If this review was about the 2008 Chevy Aveo5, it would have started by pointing out that it was the lowest priced car available in the United States, a reminder that a lot can change in a year.
Stock markets tumble, commodity prices rise, automobile companies fall deeply into the red. So for 2009, Chevy raised the base price to $12,120, making the Aveo5 the third lowest priced car available in the nation, just behind the Hyundai Accent and Smart Fortwo, the Speedo of the automotive world.
The Chevy does retain the title of least expensive American car, but since it's built in South Korea, I'm not really sure how much that matters.
In any case, the 5-door, 5-seat Aveo5 is the quintessential economy car: tiny, with a tiny engine. The 1.6-liter four-cylinder has just 106 horsepower which, if we're still on the list thing, makes it the second least-powerful car sold in the United States, a distant runner-up to the Fortwo's 70 horsepower.
The payoff for having fewer horses than a racing form is an EPA combined rating of 30 miles per gallon, which is 1 better than the Accent or even the Honda Fit. To many buyers in this segment, fuel economy and base price are all that matters, so I could stop writing now, but there is more to this car worth noting.
Available in three trim levels, the stripper LS model comes without air conditioning, power windows or power locks, but does get side-impact airbags in the front seats, an AM/FM stereo with auxiliary jack and General Motors' OnStar communications system, all standard.
My test vehicle was a mid-level 1LT priced at $14,930 that added A/C with an air-filtration system, six-speakers, a CD player, cruise control and a convenience package with power windows, door locks and remote entry, among other things. The only major options missing were anti-lock brakes and XM satellite radio.
Shorter and narrower than a MINI Cooper Clubman, Chevy makes the most of the Aveo5's size with a relatively tall roof and upright, theater-style seating that positions the back row higher than the front. The arrangement makes for surprisingly good, if not overly generous legroom all around.
The seats are a little spongy, but the standard cloth upholstery looks like it will hold up well, and the carpet is better than I've seen in some more expensive cars recently. In fact, the entire interior looks much better than it should for this price bracket and is a big upgrade from the one in the outgoing model.
All of the parts are still made from rock-hard plastic, but the textures are such that it doesn't have any injection-molded cheapness about it, and the dashboard gets a bit of flair with silver swoops that give the impression that it has a proper dual-cockpit layout. There is even a sunglasses holder located over the driver's door which seems a little tacked-on, and wouldn't close all the way with my shades in it, but is a nice touch.
A 4-speed automatic transmission is available, but with so little power going through it, please don't do that to yourself, or anyone else you come in contact with. The standard 5-speed manual is light and easy to use, as is the clutch, and you lose all sense of economy-car chic if you don't go with the stick. In town, it pulls the Aveo5 around just fine, and the rest of the car follows suit.
The suspension is tuned perfectly for potholed and pitted city streets, soaking up the biggest bumps without any pain being transferred to your Dockers, which were only worn for the purposes of this test.
I was regularly amazed at how good the ride quality is and found myself looking for imperfections in the road to challenge it with. From an urban commuting standpoint, this is the way a car like this should feel, with no pretense of being a sports car, just pure competence at what it needs to do: go from A to B with a stopover at Starbucks.
On the other hand, if you are a highway star, you'd better spend some time in the Aveo5 before committing to a long-term relationship. At speed, you will discover that much of the savings in the sticker price is thanks to the lack of sound-deadening material used in its construction. At 50 mph and above, the engine fills the cabin with a grating drone that mixes with enough wind noise and tire roar to make you wish there was a "quiet" option available. There isn't, but the audio system pumps up the volume with a lot of clarity, so you can easily overcome the racket with some eardrum-busting Deep Purple, or, more likely for economically minded buyers, National Public Radio.
Aside from the noise and near absence of acceleration at speeds above 30 mph, the ride remains fine, but you always have the feeling that if something went terribly wrong and you had to make evasive maneuvers, the car would immediately roll over into a ditch. It's probably just a matter of getting used to the overall flavor of the Aveo5, and, in reality, it handles off-ramps pretty well. But I always felt busy at the helm and was never instilled with the confidence to just chill out and cruise.
If you can deal with all that, then road trips are a snap ... for two people. The rear bench flips and folds, opening up 42 cubic feet of luggage space, an enormous bump over the 7 cubic feet available when the backseats are up, which makes filling the Aveo5 with four or five passengers and their luggage a pipe dream. With reclining front buckets, you may not even have to spend extra money on a tent, and if you opt for the top of the line 2LT model, you can stare at the stars through a power sunroof, a $725 option.
The Aveo5 may not be the car of the future, but with the federal government bailing out the companies that insure vehicles like it, you can be sure to see more cars like it on the road in the near future. We could do worse.
My first car was a 1982 Ford Mustang with a 4-cylinder engine that had a whopping 88 horsepower when new. Mine wasn't, and, though I never hooked it up to a dynamometer, I'm quite certain it wasn't quite so potent by the time it came into my possession. The ‘Stang was about the same weight as today's Aveo5, but had power-sopping rear-wheel drive originally designed for a muscular V-8 engine, so it was a compromise to make it more accessible to people suffering from the middling economy of the time.
The Aveo5 may have a big gaping maw of a grille that looks like it could have a V-8 stuffed in behind it, but the car was engineered to be exactly what it is — affordable and efficient — and the important parts all match up like they should. It's not a premium car, but you don't pay a premium for it. In this era, that may be all that maters.
2009 CHEVROLET AVEO5
Base Price: $12,120
As Tested: $14,930
Type: Front-engine, front-wheel drive, 5-door Hatchback
Engine: 1.6-liter inline-4
Power: 106 horsepower, 106 pound-foot torque
Transmission: 5-speed manual
MPG: 27 city/34 highway
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