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Chev Optra takes on Hyundai's Elantra

  • Choosing a car at dealership. Thoughtful grey hair man in formalwear leaning at the car and looking away

One of the first things I learned about journalism is to ask the Five Ws. So here goes: Who? Chevrolet.

What? Optra.

When? 2004.

How? By building this compact sedan at GM-DAT (General Motors Daewoo Auto & Technology Co.), formed when GM bought controlling interest in the bankrupt automaker Daewoo.

Where? At a South Korean facility.

And why? That's the one question I find difficult to answer. Given the rest of Chevrolet's lineup, I'm not entirely sure why the Optra exists.

Optra is the middle line of three new-for-2004 GM-DAT Chevs; it's placed between the subcompact Aveo and the mid-size Epica.

All have Suzuki equivalents: Optra is sold up here but not in the U.S., while its sister Suzuki Forenza is U.S.-only.

The three share a few components across the board, including an unnecessarily awkward gated shifter for the optional automatic transmission.

Of the trio, the Optra often seems to feel the cheapest.

It's not terribly expensive to begin with: the base sedan starts at $16,190. My LS – the two trim levels are base and LS – started at $17,805, and added ABS and a four-speed automatic for a total of $19,395.

(A five-door hatchback is coming.) I ask "why" because Chev Cavalier VL and VLX sedans start at $16,125 and $19,115. Stick on air and automatic, and Cavalier can ring in at only a couple of thousand more – with possible dealer incentives to sweeten the bottom line.

That gives you a car that's practically the same size. But it also gives you a 140-hp, 2.2-litre engine, compared to Optra's noisy, rough-idling 119-hp, 2.0-litre four.

And at 4,000 rpm, Cavalier's torque is rated at 150 lb.-ft.

to Optra's 126 – a quicker, stronger powerplant that returns slightly better mileage, for not a lot more money.

I drove my Optra tester on a bitterly cold and therefore gas-sucking week. It's normally rated an average 8.9 L 100, to Cavalier's 8.2 L 100.

GM, of course, isn't out to compete with its own products; the Optra is aimed at cars like the Hyundai Elantra.

Optra is helped by a long list of standard features. The base sedan includes four-wheel disc brakes, variable-delay wipers, power locks and front windows, floor mats, tilt steering wheel and AM FM CD sound.

Optra LS adds keyless entry, speed-sensitive steering, air conditioning, power mirrors and puts power to all four windows.

An MP3 player is optional on both.

On the road, this four-door is capable, if not exhilarating; you really notice the speed-sensitive steering, which feels stiff at parking-lot velocity but becomes lighter and precise as the rpms pick up. The hard plastic wheel feels like it belongs on a 1980s car. The heater controls are simple and unobstructed, although the blower motor is noisy and the output doesn't get as hot as some others in this class.

There are a few minor irritants: there's no power lock button on the passenger door. Move the seat back for more legroom, and the console gets in the way when fastening the seatbelt.

And while keyless entry buttons on the key meant no fumbling for a fob, I was constantly hitting them when I held the key and tried to juggle my stuff to get out of the car.

Optra also shares Aveo's bizarre child security locks; the owner's manual warns that pulling an inside rear door handle when the locks are engaged could damage the car. But aren't the locks there because children do precisely this? In its favour, Optra offers good headroom, average rear-seat legroom for a small sedan, and an 88-cm-deep trunk that enlarges to 152 cm with the rear seats folded.

The basic warranty is three years or 60,000 km, whichever comes first, with five-year 100,000 km powertrain coverage.

Up against outside competition, this Korean-built newcomer may be a formidable contender but, on the dealer's lot, I'd compare it first with a Cavalier on a test drive.

Of course, that may change for 2005, when Cavalier rides off into the sunset. Its replacement, the Cobalt, which is more upscale than the Cav, should make Optra's place in the Chevrolet lineup clearer.

But until then, I still ask "why?" Jil McIntosh can be reached at jil @ ca.inter.net.

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