As a whole, automotive journalists tend to be pretty jaded. We spend so much time in premium luxury and sports cars that we often forget our roots at the bottom of the automotive food chain. After all, it's unlikely that your first car came loaded with a leather-lined interior with 400 horsepower under foot. Thirty years ago, truly economical new car options were fairly limited, with Detroit offering a few shoddy compacts and a handful of foreign firms importing a limited number of entry-level rides (VW and Datsun come to mind). Then, in the mid-1980s, Japanese automakers finally hit their stride and well-built yet inexpensive compact cars began flooding into American dealerships, causing the Big Three to lose their stranglehold on the domestic car market. Unfortunately, as time passed and these early economy cars evolved into sophisticated modern machines, their prices rose accordingly. In an effort to rekindle the fiery passion of youthful new car buyers, several manufacturers have introduced sporty little cars with sub-$15K price tags over the past 12 months, and the jaunty little squirt you see here is Chevrolet's entry into the mix.
Aimed squarely at young buyers shopping for their first new car, the Aveo comes equipped with youth-oriented features such as an MP3 player, faux-carbon-fiber trim, bright color choices and an incredibly low sticker price. Settling into the car's bolstered two-tone cloth seat, we drifted back to the early days of our driving career, when a car — any car — meant pure, unadulterated freedom. With that basic premise in mind, we hit the road for a few days of driving on the twisted and congested highways and byways of Southern California. While the Aveo isn't the most exciting vehicle on the road, it does feature a bevy of useful standard features, and the screaming red paint job slathered on our test vehicle certainly gave it an unusual look that stood out from the crowd. Several teenagers commented on the car in gas stations and parking lots, most of them pointedly asking how much it costs and what the stereo sounds like. Apparently, Chevrolet's "American Revolution" advertising campaign has been effective.
Speaking of the "American Revolution," it's interesting to note that while this car wears a Chevy bow tie on its grille, it isn't actually built here in America. In fact, the Aveo is based on the Daewoo Kalos platform, which sold quite well in Korea and Europe before the company went belly-up and was incorporated into the GM empire. Looking to fill the hole left by the long-dead Geo Metro, Chevrolet execs brought in Giorgetto Giurgiaro's renowned Italdesign Studios in Turin, Italy, to perform a face-lift. The resulting restyle utilizes a high roofline and short front and rear overhangs to create a sporty, "Euro" look. This was done for a reason, as the Korean-built Aveo is slated to be sold worldwide.
The interior received a freshening as well, including a nicely styled dual-pod instrument cluster and tasteful two-tone cloth accents on the seats and door panels. Optional exterior styling cues include a small rear spoiler on the hatchback variant, and brightly finished alloy wheels (which our car did not have). Overall, we'd say Italdesign did a nice job of adding a little spice to an otherwise dull-looking platform, throwing in enough edgy styling to appeal to young buyers without going overboard.
Two body styles are offered — a four-door sedan and a five-door hatchback. Our tester was of the five-door variety, which is actually 14 inches shorter than the sedan yet maintains the same amount of interior room, thanks to a nifty bit of packaging. Three trim levels are available — ranging from sparsely equipped Special Value and base models to the high-line LS. Our ride fell into the latter category, and came equipped with power windows and door locks, air conditioning, tilt steering wheel, dual front airbags, LS level two-tone cloth upholstery, carpeted floor mats and a CD/MP3 player. Factor in the five-year/60,000-mile powertrain warranty, and the car's $12,585 base price seems like a real bargain. Only two options were chosen for our particular car: four-wheel antilock brakes ($400 well spent, in our opinion) and the rear spoiler ($225, not so well spent). The grand total came to a whopping $13,210.
Sliding in behind the wheel, the car appeared much larger inside than one would assume. Thanks in part to the previously mentioned high roofline, headroom was plentiful even for the tallest members of our road test staff. Chevy/Daewoo engineers achieved a surprising amount of legroom by pushing the wheels out to the furthest corners of the chassis and raising the seats up above the floor. Even the backseat had enough space for two full-size adults to ride around town in relative comfort.
While others have complained about the relatively narrow front bucket seats, we found them more than adequate by economy car standards. Slight bolsters keep the driver in place, and the LS-level cloth upholstery was soft and supportive. Both seats are manually adjustable in three directions, and the standard tilt steering wheel made finding a relaxed driving position a snap.
Small bits of cloth trim on the door panels and fake carbon fiber on the interior door handles and window switches help to distract from the otherwise plastic-laden cockpit. The dual-pod instrument cluster is well laid out and easy to read. Additionally, the air conditioning works very well with adjustable vents and simple-to-operate controls. The stereo seems to be the highlight of not just the interior but the entire car, as it is capable of playing both standard CDs and MP3s, and sounds great doing it.
