The Good: Low price, improved interior and styling
The Bad: Safety concerns, relatively poor mileage, sluggish acceleration
The Bottom Line: Comparison shop before buying
With gasoline prices always threatening to soar, subcompact cars are popular this year. But the domestic automakers haven't been doing well in the segment, and the redesigned 2007 Chevrolet Aveo is a good example of why.
In the first 11 months of this year, Aveo sales have fallen 16.2%, to 54,252 units. Sales were off 9.2%, to 3,285 in November, even though General Motors (GM) was offering a $500 discount on the model's already low price (good through New Year's Day).
The reason is that better Japanese models have hit the market. Honda (HMC) has sold 25,702 Fits (see BusinessWeek.com, 8/21/06, "Nice Fit") so far this year; Toyota (TM) sold 64,082 Yarises (see BusinessWeek.com, 6/14/06, "The Judgment of Yaris"); and Nissan sold 17,897 Versas. Backed by heavy advertising, the Yaris has already moved ahead of the Aveo as the best-seller in the segment.
Korean-made subcompacts are wilting under the competitive pressure, too. Sales of the Hyundai Accent (see BusinessWeek.com, 11/20/06, "Hyundai's Poor Accent") were off 18.7% through November, to 31,976, and the Kia Rio's were off 7.2% to 25,545.
One problem is that the Aveo's redesign for '07 was only skin-deep. The car was made longer, the interior materials upgraded, and the exterior styling redone, but the engine size, interior space, and wheelbase remain the same as in the previous version. The only power plant is a 1.6-liter, four-cylinder engine that generates 103 horsepower.
I tested the Aveo sedan, a front-wheel-drive, four-door subcompact that comes in two trim levels, the LS starting at $12,075 and the top-of-the-line LT starting at $14,075. The LS is bare-bones, with standard air-conditioning and not much else. You can add a CD player with MP3 capability, a sunroof ($725), cruise control with remote keyless entry ($425), and power windows ($295).
The LT comes with these features as standard equipment, as well as a nicer interior, steering-wheel-mounted controls, and decent-looking cloth upholstery or optional "leatherette" seats ($295). However, you still have to pay an extra $850 for an automatic transmission and $400 for antilock brakes.
There's also a hatchback version of the Aveo, the stripped-down version of which is incredibly cheap. It starts at $9,995 but has virtually nothing on it and no options. Even air-conditioning is only available as a dealer-installed option. There's also an LS version of the hatchback, starting at $12,425, which is similarly equipped to the LS sedan. You can add options to it at the same prices as for the LS sedan.
The Aveo's biggest negative is doubts about its safety. Side curtain and rear-seat air bags—important safety features you should have in a small car like this—aren't available, even as an option. Neither are stability and traction control, and, as I mentioned above, antilock brakes cost $400 extra.
The car's structural soundness also is inadequate, especially in side- and rear-impact collisions. On Dec. 19 the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) announced its first crash tests of subcompacts, and the Aveo earned an "Acceptable" rating in frontal collisions, but its rating dropped to "Marginal" in side collisions and "Poor" in rear-enders.
(To read about the IIHS ratings of all subcompact cars currently available in the U.S., see BusinessWeek.com, 12/19/06, "How Safe is Your Small Car?")
"The Aveo's front seat-mounted airbags did a good job of protecting the driver dummy's head," the IIHS concluded, "but this car's structural performance was marginal. Intrusion into the occupant compartment led to high forces on the driver dummy's pelvis. There's no side airbag protection for the rear-seat passengers, and the barrier struck the dummy's head."
Among competing models, the Hyundai Accent and Toyota-built Scion xB also had problems in the tests. Nissan's Versa (see BusinessWeek.com, 9/25/06, "Nissan's Nice Versa"), which is slightly bigger than the others, did the best, the only subcompact to earn "Good" ratings in all three categories by the IIHS. The Yaris and Fit earned "Good" ratings in front- and side-impact crashes but "Marginal" and "Poor" ratings, respectively, in rear collisions.
