"Large revolutions come from small beginnings," reads the Joy of Motoring column in London's The Spectator. It's a sentiment particularly apropos to the debut of Chevrolet's newest microcar in December and January. The Aveo is tiny and may well signal a revolution in General Motors' approach to marketing small, affordable, fuel-efficient cars.
I'd suggest The Spectator got it precisely right in what happens to be the first automotive column ever appearing in that magazine, which celebrates its 175th year of continuous publication in 2003. From the threshold of November 14, 1896, however, automotive opinions were considerably more naïve, if no less confused, than they are today: "They will not be largely bought, perhaps, until they become cheaper, possibly not until experts are better agreed than they are at present upon the best kind of motor."
Could the stage be better set for a car like the 2004 Chevrolet Aveo? Just consider the fact, for example, that either one of the Aveo's two designs — a four-door sedan and a five-door hatchback — is available as a "Special Value" edition costing only $9995. In terms of buying power, that's roughly the equivalent of $470 at the turn of the last century, or 23 pounds Sterling. What in our present era could be "cheaper"? And yet, this price alone is certainly no guarantee that the Aveo will be "largely bought."
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Nor can there be any argument that the Aveo's dual-overhead-cam, in-line four-cylinder motor displacing 1.6 liters represents the latest standards of automotive engine building. If output of 103 horsepower and 107 pound-feet of torque is decidedly modest today, it is positively gargantuan next to, say, an 1896 four-passenger Peugeot whose 1.3-liter V-2 throbbed with all of three horsepower — a 50-percent improvement, let it be said, upon the typical coach-and-pair of the day. And yet, neither is the Aveo's modern motor design alone sufficient to guarantee that this new Chevrolet will be "largely bought."
Today, instead of "the combination of horsed and horseless carriages" nervously sharing the road, it is large and small ones. Clearly, the Aveo is one of the more minute examples of the latter. With a wheelbase scarcely longer than two children are tall (97.6 in.), it manages to seat five adults in either configuration. The sedan's trunk is, by subcompact standards, generous at 11.7 cubic feet The hatchback is even roomier: if seven cubic feet of permanent trunk space is too small on occasion, the 60/40 split-folding rear seat can flatten to accommodate up to 42 cubic feet. By contrast, the comparably sized MINI manages a load range of only 5.3 to 24 cubic feet.
The Aveo offers two transmissions, a standard five-speed manual and an optional four-speed automatic. The driving feel of its front-wheel-drive powertrain is typical of the microcar class. Trim curb weight just under 2400 pounds elicits a perky personality; but small 14-inch wheels are prey to harshness over rough roads. The suspension combines independent front struts with a semi-independent torsion-beam axle at rear. There's jaunty cornering with this set-up, but it's mitigated by a brake system using front discs and old-fashioned rear drums.
Remarkably for a car of this size and caste, the Aveo is quiet. It's not serene in the luxury-car sense, but it does manage to banish the buzziness usually associated with microcars. The Aveo is also nimble and parkable. It is frugal, too, achieving 27 mpg/city, 35 mpg/highway with a manual transmission.
In our contemporary world of large versus small, however, the Aveo enters the fray notably under-armored. Only front airbags come standard; no others are even available. Anti-lock braking, combined with electronic braking distribution, is an option. Even if the rest of the world prefers such meager safety resources in the Daewoo Kalos on which the Aveo is based, surely North American conditions demand more. We have more huge vehicles on our roads, for one thing. There are also so many worthy microcar alternatives out there, such as Toyota's Scion xA, the Suzuki Aerio, Hyundai Accent, and Kia Rio — to say nothing of the MINI.
Chevrolet's Aveo represents a significant attempt by General Motors to re-enter the microcar category where it has foundered so often before. It's a small but important new beginning, perhaps, and one well timed to coincide with the growing popularity of downsize automobiles. Whether the Aveo will "in the end be found consistent with the safety...of [its] occupants" is one of the "large questions, which the next few months may help us to answer" — as indeed motorists have been querying now for a century and more.
Base price: $9995
Engine: 1.6-liter in-line four, 103 hp
Transmission: Five-speed manual or four-speed automatic, front-wheel drive
Length x width x height: 152.8 x 65.8 x 58.9 in
Wheelbase: 97.6 in
Curb weight: 2348 lb
EPA city/hwy: 27/35 mpg (manual); 26/34 mpg (auto)
Safety equipment: Front airbags
Major standard equipment: 14-inch wheels, AM/FM radio, 60/40 split folding rear seat
Warranty: Three years/36,000 miles