Price: Range from £9,995 to £13,615
Engine: 1,248cc, four cylinders, 16 valves, turbodiesel, 95bhp
Transmission: Five-speed gearbox, front-wheel drive
Performance: 108mph, 0-62 in 11.7sec, 78.4mpg, CO2 95g/km
Even as the European car market continued to decline over the first two months of 2012, three manufacturers were enjoying conspicuously dramatic growth. Two were obviously Korean (Kia and Hyundai); the third less so – because Chevrolet is an American brand, is it not?
Well, yes – and no. The Chevrolets that are selling so well in Europe are made in Korea, and partly designed there. Their roots are in the old Daewoo organisation but the cars are based on worldwide General Motors architectures. Chevrolet is its global "value" brand, a well-known name which no longer has automatic connotations of large, American cars. It helps its credibility that these new, smaller Chevrolets are sold in the US, too.
The latest of these is the Aveo, whose new underpinnings will also be found beneath the next-generation Vauxhall Corsa. So it's a so-called supermini, albeit a big one virtually the size of a VW Golf of a decade ago (and slightly taller). Like the previous Aveo, not a car with a noticeable presence on UK roads, this new one is priced temptingly low – around £2,000 less than a corresponding Ford Fiesta and £1,000 less than a Kia Rio, and comes with a five-year warranty. But unlike its predecessor, the new Aveo comes with a comprehensive and up-to-date package of equipment and an interior whose style and finish look anything but cheap.
This is quite a good-looking car, too. The chiselled nose incorporates four round, retro-looking headlights which make a nice change from the slashes of chrome and transparent polycarbonate of many new cars. The profile is square-cut and seemingly tipped forward, making it appear poised for action. It looks almost sporting, an impression heightened once you're inside by the motorcycle-like instrument pod, yet simultaneously quenched by the high driving position. There are shades of mini-MPV here, and the space to match.
Three engines are offered: two fuelled by petrol and offering 86bhp (a 1.2) and 100bhp (a 1.4); plus a 1.3-litre turbodiesel with either 75bhp or 95bhp. The last of these comes with a six-speed gearbox when matched to the top LTZ trim level, or the five-speed gearbox found in all the other Aveos when installed in a mid-spec LT. That middle specification has all the equipment you could want, including Bluetooth music and phone connections, and as a 95bhp diesel comes in Eco guise and a 95g/km CO2 score for £12,795.
This sounds like the Aveo to have, but first I tried the petrol 1.4. Maybe horses have shrunk over the years, but 100bhp doesn't make this small car go quite as it should. The engine is smooth enough but you have to work it hard to make any form of spirited progress. Curiously, this engine and a manual transmission can be had only in LTZ form, but with a six-speed automatic it can be LTZ or LT.
Yet all this becomes irrelevant as soon as you drive the Eco-diesel. This has a well-known engine, used in many small Fiats, Alfas, Suzukis and Vauxhalls, and it always impresses with its keen, muscular delivery of effort. So it proves here, making the Aveo genuinely pleasing to drive while merely sipping at fuel.
Now you can really enjoy the Aveo's unexpectedly polished handling and ride, with precise, low-friction steering, lots of grip and fluidity of motion. Bumps are soaked up without fuss, bends are strung together smoothly.
Many new mainstream cars are very capable, but fewer cause you to say, "I enjoyed that." The Aveo LT Eco-diesel is just such a car. Surprised? So am I.