Interior fit and finish was actually pretty decent (although still not quite up to Japanese standards), as most of the gaps between panels were tight and evenly spaced. Hard plastic panels abound throughout the interior, but at least they're textured with a matte finish for a distinctly European look and feel. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for the car's exterior. While the gaps and panels appear pretty straight and even, the metal itself is apparently quite thin. We found this out the hard way when one of our acquaintances leaned in the window with his elbow planted on the roof during a conversation, and the sheet metal actually bowed under his elbow's weight. Also disturbing is the sharp metallic clang made by any of the four doors slamming closed. Otherwise, the Aveo seems like a fairly well-built machine.
On the road, the small hatchback can best be described as basic transportation. It will effectively take its occupants from the proverbial Point A to Point B, but that's about it. The only engine available is a 1.6-liter inline four that cranks out a paltry 103 hp at the very top of the power band (5,800 rpm) — and unless you're willing to severely sacrifice fuel economy by running the engine hard, you'll have to make do with significantly less than that.
Our tester came equipped with a five-speed manual transmission that suffered from long throws, an imprecise shifter and the bizarre tendency to pop out of third gear while the car was in motion. To make matters worse, GM/Daewoo engineers apparently decided to use very wide ratios in the transmission in an effort to cut shifting to a minimum around town. While this would have worked in an application with a little more horsepower, the Aveo was severely underpowered going up most hills and inclines, causing us to run in third gear on the freeway on more than a few occasions. Therefore, the fuel mileage suffered greatly and we only managed to achieve an average of 23 mpg — quite low for a car in this class. We feel that the optional four-speed automatic would probably be a better choice, both in terms of real-world gas mileage and everyday drivability.
Luckily, the Aveo handles much better than it accelerates. The combination of rack-and-pinion steering and light weight make the little car quite nimble and balanced in the corners, with just the right amount of road feel. Standard ventilated front disc and rear drum brakes bring things to a halt in a hurry, and the optional ABS system is a must-have on a car this small. Our only other complaints are that the engine is a bit buzzy at higher rpm, and road noise can be quite distracting on the highway — probably due to the car's thin metal and lightweight construction. Overall, the Aveo got us where we needed to go safely and effectively, but without much speed or style. Then again, perhaps we're asking too much of a $13,000 new car.
On that note, we are left wondering which would be the better choice, spending $13,000 on a new Aveo or opting for a well-maintained used Civic or Corolla. If financing options and a solid factory warranty are important to you, then the Aveo is a viable option. Basic but well-engineered, it should provide reliable transportation for years to come. However, for those willing to take the chance on a used car, a secondhand offering from Honda or Toyota would offer more power, plusher interior amenities and a little more status in the school parking lot. No matter which option you choose, the freedom of the open road awaits.
Manager of Vehicle Testing Kelly Toepke says:
The car loan calculator on Edmunds.com tells me I could finance the entire $13,210 of our test Chevrolet Aveo at an interest rate of 4.39 percent over 48 months and my monthly payment would be $300.58. With a $300 monthly payment in mind, I took the wheel of the five-door Aveo LS.
On my first spin around a local block, I nearly missed a stop sign that was seriously compromised by the road construction that surrounded it. I jammed on the brakes (thankful that our test car had the $400 ABS option) and looked in the rearview mirror to find a Hummer H2, the polar-opposite to the Aveo, right behind me. The H2 was distinguishable only by its looming grille due to its close proximity to my bumper. Ouch, that would've been ugly.
As the Aveo and I sprinted away, I turned my attention to the little car's interior. There were several different surfaces to admire — smooth, rough and shiny — and to Chevrolet's credit, most were interesting enough to disguise any major cost-cutting initiative. The simplistic controls were functional, and the stereo system sported an in-dash CD/MP3 player to add youth appeal beyond the Aveo's faux carbon-fiber door trim. The driver-side mirror was manual, but the passenger-side mirror was power-operated, which leads me to wonder just how much money can be saved when a power switch has to be installed anyway.
The Aveo's front seats are narrow, and my 115-pound girth managed to fill the driver seat almost completely. After a quick jaunt about town, I climbed into the rear seat expecting to fold my knees up to my chin. I was pleasantly surprised, if not by the amount of available legroom, at least by the vast empty space to be had under the front seat. Seems that a lack of power seats does have its benefits, since there were no seat electronics to hide.
