Here's the recipe for an economy car: Take your standard small car and remove length and width. Remove sound insulation. Remove as many electronics as possible. Remove horsepower. Remove excitement, an appetite for fuel, and anything else you can. Then add height. Make sure you have plenty of '70s-era airliner fabrics available and a large corporate parts bin from which to choose your bits and bolt-ons. Stir briskly and let simmer. Voil! You've got an economy car, capable of sipping gas and saving green (both the tree and federal reserve note varieties). The bright side--beyond the obvious fuel savings--is that you've got a spanking-new set of wheels at a price that won't break the bank.
2005 Hyundai Accent GLS
The base price for our dowdy Accent was $10,499, a sum that included power steering, a cassette stereo, and dual front and side air bags. We added air-conditioning ($795) and Hyundai's Popular Equipment package (power windows, locks, and mirrors; $495), which brought the total to a wallet-friendly $12,334.
The low price showed. The Hyundai displayed a startling range of interior quality, from quite nice to absolutely atrocious. The good: handsome mesh-look gauges; a nicely grained and attractive dashboard; and great-to-touch rubberized door grabs and locks. The bad: the hard, shiny door panels, steering wheel, and center console, the latter constructed of plastic so cheap, it actually sparkled. The seat materials were decent, but comfort was not. Our passengers grumbled about a complete absence of back support and cushions that were far too short and flat. The seats were upholstered with a grey-checkered mess of a fabric.
We opted for power locks, but there was no switch on the inside. Instead, when the driver's door is manually locked, the other doors secure automatically with a cringe-inducing crunch better suited to potato chips than door locks. The retractable cup holders, which spring out from the lower half of the dashboard, can't hold even a 20-ounce soda bottle. We were afraid to put anything very full in them, both for fear of spills and snapping them off simply from the weight. Front leg- and headroom were acceptable, but the back seat is strictly for cargo and small kids, traits shared by the Accent, the Echo, and the Aveo alike.
The five-speed manual transmission was one of the worst we've used in some time. The throws were extremely long and the interchanges were as notchy as a promiscuous coed's bedpost. That said, once we'd selected a gear, power delivery was smooth and linear. And noisy. The 1.6-liter, 104-hp, in-line four doesn't reach full power until 5800 rpm, and the rev limiter kicks in at about 6000 rpm, so the sound of the engine is a constant companion if you want to get anywhere in a (relative) hurry. This will naturally deep-six any hopes of achieving the Accent's EPA-rated fuel economy of 29 city/33 hwy.
The overall ride was as composed as can be expected from a car rolling on tiny thirteen-inch wheels--until you turned the steering wheel, at which point the body would heave and pitch like an angry bull.
2005 Toyota Echo
Our phantom gray, two-door Echo--the only coupe in our trio--arrived on our doorstep with the most options, including the All-Weather Guard package(rear defogger, rear heating ducts, and a heavy-duty battery; $275), power mirrors ($70), air-conditioning ($925), power steering ($270), fifteen-inch wheels ($90), and floor mats ($88). With those add-ons, the base sticker of $10,895 quickly became $12,613.
For that money, you get one of the most goofy-looking cars on the planet, both inside and out, albeit one that gets nearly 40 mpg. The funny-looking "face" on the passenger-side dash--formed by two round vents and the glovebox--both amused and frightened, while the contrasting shapes found throughout the interior just seemed disjointed rather than avant-garde. The so-so seats were swathed in a two-tone scheme of gray and confetti-patterned upholstery. Once we got past the unattractive cabin, however, we discovered that the Echo was the most user-friendly of the bunch. There were myriad bins within arm's reach, honest-to-God cup holders--something the other two cars did not have--and a comparison-best 13.6 cubic feet of trunk capacity.
The Echo's 108-hp four-cylinder engine, the most powerful in the group, was the least responsive and took a lot of coaxing to get up and go, even with the accelerator to the floor. (On the topic of pedals, the driver's footwell was a source of frustration; the minimal pedal travel was actually alarming and the dead pedal was absolutely microscopic--even for our size 9 1/2 foot. But we digress.) Of the two cars equipped with a stick, the Echo's five-speed was the best. The Toyota's ride was choppy and rough--its 93.3-inch wheelbase was the shortest--but it certainly bested the Hyundai in body control, and it took curves more confidently than even the slick-riding Aveo, which was plagued by terrible steering.
2005 Chevrolet Aveo LS
The most expensive sticker was stuck on the Chevrolet (ne Daewoo) Aveo, which started at $11,840. But since Chevrolet has included luxuries such as air-conditioning, a rear defogger, floor mats, and a height-adjustable driver's seat, the price seems fair. In fact, the only option on our $12,690 Aveo was an automatic transmission.
Spending time in the little Chevy was, to our surprise, not a prison sentence. The comfortable cockpit, while not exactly attractive, was nicely done, with better-than-average materials but slightly flimsy control stalks.
Carbon-fiber-look door pulls and the chrome-like piece surrounding the gear selector add a touch of class. And while not as plentiful as the Echo's, the Aveo had a nice assortment of cubbies, including a slot in the driver's door for tollbooth tickets. Even the exterior was appealing and good-looking, despite the fact that our test car wore aqua paint, a color we're convinced could only have originated in one of the lower circles of hell. The only other complaints (besides the steering, and we'll get to that) were a warped rear window--it had us slightly disoriented after every glance in the rearview mirror--and the nonsensical requirement of pushing down on the top of the entire shift column before selecting either park or reverse.
Once we figured out how to go backward and put it in park, we had nothing but praise for the Chevy's four-speed. The automatic's gear selection was unobtrusive and poured (trickled?) on the power fluidly, although we did spend some time with the slushbox stuck in second gear, trying to wring every last ounce of go from the puny 1.6-liter, 103-hp powerplant. (The powertrain is EPA-rated for a worst-in-test fuel mileage of 26 city/34 highway, though that's still nothing to sniff at.) The Aveo's ride was well-damped, and it stomached undulations better than either the Hyundai or Toyota, thanks in part to its 97.6-inch wheelbase, the test's longest. Our good will toward the little Chevy was nearly exhausted, however, when we whirled the steering wheel: It was uncommunicative and light, and each curve took far more input than initial impressions would suggest.
Truth be told, none of these cars is spectacular. But for the non-enthusiast in need of a bargain-basement conveyance, any of the trio will do the job, and anointing a winner proved difficult. Additionally, our test cars all came within $400 of each other, so picking by price was not an option.
The Hyundai had the best engine but was the least refined. The Echo can tout bulletproof Toyota reliability and resale value but it looks weird. The Chevy Aveo was the most pleasing to spend time in and had the best ride quality but suffered from dreadful steering. So which one do we recommend?
We've got to give the nod to the Aveo due to its all-around goodness, despite the steering issues, and award the Echo a very close second, thanks to its quality and mechanical sturdiness. (The Hyundai, unfortunately, has some catching up to do.) All three cars clearly read their cookbooks, but none of them is going to win the Pillsbury Bake-Off.