Chevys to chase if you're a January bargain-hunter

Chevrolet unveils new models for the credit crunch

Has Chevrolet got past people's preconceptions yet? Stop thinking about oversize Americana with fins, chrome and no suspension damping, we are implored.

It's true that even in the US, Chevrolets have long ceased to conform to such a stereotype. Only the police and the taxi industry now use the last remaining traditional, mainstream, full-size Chevy saloon, with a hefty engine up front and rear-wheel drive – the Caprice.

Instead, Chevrolet is General Motors' worldwide value brand, a notion which has survived unscathed from the tumultuous reorganisation of GM, post-credit crunch. Today's Chevrolet operation has its roots as much in the former Daewoo company of Korea as in the US, and it is within GM-DAT (Daewoo Automotive Technologies) that the cars destined for near-worldwide sale are conceived, albeit with input from its GM parent in the US and the Opel operation in Germany.

Here are the latest two: a saloon called Cruze, which shares some understructure with the new Vauxhall Astra (but not the Astra's clever rear suspension), and a mini called Spark, which replaces the model we once knew as the Daewoo Matiz. We'll take the second of these first, not least because it's a joy to drive a properly small car – of the size so-called superminis used to be, before they turned obese and grew larger than a Volkswagen Golf or a Ford Escort.

It's a good-looking little car, with an aura of cheeky fun – sparkiness, even – about its being and a large amount of youth-targeted marketing to go with it (always a dangerous route because cool young people with money to spend tend not to like being so openly pursued). It has five doors, remarkable cabin space front and rear, and a dashboard with an almost motorbike-like instrument console behind the steering wheel. This consists of a speedometer in a pod and a small LCD display to its right, containing most other things you need to know, including a graph-shaped rev-counter scale.

As befits a real supermini, the Spark has a choice of two small engines: a 1.0-litre unit with 68bhp and a 1.2 with 81bhp. Match the latter engine to the LT trim level, and for the required £9,845 you get all kinds of upmarket equipment which you don't really need.

Or you can pay just £6,495 and have the most basic Spark with nothing sybaritic at all, although you do get six airbags. The notion of this one is appealing as a stand against the over-complication of too many modern cars, but even with such a mindset I would favour the Spark+ with the same engine and an £8,145 price tag. Because then I would have air-con, electric front windows, central locking, and a stereo system with a USB connection. And what more, really, should I want?

Is 68bhp enough, though? Well, an original Mini managed with exactly half that, so it should be sufficient. And so it proves: the 1.0-litre Spark feels little slower than the 1.2, and its engine is much sweeter when worked hard. It also lacks the bigger version's hiccup when trying to accelerate vigorously from low engine speeds. The steering is accurate enough, bumps are soaked up adequately, and while the Spark might not generate thrills for a keen driver, it is as agile and nippy as a little car should be. Good effort, I say.

Now, the Cruze. After the understandably plasticky Spark, the Cruze feels quite upmarket, with a soft-touch dashboard and lots of equipment in the mid-range 1.6 LS version I sampled. This is a lot of car for £12,845, and its showroom appeal is considerable. This falls apart a little when you drive it, though, and you soon realise why it's so inexpensive.

First, the engine feels flat and lethargic in a way which seriously undersells its claimed 113bhp. It needs some expert recalibration of the engine management system, because the Cruze actually proves faster than it leads you to expect. Second, Chevrolet has overdone its efforts to appeal to "European" tastes, making the suspension too firm and fidgety while the steering remains anaesthetised. It's a curious tactile mismatch. Third, it has hi-tech multiplex electrics but slow processors, so there's too much delay between moving a switch and gaining a result – as proved to me by the irate headlight-flashing of oncoming motorists who thought I had forgotten to dip my headlights.

Of the two new Chevrolets, then, it's the Spark that does the better job of doing what it is designed to do. The Cruze has the makings of a resounding bargain but it isn't quite finished yet. Even so, it makes the new Vauxhall Astra, good car as it is, seem extremely expensive.

The Rivals

Fancy the Spark?

Try the Suzuki Alto 1.0 SZ3 at £7,745. Characterful and punchy three-cylinder engine, great fun to drive, has the essentials but is intelligently minimalist and very economical.

Like the Cruze?

What about the Skoda Octavia 1.6 SE, at £13,420? Fully-developed, thoroughly likeable car, with Volkswagen Group quality. Much cheaper than a Golf and just as good – which makes it a bargain.

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