So, for $300 a month, is it a car I would own? Probably not, as I'd be more likely to roll the dice with a used Civic instead. But as a car to recommend, there doesn't seem to be any glaring shortcomings. Sure, it's a little loud (words like "snappy" and "beepy" spring to mind), and it's a little short on power, although that never really bothered me during my flat, city drive. But it does carry an impressive five-year/50,000-mile powertrain warranty, and at the end of the day, if you're financing your ride over 48 months, that's a pretty important thing to note.
Road Test Editor Brian Moody says:
My first impression was "I'll bet this thing is piece of junk." Turns out I was wrong. Of course whenever you're shopping for a $13,000 car you know you're going to have to make some compromises. And those compromises have mainly to do with power and interior room. Its 103-hp rating is not much, but then again the Aveo is not much car for that engine to move around, so acceleration is actually what I would call "fair." It's no powerhouse, but the car is certainly not frustratingly slow. On the one hand, the interior room is quite nice, but on the other hand cargo space is really lacking. Still, for $13,000 you can hardly complain about a car that gives you virtually every amenity of the more expensive imports and offers a reasonable ride as well.
While I like the compliant ride when cruising on the highway, I'd prefer a little tighter handling car overall — I think the new Kia Spectra feels better in this area. Styling is always subjective, but to me the Aveo comes off looking like a Brazilian rental car — and a budget-priced one at that. But my mind immediately goes back to that low price — $12,545 for the LS without options. With features like a cabin air filtration system, heated outside mirrors, tilt wheel and remote keyless entry, the Aveo stacks up nicely against cars that cost much much more. Just don't expect to get a lot of looks at the stoplight — at least not the right kind of looks.
"This is a delightful car to drive. For a small four-cylinder it has excellent acceleration (pulling hills or merging into traffic) on the highway. The gas mileage is also a big plus. I got 30 mpg in the city and 38 mpg on the highway, and that was with an automatic transmission. The seats are comfortable and there is ample room for four passengers. The hatchback has a small storage space in the rear, but if you need more room the rear seats fold down. The only thing that I did not like was the cupholder in the front dash. When you use it, anything you have in it blocks access to the A/C/heater controls. But for less than $14K this car is excellent. Favorite features: The CD/MP3 player. The tilt-up windshield wipers. Suggested improvements: Remove the cigarette lighter and ashtray and move the cupholders down so they do not block the A/C/heater controls. Add cruise control as one of the options." — MClean, May 8, 2004
"We have had our Aveo for three months and have no complaints about the car. It replaced a small pickup we used around town and is mainly used for shopping and local trips. The space behind the rear seats is great for groceries and other small items. I have also used it to carry heavy items up to 800 pounds with no significant change in handling characteristics. The seating is comfortable and the headroom and visibility are equivalent to a much larger vehicle. I am impressed by the quality in the car for the price I paid for it. All in all, a real bargain. Favorite features: Folding backseats. It provides cargo space equivalent to a small pickup. Suggested improvements: Tinted windows for hot climates would be an improvement." — jbbrack, April 23, 2004
"This car is the most affordable and well-equipped GM car out there. It has the reliability of the GM company but the new stylish design of the more 'hip' foreign cars. Even without all of the upgrades the car is great but the upgrades do enhance the appeal of the vehicle. Overall I would rank the Aveo as my first choice for a starter car with class. Favorite features: The car just rides comfortably and sound. When you look at the vehicle from the outside it seems tiny but once inside you will be amazed at all of the head- and legroom. Suggested improvements: The only thing that some may fault the car for not having is cruise control." — Jynx, March 16, 2004
System Score: 7.0
Components: Our test vehicle came equipped with the only stereo available in the Aveo, which includes a well-designed AM/FM head unit with a single in-dash MP3-compatible CD player. Four five-inch midrange speakers are utilized, two up front in the kick panels and two more on either side of the backseat. The controls for the head unit are simple and easy to understand, with dials that control volume and channel selection. It actually looks like an aftermarket unit.
Performance: Sound is quite clear for such a basic system, and the speakers are well placed in the cabin to maximize sound no matter where the listener is sitting. Unfortunately, because there are only four small speakers, the stereo can't keep up with the bass levels prevalent in much of today's pop music, and things slightly distort at high volumes. However, listening to a CD or the radio at moderate volumes produces much better sound than one would expect from a car in this class.
Best Feature: The ability to play both wave- and MP3-format CDs.
Worst Feature: The underpowered system is not capable of putting out much bass, and it distorts at high volumes.
Conclusion: Chevrolet is definitely using this stereo as a major selling point for the inexpensive Aveo, and for good reason. An excellent interface, clear sound and the ability to play both standard- and MP3-format CDs make it extremely convenient for music lovers caught up in the digital revolution. Overall, this is a great stereo for a car in this class. — Dan Kahn