2004 Chevrolet Aveo
2004 Chevrolet Aveo. Click image to enlarge

Story and photos by Greg Wilson

Vancouver, British Columbia – In the last few years, South Korean automakers Kia and Hyundai have gobbled up a large portion of Canada’s entry-level car market, and are now moving into minivan, SUV and luxury car categories with competitive models at lower prices.

This hasn’t gone unnoticed by the major American and Japanese auto manufacturers. The entry-level market in particular, is where automakers capture those important first-time buyers, who, if they’re satisfied with their car, may go on to purchase another vehicle from the same manufacturer. A lifetime of brand loyalty can start with that first car.

Though it’s Canada’s largest automobile company, General Motors is sadly lacking in the entry-level category. The aging Cavalier and Sunfire have been freshened and incentivized, and they’re still very popular, but how long can this go on? The subcompact Metro and Firefly disappeared in the 2000 model year. The Saturn Ion is still a bit of a niche player.

GM’s solution was to buy a controlling interest in the assets of Korean automaker, Daewoo – now renamed GM Daewoo Auto and Technology Company (GMDAT) – and build lower-priced cars in Korea for the world market. The first three cars from this new venture are sold under different names, depending on where you are. In Canada, they’re badged as Chevrolets – the Aveo, Optra and Epica. As well, the Aveo will be offered as the Suzuki Swift+, and the Epica will be sold as the Suzuki Verona. In the United States, Chevrolet will get the Aveo, but not the Optra and Epica. However, the Optra and Epica will be sold in the U.S. as the Suzuki Firenza and Suzuki Verona. In the rest of the world, the three cars will be known as the Daewoo Kalos, Lacetti, and Magnus.

2004 Chevrolet Optra
2004 Chevrolet Optra. Click image to enlarge

A bit confused? Who could blame you? It’s going to be un uphill battle for GM to create consumer awareness about these cars. On the bright side, GM now has three viable competitors for the low-priced Kias and Hyundais – and a large network of 450 Chevrolet dealers to service them.

Interestingly, this is not the first time GM has attempted to sell a Korean car under a GM nameplate in Canada. Remember the 1989 Passport Optima and the 1992 Pontiac LeMans? They were Daewoos based on an Opel Kadett design.

There’s another aspect to the Daewoo saga that should be mentioned. After General Motors Daewoo Auto and Technology Company was formed in 2002, the old Daewoo company, its network of North American dealerships, and their customers were left out in the cold. GMDAT has no association with previous Daewoo dealers, and does not sell or support the older Daewoo models, the Lanos, Nubira and Leganza – even though technically the Aveo is the next generation Lanos and the Epica is a freshened version of the Leganza. This must really piss off previous Daewoo owners, but nobody seems to care about them.


Aveo


The smallest of the bunch, the subcompact Aveo, was styled by Giorgetto Giugiaro’s ItalDesign studios and is offered as a four-door hatchback and a four-door sedan. It’s similar in size to the Hyundai Accent, Kia RX-V, Toyota Echo and the upcoming Suzuki Swift+. Prices start at$13,480 and standard equipment on the base model includes a 103 horsepower 1.6 litre four cylinder engine, 5 speed manual transmission, 14 inch tires, power steering, tilt steering wheel, AM/FM radio, tachometer, intermittent wipers, split folding rear seatbacks and dual airbags.

2004 Chevrolet Aveo

2004 Chevrolet Aveo
2004 Chevrolet Aveo. Click image to enlarge

For only another $500 more, Aveo LS models add CD player with MP3 playback, power windows, power door locks, remote entry, and heated mirrors. You can dress it up with an optional appearance package which includes alloys, fog lamps, and a spoiler on hatchback models. A four-speed automatic transmission, anti-lock brakes, power sunroof, and premium audio system are available as options.

My first impression of this car is that it is a much better car than the Daewoo Lanos, its predecessor. There are significant improvements in interior quality, interior quietness, control layout, and overall quality. I got the same impression with the Optra and Epica. It appears that a lot has changed under GM’s supervision.

