ago over the engines it used in the Oldsmobile. For years the carmaker had touted the advantages of the Oldsmobile rocket engine which, it turned out, may have been built by another GM division, such as Chevrolet, and not by Oldsmobile at all.
The company also has long encouraged its customers to rise up through the GM ranks from the ''low end'' -- a Chevrolet -- to a Pontiac, Oldsmobile, Buick, and, ultimately, maybe even a Cadillac.
Now many of the divisions share the X-, J-, and A-cars. Motorists find it hard to justify paying as much for a Chevrolet as for an Oldsmobile. As a result , Chevrolet is getting the backlash.
The new models may help Chevrolet shift to a higher gear.
The front-drive, wedge-shape Celebrity, a midsize car, comes as both a 2-door and 4-door, with a choice of two gasoline engines and a 4.3-liter V-6 diesel. Interior space is large, as is the rear trunk. We almost missed the glove box, however -- it's that small.
The new Corvette, in the last year for the fiber-glass-bodied, sports-car wonder before an all-new design reaches the showroom in '83, is fast on the road and thirsty for fuel. Chevrolet sold 45,000 Corvettes in 1981.
The all-new Camaro for '82 gives some hint of the styling direction for the ' 83-model Corvette. The high-performance Camaro Z-28 is pace car for the Indianapolis 500 auto race next May.
The S-10 compact pickup truck is bound to give the Japanese carmakers a run for the market.
Summing up, Chevrolet is ready to ''do battle'' in 1982; but unfortunately, the model year is almost half over. Whether it will meet its sales goal for the year is anybody's guess.