If General Motors needs a refresher course on selling affordable, entry-level cars, there's good reason.

It has been a while since Chevrolet could say that good things come in small packages.

How long has it been? Try the Geo Metro in 1997, the last year the last Metro rolled off the Suzuki assembly lines in Canada and Japan. Now, for the first time in seven years, try on a new entry-level bowtie for size, even if it isn't exactly a Chevy.

With the introduction of the 2004 Aveo, available in showrooms next month, Chevrolet will extend one of the broadest product lineups in North America into the highly competitive entry-vehicle segment.

The timing couldn't have been better: Chevy needed a small car to compete with all of the Korean-built small cars; now it has somebody to build it - in Korea.

Thanks to its involvement in the acquisition of bankrupt South Korean automaker Daewoo, GM Daewoo Auto and Technology will build the Aveo in the same country that already produces the Hyundai Accent and Kia Rio. Actually, they are already building it. Aveo has been selling in Europe as the Daewoo Kalos, a small alternative for everyday travel.

Don't let size fool you on this shore. Chevy's plans for the Aveo are pretty big. They have to be. Hyundai is the fastest growing car company in the United States, and Kia routinely posts annual sales gains.

Chevy hopes the Aveo stems the tide. We'll say it's a solid start, if only a small step. Available as a versatile four-door sedan or five-door hatchback, the Aveo fits the bills without spending too many bills. For about $14,000 you'll get a 1.6-liter, 16-valve four-cylinder engine that will generate 105 horsepower - just enough to sneak right in against its Korean competition. The choice of a five-speed manual or four-speed automatic also lines up well with the entry-level heavy hitters.

How does it do?

In our test, the Aveo is perfect for zipping around the city, and great for fitting into those abnormally small parking spaces and tight squeezes. The new addition proved to be quite athletic - driving dynamics that are smooth yet snappy. Its tiny engine actually has some punch, if not a bit too much volume when punched with authority. The Aveo's engine has adequate power to zip up big hills or quickly pass slow moving, gas-guzzling SUVs.

Speaking of guzzling gas, the Aveo doesn't. Its fuel economy is fantastic. Mileage hovers at 25 in the city and an even more impressive 35 on the highway.

Performance and fuel economy aside, the Aveo is pretty well laid out behind the wheel - simple but spacious, organized and functional.

From the driver's seat, audio system controls are easy to reach, and the gauges on the instrument panel are uncomplicated to read. One beef: There's no real "wow" factor inside or out. Functional is the operative word.

But just so you don't think entry has to be che ap, the Aveo comes available in two trims - base and LS - with plentiful features.

The base Aveo arrives with standard daytime running lights, intermittent wipers, tilt steering, rear window defogger and two 12-volt accessory outlets. The suspension consists of independent struts up front - a plus in this segment - with front discs and rear drums. Anti-lock brakes are optional but include electronic brake force distribution, a system that optimizes brake force depending on the number of passengers, interior weight and road conditions.

The tonier LS adds, among other things, air conditioning, power door locks, remote keyless entry and a CD stereo, things that are optional on the base car. For each trim level, a "special appearance" package is also available, including fog lamps, aluminum 14-inch alloy wheels and mudguards. The five-door LS even adds a rear spoiler.

While cargo room is expectedly tight by small-car standards, it grows to sport-utility proportions (42 cubic feet) in the five door when the standard 60/40-split rear seat is dropped. In addition to the folding rear seat in four-door models, every Aveo arrives with seat back pockets and the top of each headrest integrates a composite hook for holding/suspending a shopping bag over the backside of the seat.

On the outside, if the Aveo looks different for Chevy, it's because it definitely is. The jellybean exterior design mimics the arcing-roof/high-seat position of the Toyota Echo. Italdesign Studio in Turin, Italy was responsible for the short front and rear overhangs on the Aveo.

It's all part of a fresh look for Chevrolet. Until now, GM's bread has been buttered by Cavaliers that have been heavily discounted or highly incentivized.

With pricing starting at $13,480, Aveo changes that. Chevy says it will level the playing field. Actually, for the first time in a long time in the econo segment, Chevy will actually see the field.

And when's the last time you could say that?


2004 Chevrolet Aveo

Rating: 2.5

High gear: Chevy takes one giant step for the econo-minded driver in an all-new, European-designed entry-level vehicle.

Flexible storage drives the Aveo as well as good fuel economy and a simplicity that makes sense.

Low gear: Optional items, like antilock brakes, get a base price up in a hurry. Revving gets engine noise into high volume levels.

Vehicle type: Front-wheel drive, front-engine, five-door, four-passenger subcompact sedan.

Key competition: Hyundai Accent, Kia Rio, Ford Focus

Base engine: 105 horsepower, DOHC 1.6-liter 16-valve four-cylinder

Torque: 107 lbs-ft. @ 3,600 rpm

Standard safety equipment: Driver and passenger front airbags; height-adjustable shoulder belt anchors.

Wheelbase: 97.6 inches

Length: 166.7 inches

MPG rating: 25 city/35 highway (estimated)

Manufactured: Korea

Warranty: Basic warranty is three years/36,000 miles; the drivetrain is three years/36,000 miles; body corrosion is six years/100,000 miles; roadside assistance is three years/36,000 miles.

Base price: $13,480 (estimated)

Price as tested (LS, including options, destination and delivery): $14,385