For those looking to buy an American subcompact car, the pickings are pretty slim: There's the Chevrolet Aveo, and, well, that's it. Technically, the Aveo isn't even American; it's designed and built for Chevrolet by Korean automaker Daewoo. But with EPA fuel economy ratings of 27 MPG city/35 MPG highway (24/36 for the automatic), a $12,315 starting price ($13,990 as tested) and a Chevrolet bow-tie logo on the nose, the Aveo is as close to a domestic mini-car as we're going to get. So what's the problem? Read on.
First Glance: A new look for the micro-Chevy
Chevrolet has a long history of importing its smallest cars. Their first minicar, the Chevette, was based on a car of the same name from General Motors' British subsidiary, Vauxhall. After GM's Geo division bit the dust, the Suzuki-sourced Geo Metro became the Chevrolet Metro. When the Aveo took over as Chevy's new small fry in 2004, no one was surprised to learned that it was actually built by Korean automaker Daewoo, a company in which GM has a majority stake. It's called the Kalos in other countries; Canadians also get a version called the Pontiac Wave.
Chevy sells two versions of the Aveo: A 5-door hatchback, now known as the Aveo5, and a four-door sedan. While the Aveo5 remains unchanged from the 2005/2006 model, the Aveo sedan has undergone a major facelift for 2007 with a larger body and new styling inside and out. The front end's bold Chevy logo proudly proclaims the Aveo as a naturalized citizen. Out back, new clear-lens taillights (link goes to photo) are designed to blend with the chrome spear that spans the trunk. It doesn't look bad in the pictures, but in person its a bit over the top. Bold fender-arches made my test car's little 14" wheels look downright tiny; the top-of-the-line LT model has 15-inch wheels that look a bit better. All in all, the Aveo sedan probably won't win any design awards, but at least it doesn't fade into the background the way the previous version did.
In the Driver's Seat: Lots of room; too bad about the low-rent trim
The plastics that cover the Aveo's dashboard are straight out of the 99 Cents Only store. Last year I might not have complained, but this year Toyota, Honda and Nissan have all entered the subcompact market and have raised the standards. Even the cheap-car-veteran Hyundai Accent, which like the Aveo hails from South Korea, uses nicer materials.
The Aveo's driving position is awkward; no matter how I adjusted the seat I was either too close to the pedals or too far away from the steering wheel. But there's plenty of headroom and the cabin has an open, airy feel. The back seat features three lap-and-shoulder belts and is fine for kids, passable for adults. The 12.4 cubic foot trunk holds more than many bigger cars, including the Honda Civic.
Surprisingly, the Aveo doesn't have much of a price advantage compared to comparably-equipped Japanese cars like the Nissan Versa and Honda Fit. I drove the entry-level $12,315 Aveo LS, which comes standard with a split-fold rear seat, AM/FM radio, floor mats and - praise be! - air conditioning. Front seat-mounted torso airbags are standard, but side-curtain airbags aren't available. Options on my tester (automatic transmission, alloy wheels, CD/MP3 player and 6 speakers) brought the price up to $13,990, but I still had to crank my own windows and lock my own doors. (Incidentally, the driver's door cannot be locked with the button when it's open; you have to use the key to lock it. Though this seems like a pain, as someone who has locked my keys in my car more times than I can count, I appreciated this feature.)
On the Road: Big-car feel -- and that's not a good thing
One bright spot is the Aveo's 1.6 liter 103 horsepower engine. My test car had the optional 4-speed automatic. Small engines and automatic transmissions generally don't mix well, but the Aveo had plenty of zip around town. Acceleration on the highway was just adequate, but the Aveo managed 75 MPH with little drama. The engine is buzzy and tinny sounding, but road noise was less of a problem than I expected. Fuel economy is disappointing, though: EPA estimates are 27 MPG city/35 MPG highway for the manual transmission, 26/34 for the automatic. Compare that to the Honda Fit (33/38) or even the bigger Honda Civic, which is rated for 30 city/40 highway with an automatic transmission.
Journey's End: Strangely likeable despite all its flaws
Would I buy an Aveo? No. Compare the Aveo to its rivals and it pales in all areas: The Honda Fit is more practical, the Toyota Yaris is better looking, the Nissan Versa is roomier, the Hyundai Accent has a longer warranty and the Suzuki SX4 has all-wheel-drive. All are better to drive and all but the Suzuki are more fuel-efficient. None of them are domestics, but strictly speaking neither is the Aveo. And I'd choose any one of them over the micro-Chevy.
As it happens, one of my favorite domestic compacts resides under the same dealership roof as the Aveo: The Chevrolet Cobalt. Yes, it's bigger, but neither its price nor its EPA fuel economy estimates are all that far off the Aveo's. The Cobalt is actually quite a good car -- and it's designed and built right here in the good ol' U.S. of A.
Bottom line is that the Aveo, like it or not, is not a particularly good buy. For those looking for a truly great mini-car from a domestic brand, I guess we'll just have to keep on waiting. -- Aaron Gold