2004 Chevy Aveo LS — Back to basics

Clearly with a price tag like that, the car has no aspirations for a debut on the Nascar circuit. It seems to be Chevy's slightly taller and narrower version of the Ford Focus. But I can't knock the Aveo: It is meant to be basic transportation and at that it succeeds. Too, climbing gas prices may induce more people to take serious looks at high mpg vehicles like this one, which is rated 27/35 mpg for city and country driving.

I was pleasantly surprised at what the Aveo carried as standard equipment. Included is a replaceable air filter for the passenger compartment, remote entry and power door locks, heated outside mirrors, power windows, AC, a rear-window defroster, remote trunk and gas cap release, and a tilt steering wheel. There was even an extra power outlet in the console that would be handy for a cell phone, and an MP3-compatible CD player. These features are, of course, de rigueur on more pricey models but noteworthy in this class of vehicle.

The interior is ordinary cloth and plastic with front buckets and a rear bench. But designers deserve kudos for adding a texture to the plastic surfaces that keep them from looking cheap. The seats are comfortable and the headroom seems adequate, even for taller people. There is even a decent amount of legroom in back, another surprise for a small sedan. And the back seats fold down to make the rear area one with the trunk.

The only gripes we had with the passenger compartment was a windshield wiper stalk that felt flimsy and a digital clock in the control center display that washes out when the sun hits at the right angle. The five-speed manual transmission shifts easily though it is characterized by relatively long throws. There is no question when you are in gear and we never had trouble finding the right one. And though the engine has the distinctive buzz of a four cylinder, passengers sit in relative quiet. Noise isn't likely to be bothersome on long trips.

On the road we were prepared for the Aveo to act tippy because it looks too tall for its 14-in. wheels. But we never noted any top-heaviness. The car performs the way you might expect for something with a 103-hp, 1.6-liter engine that weighs 2,370 lb. It accelerates from 0 to 60 in slightly over 10 sec. The suspension, struts in front and a torsion beam in back, delivers a fairly soft ride.

Steering and maneuverability were basically okay. Our only complaint was that the brakes felt a little mushy. Otherwise, they were reliable. There are discs up front and drums in back.

Finally, we've always held that the true test of an inexpensive small car is how it handles crummy weather, where more upscale vehicles get help from ABS and stability systems. Unfortunately our last big snowfall of the season arrived two weeks before the Aveo, so we missed the chance for that sort of challenge. ABS, however, is available as a $400 option. A four-speed automatic will run an extra $850. There are other options such as a sun roof and spoiler that can raise the price to near $14,000. All in all, the Aveo is worth a look if that is the price ballpark in which you want to play.