The good news is that GM has such a car, and it's the Chevrolet Aveo5. The bad news is that the competition has such cars too, and theirs are simply better in many ways. The Aveo5 will get you there and back and save you gas money, but it won't do much else. You won't find yourself saying "wow" too often when you get out of this car, because it just won't surprise you. It's basic transportation.
Going & Stopping
We had the manual Aveo5, which I recommend because it gives you marginally better accelerator response and complete control over when you downshift. Given that the Aveo5 only makes 106 horsepower, you'll want to be able to grab a lower gear at will to merge or pass on the highway. I've both merged and passed with the automatic Aveo5, and it's not fun. You really have to anticipate when you make your move, because there's no extra oomph to pull you out of a jam — you just floor the gas pedal and hope.
There's not much oomph with the manual, either, but at least you get to decide when it kicks in. Plus, let's face it: It's just more fun to drive a manual and ping through the gears yourself. It has to be said, though, that the Aveo5's gearshift lever felt pretty rubbery; there was a lot of play from side to side. A shift should feel like you're sliding a lever into place, and it should go in smoothly with a slight "snick" sound, if any. It should feel machined and taut. The Aveo5 was vague, and whatever sound it made couldn't be described as "snick."
The biggest disadvantage, though, is that manual Aveo5s don't come with antilock brakes. In comparison, the Honda Fit and Toyota Yaris have standard antilock brakes, while the Nissan Versa and Hyundai Accent offer them as an option at least on some trims. Antilock brakes are such a benefit, I wouldn't want to go without them. I had no problem bringing the Aveo5 to a halt without ABS, but in less-ideal circumstances the car would have been less controllable.
As for fuel economy, the Aveo5's EPA-estimated at 27 mpg in the city and 34 mpg on the highway. Once I finished testing the engine's power and began accelerating more gently, I got slightly better than those estimates. Given how light the Aveo5 is — 2,546 pounds with a manual transmission — I seriously think its mileage could be thrown off if you had to drive into a stiff headwind.
That mileage puts the Aveo5 about even with the Yaris, Fit, Accent and Versa — all of which get within a couple mpg better or worse.
Ride & Handling
The Aveo5's ride was the only surprising part of my drive. We have truly horrid roads in Chicago, and the little Aveo5 was downright pleasant for such a small car. Let's be clear: It's a small car with a small wheelbase, and as such you're not going to climb out of your Bentley, drive the Aveo5 and say, "My word! That was most pleasant!" But it won't beat you to death the way some stiffly sprung, short-wheelbase cars will.
It's also fairly decent going off twisty highway exit ramps. It's sprung stiffly enough that it takes bends at a decent clip without the tires howling, the suspension buckling and you wondering "Would my health insurance cover me if I ran into a tree?" Make no mistake, I'm not saying this is a sporty car, but it's better than I expected given that the ride is so nice. Caution is still the order of the day, however; it's not meant to be a Corvette.
In short, it represents a nice compromise — for a small car — between a mushy boulevard ride and a too-hard-for-the-real-world suspension tuning.
The Aveo5 was restyled for 2009, and it's a good look. Granted, there's not a heck of a lot you can do with a hatchback design — the body style kind of limits you — but what Chevrolet did pays off. Where other designs are swoopy curves and flourishes, the Aveo5 is angular, straightforward and clean.
It's got the now-traditional Chevrolet front end, with its split grille and big, gold Chevy bowtie. The big headlights and large grille area give it a cheery, almost puppy-like face. The same goes for the rear: It's got buggy, cute taillights and a narrow grille opening that, to me anyway, made it look like a surprised face. Then again, maybe I was just getting too big a whiff of exhaust.
From the side, there are subtle, fender-like creases, miniscule overhangs, and a decent amount of glass, but not too much. You'll feel like you're walking up to a car, not a fishbowl, and that's a good thing.
