– Good interior space
– Comfortable ride
– Value-packed pricing
– Fit and finish
– Cabin looks cheap
– Barely acceptable power
General Motors bought ailing Korean car manufacturer Daewoo back in 2001, bringing a number of new models under the umbrella of the American company. Back then, Daewoo was on the verge of introducing their new Italian-styled Nubira, but GM decided to give the car a new name for foreign markets. And the result of that badge-swap was the compact Chevrolet Optra. For certain reasons, we had to rent a car for a few rainy days and the Optra seemed to be a good candidate for a wet beating.
While the Optra can be said to have pleasant styling with a decent shape, it is hard to accept that this car came from the same Italian design house that has penned Ferraris for decades. Our rental did look funky though, with its orange paint job and jewel-like lights, though the detailing was largely conservative. Our tester was fairly new, with less than 10,000 km on the clock, with no evidence of accidents except for minor scratches. It was the most basic model, but it still came with body-colour outer door handles and side mirrors as well as hubcapped 15-inch wheels, even if they were not alloys. In contrast, a base Honda Civic has black door handles, and a base Toyota Corolla still rides on 14-inch wheels. However, build quality did not match either of those cars, with slightly misaligned door panels and what not.
Inside, we were greeted with plastics that looked cheap, but actually surprised us in a different way. While most of the expensive-looking plastics in a Toyota are all rock-hard, most of the crap in the Optra is soft to the touch, nicely padded on the door sills and dashboard top, all feeling good on the fingertips. Even the inner door handle is chromed metal, unlike the plastic ones in the Japanese cars. But the hard trim on the lower part of the dashboard looked positively terrible, though we believe higher models get fake wood or fake aluminium trim. The two cup-holders in the centre have useful but flimsy size adjusters, while the central storage compartment with the loose-fitting lid is too low to be an armrest. Another small yet useful storage hole under the steering wheel has a loose plastic lid, while the ashtray for rear-seat passengers actually fell out. The doors have storage pockets, and there is yet another useful storage cubby under the stereo, while there is a small holder for sunglasses weirdly placed right over the driver’s head.
The seats were of plain cloth, with minimal bolstering, but the front seats were highly adjustable manually. Amazingly, there is tons of space inside, with great headroom and legroom even in the back, making the Optra easily among the best in the compact class. All-round visibility is hindered by small mirrors, thick a-pillars and big rear headrests, but is still largely manageable. The luggage trunk is also relatively big, and with a fold-down rear seat too. The feature list is good, with standard power windows, keyless entry, electric mirrors and variable intermittent wipers that came in handy during our rainy drive. We didn’t run the a/c much due to the cool weather, but it seemed average in warm afternoons. The basic radio cassette player has okay speakers, but our broken one did not turn off until we shut down the engine. A CD changer is optional, as are leatherette upholstery and a passenger airbag to complement the standard driver’s bag.
With only 107 horses on offer, the basic 1.6-litre four-cylinder isn’t going to set anything on fire, especially when a four-speed automatic gearbox is thrown into the mix. However, with 147 Nm of peak torque available, it does well enough in everyday driving. Throttle response is instantaneous, as the engine comes alive with a buzzy drone of moderate refinement, answering the call for speed with a 0-to-100 kph time of a lowly 12.5 seconds. The automatic gearbox shifts very smoothly all the way, though we took ages to back out of a parking spot as we figured out the stupid push-down-on-shifter-to-reverse feature, explained in fine print on the gearbox that we only noticed later. We estimated an average burn rate of 10.9 litres per 100 km, which is below average, but still impressive, allowing a range of 550 km from a 60-litre fuel tank.
While its interior may not be up to par in many respects, the Optra is very competitive in drive. It is surprisingly comfortable on most highway surfaces, with easily bearable amounts of wind and road noise. Like most of its Japanese buddies, it occasionally gets jiggly over deep dips on the road, but handles sharp bumps well enough. The front end torque-steers to one side under sudden power on dusty roads, but that is controllable with small steering inputs. High speeds are managed well, with the car feeling as stable at 140 kph as it does at 80 kph, though our rental’s steering wheel was always jittery at any speed.
Driving in the rain proved to be a non-event, which is actually a good thing. We drove as fast as we normally do in traffic, and this orangutan didn’t lose composure in the corners, even though our hair was standing as we anticipated a skid. The grippy performance is simply due to the fact that thinner tyres offer better traction in rain than sporty wider tyres. So while the 195/55 tyres aren’t really that impressive on dry tarmac, physics dictate that they are safer on wet surfaces. Sharp turns induce a good deal of roll, but the car hangs on for a decent amount of time before the tyres start giving up. The car is quite flingable, while the combination of a strong handbrake and wet roads meant we started pulling into parking spaces with a slide just for the heck of it. The ABS-assisted disc brakes are also pretty good, being easy to modulate and stopping well enough in all ordinary situations, wet or dry.
The spacious Chevy Optra is a patchy product, full of good points and bad. The good points were enough for it to win awards in some developing countries, but they are not enough to entirely cover its bad points in this region’s competitive market. With a price lower than most Japanese competitors while offering a lot more, it can be a good buy for people looking for mild bargains as they wait to move up the corporate ladder. All we know is that it makes an awesome rental car.
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