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2009 Chevrolet Aveo5 test drive

Sometimes being good isn't good enough

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2009 Chevrolet Aveo5 left-front view

2009 Chevrolet Aveo5

Photo © Aaron Gold

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The Aveo5 is Chevrolet's smallest and cheapest car, and it sees a round of improvements for 2009 -- new styling, updated interior, and an improved engine. So how does the Aveo5 work in the real world -- and how does it stack up against other subcompacts? Read on. $12,120 base, $16,295 as tested, EPA fuel economy estimates 25-27 MPG city, 34 MPG highway.

First Glance: Love your new body

Larger photos: Front - rear

Back in the year twenty-ought-seven, I tested the then-freshly-updated Chevy Aveo sedan, and while I liked the car, my judgment was a little harsh -- the review's subtitle was "Who says America can't produce a good subcompact? I do!"

For 2009, Chevy has given the same round of updates to the Aveo5, the hatchback version of the Aveo (which, like the sedan, is designed and built by Daewoo, GM's Korean subsidiary). The changes are pretty much the same: Revised styling, a bigger body, and an improved interior. But for various and sundry reasons, I liked the Aveo5 quite a bit better than the Aveo sedan.

What's different? Well, let's start with the obvious: The Aveo5 is a hatchback. But the differences between the two Aveos go beyond their shapes. The Aveo5 gets a bigger split grille and a new rear end (without the gaudy chrome strip that violates the back of the Aveo sedan), and the wheelarches are less pronounced. Though the Aveo5's schnoz (link goes to photo) looks a little too big from some angles, it is, for the most part, a pretty good-looking little car.

But there's more to the hatchback's appeal. The Aveo5 is about 15" shorter than the sedan. Its back end is nearly vertical, and the back wheels are pushed right back to the edge of the bumper. That makes the Aveo5 more maneuverable than the sedan, plus it's ridiculously easy to park -- in fact its probably one of the easiest vehicles to squeeze into a small spot this side of a Smart Fortwo.

In the Driver's Seat: The Aveo5 gets wood

2009 Chevrolet Aveo5 dash detail

2009 Chevrolet Aveo5 dash detail

Photo © Aaron Gold

Larger interior photo

One of my complaints about the Aveo sedan was the cheap-looking black-and-silver interior. The Aveo5 I tested had a tan interior with wood trim. I know, I know -- wood trim in a cheap car sounds cheesy. But in the case of the Aveo5, it works -- between the wood trim and the light colors, the Aveo5 felt much nicer than I expected. And the dashboard is topped in black plastic, which eliminates glare in the windshield. Nice.

The Aveo has straightforward three-dial climate controls and a simple-to-use stereo. There's lots of headroom and great visibility, though tiny horn buttons on the steering wheel are a throwback to the 1990s. The Aveo5 gets a big-car horn that honks, rather than beeps. Too bad it doesn't get a big-car trunk -- the Aveo stows just 7.1 cubic feet of cargo (compare to 9.5 for the Toyota Yaris and 20.6 for the Honda Fit). The Aveo is fine for grocery runs, but if you're planning on taking a vacation -- and taking clothing with you -- you'll have to fold down the back seat. Speaking of the back seat, it's reasonably roomy, though not as generous as the Nissan Versa.

The Aveo5 is sold in LS, 1LT and 2LT models. At $12,120, the LS gets just the basics: Power steering and an AM/FM radio. 1LT models ($14,255) get air conditioning, CD player, and floor mats, while the $15,520 2LT gets power windows, locks and mirrors, cruise control, and satellite radio. Options on my 1LT tester -- power windows and locks (but not mirrors, $425), cruise control ($250), antilock brakes ($440) and an automatic transmission ($925) drove the price up to $16,295.

On the Road: Good -- until you really push it

The Aveo5's engine specs are par for the course in this segment: Four cylinders, 1.6 liters, 106 horsepower and 106 lb-ft of torque. My test car had an optional 4-speed automatic transmission, and aside from one particularly harrowing freeway merge (with a tractor-trailer at 70 MPH getting bigger and bigger in the mirror), I thought the engine's power was adequate. Actually, the automatic transmission really surprised me with its smooth upshifts and prompt downshifts. EPA fuel economy estimates sound decent enough at 27 MPG city/34 highway with a manual transmission and 25/34 with an automatic, but I averaged an inexplicably low 23.5 MPG.

Handling is also an Aveo weak point. It's gentle and predictable to a point, but if you really push the Aveo5 to its limits -- as you might if you had to swerve suddenly to avoid a crash -- it gets sloppy, imprecise, and a bit unpredictable. Small cars supposed to be nimble and fun, but apparently the Aveo5 didn't get that memo. Nor is safety an Aveo strong suit: Though the Aveo gets front airbags and front-seat-mounted side airbags, antilock brakes are optional (and expensive at $440) and side-curtain airbags aren't available, nor is electronic stability control (though the latter is, admittedly, a rarity in the subcompact class). However, the Aveo does get OnStar as standard, which (among other functions) automatically calls for help if the airbags are deployed. So look at the bright side: You may not walk away from a wreck in the Aveo, but at least they'll find you.

Journey's End: It's all good until you start comparing

2009 Chevrolet Aveo5 left-rear view

2009 Chevrolet Aveo5

Photo © Aaron Gold

The Aveo5 is actually quite pleasant. It's cute, it offers decent space for passengers, and it rides comfortably and quietly. Compared to the subcompacts from just a few years ago, it's a revelation.

But compared to today's subcompacts, the Aveo5 doesn't look so good. Take the Honda Fit, also all-new for 2009. The Fit starts at $15,220, $3,100 more than the base-model Aveo5. But the Fit gets power windows, mirrors, and locks, A/C, antilock brakes, two-row side curtain airbags, and a CD player as standard. Add all that stuff -- or at least as much of it as you can -- to an Aveo5 1LT, and the Chevy is only $100 less. (Add an automatic transmission and the difference shrinks to $25.) And the Aveo5 still doesn't have side airbags or power mirrors. Granted, you'll most likely be able to negotiate a better deal on the Aveo5, but the Fit will hold its value better -- plus the it drives better than the Aveo5.

Same deal with the Nissan Versa -- the 1.8 S model costs $13,685, $1,565 more than an Aveo5 LS. (UPDATE: Nissan has since introduced a cheaper base model). But once you add all the stuff the Versa 1.8 gets standard, the Aveo5 winds up $570 more -- unless you want antilock brakes; in that case, the Aveo5 is $760 more. And the Aveo5 still lacks the Versa's side curtain airbags.

I think you see my point. The Aveo5 may be a nice car, but it's still not as good as the competition. And when it comes time to spend your hard-earned cash, would you really spend more to get less? Nah, neither would I. -- Aaron Gold

Next page: Likes, dislikes, who should buy it, details and specs

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