It's 154.3 inches long and 66.1 inches wide. The width is about the same as the Fit, Yaris and Versa, and it's shorter from bumper to bumper than all but the Yaris two-door. Parking and narrow alleys are a breeze in this thing, as you'd expect.
This category always breaks into segments for me: How I fit into the car, what it feels like and what I'm looking at when I'm in the driver's seat. Addressing those in order, I'd say "upright," "bad" and "a lot of OK plastic."
Unlike many GM products I've tested that require the driver to slouch back and stick his arms straight out (Pontiac, I'm looking in your direction), the Aveo5 lets you sit up like an adult. I think that tends to provide more control for the driver and is, therefore, safer. I still had to stick my arms out straighter than I would have preferred — and the wheel didn't telescope toward me — but it could have been a lot worse.
Unfortunately, like I said, for me it was an overall "bad" feel. I'm not the tallest reviewer here, nor do I have unusually long legs, but I had to move the seat all the way back to be able to fit my legs in. Also, partially because of my height and my desire to sit upright, I could never get the backrest in the right place to keep my back from hurting after an hour or two driving. I tried the lumbar support, and as far as I could tell, it had two settings: "suck your spine backward" and "stabbing." I didn't choose "stabbing."
Now, in fairness, if you're not a bigger person you might not have any of these troubles. But if you are the bigger sort, take this on the longest test drive your salesperson will allow. You'll thank me for it.
Our test model was one step above the base model, so it didn't have the optional imitation leather and imitation wood trim. Instead, it was pretty much an all-plastic affair inside. There were some faux aluminum trim pieces that I thought were quite good for this price range, and I've never been bothered by not having soft-touch surfaces. Based on those criteria, I think the Aveo5 looks pretty good, but the problem is that the Fit and Versa look better and are close to the same price. (Our test model stickered at $14,270.) It's your call if that's worth the money to you.
My major faults with the interior were: First, there was a goofy clock display way up on the dash, by the windshield, that had the "Passenger Airbag Off" light on it. I don't know why, but that got really old to look at, and it seemed very stuck-on-at-the-last-minute. The second thing that bugged me was the lack of storage cubbies. If your stuff — MP3 player, CDs — doesn't fit in the dashboard, the only places to hide it out of view are under the seats or in the hatch. I mean, heck, even the sunglass holder is stuck above the driver's side window, that's how few storage places there are. Finally, while not a fault in my book, it is worth noting that the cabin lets in a lot of ambient noise. Given that Chicago is a city of loud-talkers, this might be an unfair criticism of the Aveo5, but you can hear conversations of people walking by on the street.
A pleasant surprise was that the humble Aveo5 did have a driver's side armrest that didn't interfere with my ability to shift the manual transmission. Honestly, it's the first car I can remember where that was the case.
Oddly enough, when I drive a smaller car I find myself more concerned about safety than when I'm driving, oh, a tank. Unfortunately, the redesigned 2009 Aveo5 has not yet been crash-tested by our preferred source, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.
Unlike the Fit, Versa and Yaris, the Aveo5 doesn't offer side curtain airbags, and as previously noted it can't have antilock brakes with the manual transmission. Our model did come with seat-mounted side-impact airbags.
Aveo5 in the Market
Sadly for the Aveo5, there are a lot of thrifty, small hatchbacks on the market, so it has to fight a lot of competition, and it just can't win.
If you've got the Aveo5 on your shopping list, I recommend spending a lot of time driving it as many different places as you can — highways, city streets and to the grocery store. Get used to its modest power, see how the seats fit you and consider if it has enough safety equipment for you.
I enjoyed my time in the Aveo5, and I don't have any hang-ups about being seen in an entry-level car — even an entry-level car that's not the latest and greatest. But there's no one thing it does better than any other car in this segment, and I believe if I'd had the automatic transmission I would not have enjoyed my time in the car. Given that the Aveo5 feels like it was designed to be just basic transportation, its shortcomings illustrate how much the concept of "basic transportation" has evolved.
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