There are several plush vehicles lined up for test drives, but it's the Chevy Aveo that draws a surprising amount of attention.
General Motors Corp. recently invited North American journalists to San Antonio, TX, to show off its '04 models. With the Cadillac XLR, Chevy SSR, Buick Rainier and Saab 9-3 convertible available, there seemingly would be little interest in test driving a $10,000 subcompact car built in South Korea. But there is.
For years, Asian competitors have been clobbering GM and other auto makers in the subcompact economy segment. The South Koreans stepped up their assault in the late 1990s, and today the Hyundai Accent and Kia Rio dominate the segment.
GM has tried with its Chevy Cavalier to cover the entry-level market as it fragmented into the premium and budget-conscious segments, asking the outdated model today to do battle with the Toyota Corolla, Volkswagen Jetta, Honda Civic and Ford Focus, as well as the Accent and Rio.
Thanks, in part, to generous incentives, Cavalier sales have held up well — deliveries totaled 256,550 in 2003, ranking it third behind the Civic and Corolla.
But GM needed a more diverse approach. The company went to GM Daewoo Auto & Technology Co., the South Korean OEM comprised of certain assets from the former Daewoo Motor Co. Ltd. and owned by GM, Suzuki Motor Corp. and China-based Shanghai Automotive Industry Corp.
GM Daewoo developed a version of its Kalos for N. America, and the result is Aveo. (GM will go after the higher end of the entry-level segment when its '05 Chevy Cobalt arrives in fall.) We've driven the Kalos in South Korea and Aveo recently, and the similarities are obvious, especially the interiors.
Both feature a small slot on the driver's side that can be used to store a credit card or parking pass, smile-shaped fabric stitched on the door panels and seat cushions and half-moon-fashioned door handles. A graph paper-like pattern used throughout the cabin is adequate considering the rock-bottom price, giving Aveo a tasteful, understated interior, unlike competitor Toyota Echo.
Aveo offers three trim levels, with pricing for the 4-door sedan and 5-door hatchback starting at $9,995 for the Special Value, $11,690 for the Base and $12,585 for the LS. That's a profit-sharing check or a tax-refund for some.
But be prepared to do without amenities. A driver-side power mirror isn't available with any model, and the Special Value offers only AM/FM capability with its standard stereo, which is hard to operate due to smallish buttons and knobs.
The front-seat cupholders are flimsy, and a huge gap exposing the instrument panel's innards appears with the steering wheel tilted in its highest position.
Rear seats in both models fold forward, and the 5-door offers 42 cu.-ft. (1.19 cu-m) of cargo space. Although the wheelbases are identical, the hatchback's overall length is 14 ins. (35.6 cm) shorter, giving the 5-door a stunted, chunky appearance compared with the sedan's straightforward styling.
Don't be fooled by the 103 hp from the 1.6L DOHC 4-cyl. (sourced from GM's German subsidiary Adam Opel AG). Aveo is perky — a trait absent from the clunky 3-cyl.-powered Chevy Metro, GM's previous foray into entry-level subcompacts. The powerplant doesn't feel strained and will take Aveo to 60 mph (97 km/h) in about 10 seconds.
A 5-speed manual gearbox is standard; a 4-speed automatic is optional. The clutch feels mushy, and so do the brakes. The automatic occasionally hesitates when passing.
But Aveo's ride is absorbent and controlled for a small car. Clipping along at 100 mph (160 km/h) isn't a punishing experience, except on the wallet. Aveo requires more stops at the gas station than expected.
Fuel economy is 27/35 mpg city/highway (8.7L-6.7L/100 km) with the manual gearbox. It's 26/34 mpg (9L-6.9L/100 km) with the automatic transmission. That's worse than the Echo and Accent and slightly better than the Rio.