However, the Yaris only did that well while equipped with side air bags, which are optional. Both Honda and Nissan are improving the air bags in cars built since November to boost their scores, and Honda is recalling older Fits to improve them, too.
The Aveo's other problem is its relatively poor fuel efficiency. The sedan is rated to get 26 mpg in the city and 34 mpg on the highway. In a stretch of 210 miles of mainly highway driving, I got 28.84 mpg. That sounds good but lags the competition. With automatic transmissions, the Hyundai Accent is rated at 32/35, the Yaris at 34/39, the Fit at 31/37, and the Versa 30/36.
The bigger, safer, and more expensive Honda Civic (30/40 mpg) and Toyota Corolla (30/38) also are stingier on gasoline than the Aveo.
Behind the Wheel
Even by econobox standards, the Aveo's acceleration is sluggish. The car can cruise along at 80 mph on the highway without straining, and the cabin is fairly quiet at highway speeds. But getting up to speed takes forever. The best time I got in accelerating from zero to 60 was 12 seconds.
If you leave the transmission in D4, the regular driving gear, the Aveo's transmission seems to run out forever before it finally shifts into fourth. It struggles up hills even when you drop it down into D2. And it doesn't have much extra power when you need to pass another car quickly on the highway.
Chevy has tried to compensate for the engine's lack of power by putting a "hold" button next to the shifter that locks the car's four-speed automatic transmission in third gear, not allowing it to go into overdrive. This gives you more torque at higher speeds (and reduces gas mileage). It also allows for engine braking when you're decelerating and reduces wheel-spin on snow and ice. But the car is still sluggish, even in this mode.
Like the other cars in its class, the Aveo is short and cute-looking, with a stubby front that slopes down to give you good road visibility.
The interior is attractive and mostly made from relatively high-grade materials. The glove box closes with a reassuring "thunk," and the dash is two-toned, the front part covered with an attractive dimpled material that looks like carbon fiber. The high-end model has nice-looking woodlike and aluminum interior trim. The optional leatherette upholstery is attractive and seems likely to be durable and easy to clean.
However, some of the materials used seem cheap. For instance, the front cupholders pop out of the dash just below the ashtray and have little plastic grabbers that close around cups. I give them a year, two at most, before they break under normal use.
Ditto for the eyeglass case above the driver-side door and the steering-wheel-mounted controls. They're all made of plastic that seems too lightweight to last. The storage bins in the front doors, while handy, also seem flimsy. There are no storage bins in the rear doors, and there's only one cupholder for the back seat.
As you'd expect, legroom in back is tight. I'm 5-foot-10 and with the driver's seat set in a comfortable position for me, my knees touched the seatback in front of me when I sat in the back.
However, there is plenty of headroom and room for your feet under the front seat. The trunk is big for an economy car. There's a pass-through from the trunk to the rear seats, which fold down to create a large hauling space.
My test car had one annoying oddity: You can unlock all the doors manually by pulling up the handle on the driver's door, but when I did that, the antitheft system activated as soon as I opened the door, and the horn started honking over and over. It's not immediately apparent how to shut off the alarm because there is no "emergency" button on the key clicker.
I finally got it to stop by relocking and unlocking the doors using the clicker. Only later, when I read the owner's manual, did I learn that you arm the antitheft system by pushing on the door-lock button on the key clicker—which I apparently had done inadvertently.
Buy It or Bag It?
This is mainly a commuter car. I wouldn't buy one if you expect to carry more than one passenger regularly or have kids riding in the rear seat.
The Aveo's main selling points are its low price and fuel efficiency. The average buyer pays just $13,592 for an Aveo, according to the Power Information Network, vs. $13,758 for an Accent, $14,361 for a Yaris, $15,525 for a Versa, and $16,581 for a Fit.
However, the Versa, Fit, and Yaris (if you take the optional air bags) are all safer, better-built cars. So is the bigger Chevy Cobalt, for that matter. Given their better fuel economy, higher resale value, and extra standard safety gear, the Japanese subcompacts are better bargains than the Aveo over the long haul.
Click here to see more of the 2007 Chevrolet Aveo.