The American Asian
Of the half-dozen subcompacts on the market, Chevrolet's Aveo is the only domestic out there - if you're looking at the brand name. Look a little closer at the window sticker and you'll realize that there aren't actually any American subcompacts. The Aveo is just as Asian as the Honda Fit, Hyundai Accent, Toyota Yaris, and Suzuki SX4, with manufacturing taking place in Bupyong, South Korea.
The Aveo5 doesn't just come from a Korean plant, it's actually a rebadged car from GM's Korean brand, Daewoo. The major Korean automakers, Hyundai and Kia, have made major strides in both reliability and perceived quality in recent years. The same can't be said for Daewoo, and while both the exterior and interior may belie that the Aveo5 is truly a Daewoo, GM still hasn't figured out how to mask that truth in the driving experience.
A nose job worth the money
The Aveo is offered in both a sedan body style and a five-door hatchback style known as the Aveo5. For the 2009 model year, the Aveo5 arrives with a significant facelift. A gaping grille and aggressive headlights now fill the place formerly occupied by dweeby two-piece headlamps and a narrow slot. Chevrolet says the horizontally divided grille is part of its new global family look that was inspired by the new Malibu and also appears on the new Traverse crossover. There's also new tail lamps and an optional new rear spoiler that add to the sporty appeal. Chrome fender vents have sprouted at the front of the Aveo5's flanks. With its first appearance on a subcompact, we hope this overused styling-touch-du-jour can finally die. Please?
Overall, the style changes are much appreciated. The 2009 car looks much more like a confident, American ride, in contrast to the previous model, whose awkward appearance surely must have been dictated by cost rather than aesthetics.
A nice view from behind the wheel
While base Aveo5s come pretty bare, you can quickly option it into a well-equipped ride while keeping the price reasonable. Opting for the top-of-the-line 2LT model brings power windows, locks, and mirrors, keyless entry, cruise control and heated outside mirrors. An auxiliary input is standard on all Aveos and steering wheel audio controls and XM satellite radio come as options or standard on higher trims. There's also an available sunroof.
We were impressed by the materials, finish, and style inside the Aveo5. That doesn't mean that our Aveo5 was devoid of a few harsh plastics, but for this price point, the Aveo is almost a class leader, falling just short of the Honda Fit.
A perplexed powertrain
Mated to a five-speed manual, the Aveo5 makes an impressive 27 mpg in the city and 34 mpg on the highway. Small tweaks to the 1.6-liter I-4 engine have caused even smaller changes to power numbers, resulting in 106 hp and 106 lb-ft of torque. That's all fine and dandy on paper, putting the Aveo5 right in the thick of the Honda, Toyota and Hyundai. But driving the Aveo5 is proof that specs don't always have a direct translation to the real world. Compared to the Fit, Yaris, and Accent, the Aveo5 is in its own class - far below the others.
The Aveo5's throttle pedal is poorly calibrated and prone to surging and hanging up on revs. The transmission is even more vague than the throttle pedal, with a shifter that has no clear pattern or defined feel to it and a clutch that feels remarkably inconsistent.
Driving the Aveo5 takes a surprising amount of finesse and patience. The skill required to smoothly move the Aveo5 down the street is more akin to that required from cars built several decades ago. Working the throttle and gas pedal as deftly as you can still has the car jerking long after you've let the clutch all the way out.
Same song, different verse
Tuning a car's chassis is an exercise in compromise as engineers balance a comfortable ride with predictable handling. With the Aveo5, GM's engineers missed both goals entirely and ended up with a body that wallows down the road while taking serious abuse from rogue potholes.
The steering feel is numb, with the wheel always eager to return to center. The aversion to turns is seconded by the suspension, which plows through corners with excessive understeer.
A blast from the past
As driving enthusiasts, we understand that not all cars are intended to be driven hard and fast, and subcompacts definitely fall into that category. So we've moved from subcompact to subcompact, understanding that 12-second saunters to reach highway speed are part of the game. But the Aveo5 isn't just subcompact slow. Accelerating, stopping and turning become as awkward as a middle school dance as you negotiate uncommunicative controls and wimpy mechanicals. It's a driving experience that places the Aveo5 at least five years behind its competitors in terms of refinement.
The Aveo5 plays the subcompact game very well on paper, in pictures and sitting in the driveway. Its recent redesign has breathed some much-needed style into the car. The spec sheets look competitive with the rest of the class. Inside, the interior has been finished with well-chosen materials and excellent precision. Unfortunately, when you pull out of the driveway, the Aveo5 reveals itself to be an awkward and uncomfortable reminder of small cars past.