Of course, the Aveo is an entry-level car, and the interior is only big enough for four adults and the small engine strains going up hills and is a bit noisy at times. But I liked its nimble driving manners and short turning circle. And the hatchback has a nifty, tumble-over rear seat that greatly increases the amount of cargo room. Backed by Chevrolet, the Aveo will be available to communities across Canada instead of just the major urban centres, and should prove popular with first-time buyers conscious of price – just like the old Chevy Metro was.

The Aveo is manufactured in Bupyong, South Korea.


Optra


2004 Chevrolet Optra

2004 Chevrolet Optra
2004 Chevrolet Optra. Click image to enlarge

This compact sedan is in the same class as the Hyundai Elantra and Kia Spectra. Starting at $16,190, the Optra offers a 119 horsepower 2.0 litre four cylinder engine and a lot of standard equipment, such as AM/FM/CD stereo and four speakers, front power windows/rear manual windows, power door locks, variable intermittent wipers, folding rear seats, tachometer, tilt steering wheel, 15 inch tires and wheels, and four wheel disc brakes.

Optra LS models, $17,465, add alloy wheels, heated mirrors, one-touch sliding glass moonroof, and rear power windows.

Noteworthy too is the Optra’s standard 5 year/100,000 kilometre powertrain warranty as well as the standard 3 yr/60,000 kilometre full warranty.

I was impressed with the Optra’s attractive, well-finished interior, particularly the classy instrument cluster and the metal-look trim on the dash. It’s got room enough for four adults and has five seatbelts, split folding seatbacks, and a decent 12.4 cubic feet trunk. The driver’s seat is height adjustable and has a lumbar adjustment.

The Optra’s weakest point may be its 119 horsepower engine which is a tad underpowered, and a bit noisy under acceleration. But with a four wheel independent MacPherson strut suspension and four wheel disc brakes with optional ABS, the Optra offers athletic driving dynamics.

The Optra is built in Kunsan, South Korea.


Epica


2004 Chevrolet Epica

2004 Chevrolet Epica
2004 Chevrolet Epica. Click image to enlarge

The Epica is a mid-sized sedan that competes with the Hyundai Sonata, Kia Magentis, and the Suzuki Verona. Available in LS ($24,595) and LT ($26,760) trim levels, the Epica has a 155 horsepower inline six cylinder DOHC engine with a four-speed automatic transmission, air conditioning, AM/FM/CD player, power seats, locks, windows and mirrors; remote entry, projector beam headlamps, fog lamps, 15 inch tires and four wheel disc brakes. Epicas also have the standard 5 year/100,000 kilometre powertrain warranty.

Epica LT models ($26,760) add 16 inch tires and alloy wheels, leather upholstery, front seat heaters, a six-speaker audio system, a power sunroof, and power folding outside mirrors.

The Epica was the most impressive of the three Daewoos…er, Chevrolets. It’s inline six cylinder engine is extremely smooth and quiet, although not that powerful when overtaking. The cabin is very quiet at highway speeds and the ride is comfortable with some lean in the corners – a four wheel independent suspension (front double wishbones/rear multi-link) is standard. The standard speed-sensitive power rack and pinion steering offered low effort at slow speeds and a firmer feel at higher speeds. Four disc brakes are standard, and ABS is optional on LS models, standard on LT trim. Overall, I found the Epica a very pleasant, comfortable car to drive.

The Epica’s interior is very attractive and well-finished – quite a difference from earlier Daewoos. In the LT, the quality of the leather seats, plastics, chrome and wood trim was excellent for this price class and the panel gaps and fit were very good. Front and rear headroom and legroom were adequate for four or five adults. My only complaint was the driver’s seat lacked lateral support.

The Epica is built in Bupyong, South Korea.

Summary


In the lower-priced subcompact, compact and mid-sized market, the Aveo, Optra and Epica should prove very competitive, particularly in Canada where price is important. Their quality is as good or better than Kia and Hyundai, the pricing is comparable, and the Chevrolet brand has the advantage of dealerships across the country to perform regular servicing and warranty work.

GM’s major difficulty will be making consumers aware these cars even exist, and then building a reputation from the ground up – much like Kia had to do a few years ago.

Connect with Autos.ca