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Second-hand: 2004-2006 Chevy Optra

The Chevrolet Optra stems from a gnarly and withered family tree that requires a team of industrial genealogists to trace with care.

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The Chevrolet Optra stems from a gnarly and withered family tree that requires a team of industrial genealogists to trace with care.

Suffice it to say Daewoo, Korea’s former number-two auto maker, had run into deep trouble in 1998 thanks to the Asian financial crisis and its own mismanagement. That didn’t stop the firm from launching a poorly conceived U.S. dealer network, which promptly tipped it into bankruptcy.

General Motors and Asian partner Suzuki bought the bulk of Daewoo’s automotive assets in 2002. GM designated Daewoo as its original equipment manufacturer, supplying cars nameplated as Chevrolet, Suzuki and Holden (Australia).

Flush with fresh cash, Daewoo released its new Lacetti compact, penned by famed Italian design house Pininfarina. Available as a four-door sedan and five-door wagon, it replaced the Nubira as Daewoo’s mainstream offering.

GM imported it to Canada as the Optra in 2004, while in the U.S. it was badged as the Suzuki Forenza to help fortify the Japanese maker’s skimpy product line (Suzuki owns 11 per cent of GM-DAT).

A third offering joined the family as the Optra5, a slick five-door hatchback version styled by celebrated Italian designer Giorgetto Giugiaro. In the U.S. it was known as the Suzuki Reno.

Why it was named after a former U.S. attorney general remains a mystery.

CONFIGURATION

The front-wheel-drive Optra sedan was sized similarly to the Toyota Corolla, which suggested it was aimed at the heart of the Canadian market.

The Optra was priced competitively and came with lots of “kit,” including power door locks and windows (front only), AM/FM stereo with CD player, 60/40 folding rear seatbacks, tilt wheel, dual airbags and four-wheel disc brakes standard.

Stylists had done a commendable job with the Optra’s interior. The metallic dash trim, quality two-tone plastics and soft fabric seats were formed into pleasing shapes and exuded good quality.

There was adequate legroom and headroom for four adults or five in a pinch. Tall drivers commended the Optra for its lofty ceiling.

“I am a 6-foot 6-inch 210-pound man and cringed when I saw the car, thinking I would not be able to sit in it comfortably. I quickly found out I was wrong,” remarked the owner of a 2005 model on the web.

All models were powered by the Holden-sourced DOHC 2.0 L four-cylinder engine, rated at 119 hp and 126 lb.-ft. of torque. Output improved to 126 hp in subsequent years.

The Optra5 arrived a little later, sporting a truncated five-door hatchback shape that’s so fashionable on the other side of the pond. Equally roomy, it featured a multi-adjustable driver’s seat to accommodate all sorts of pilots.

The Optra wagon was introduced for 2005, styled to resemble the sedan. While the wheelbase was common, the wagon was taller and longer. It featured standard alloy roof rails and a 12-volt power outlet in the spacious cargo compartment.

Not much changed after that; trim levels and options were adjusted, but the cars never got so much as a tweaked grille. GM Canada sent the Optra packing in 2007.

ON THE ROAD

Equipped with the standard five-speed manual transmission, the Optra and especially the lighter Optra5 were downright zippy as far as econoboxes went. In a magazine test, a hatchback model was clocked accelerating to 96 km/h in 8.7 seconds.

At the other end of the spectrum, the heavier wagon shackled to the four-speed automatic transmission wheezed to highway velocity in about 11 seconds.

Typical of Korean cars, the Optra was softly suspended, providing for lots of wheel travel and a pillowy ride. The downside of that, unfortunately, was unnerving dive, squat and body roll, all characteristic of a cheaply sprung economy car.

Would-be rally racers would get no joy from the floppy manual shifter, which one reviewer likened to “a hemp rope attached to plastic forks.”

All could be forgiven if the Optra delivered on its critical mission: economical driving. Sadly, many owners griped online about the car’s propensity to guzzle, relatively speaking.

WHAT OWNERS REPORTED

The Optra attracted buyers with its crisp styling, comfy ride and high-value proposition.

Unfortunately, the Korean-built Chevrolet Optra doesn’t age well. The Internet is filled with less-than-flattering comments about the car’s mechanical challenges.

Most common is a “hard start” condition that seems to crop up at any time.

“Car does not start every time you get in the vehicle. May have to try twice or 50 times to start,” one owner wrote online.

The idle may jump to as high as 2000 r.p.m. when coming to a stop in manual-transmission vehicles, or it may idle rough or stall with an automatic while the engine is cold. Apparently the fix is a computer reflash (program update).

A harsh 3-4 downshift on the automatic transmission, accompanied by the Check Engine light, requires reprogramming the transmission control unit.

Damaged insulation on a wiring harness between the left fender and its liner results in shorts, causing various components such as lights, the fuel pump and rear defogger to fail.

Other faults include short-lived timing belts and water pumps, bad thermostats and weak air conditioners.

On the plus side, Optras tend to depreciate quicker than Florida vacation homes, so you can drive a hard bargain.

We would like to know about your ownership experience with these models: Acura TSX, Saab 9-5 and Jeep Grand Cherokee. Email: toljagic@ca.inter.net.

WHAT’S BEST: Not unpleasant styling, good comfort, depreciation bonanza

WHAT’S WORST: Sloppy handling, crummy fuel economy, mysterious no-start condition

TYPICAL GTA PRICES: 2004 – $7,500; 2006 – $10,000

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