LATE last year, Chevrolet returned to SA with a range of models based, primarily, on product sourced from GM Daewoo Auto and Technology, the company created by General Motors following its acquisition of what was Daewoo Motors. Together with a sprinkling of Holden vehicles, the line-up had a familiarity to it – if not in name then certainly in looks – because of its origins. Only the Aveo had not been seen before. However, locally, Chevrolet was looking to introduce an additonal all-new product with which to make an impact in the marketplace: the Optra, a saloon designed to compete in the same segment as the Toyota Corolla. Now that is a tough challenge in anyone’s book…

Optra was penned by world renowned styling house Pininfarina, and although it does not dramatically stir the senses, the car is well proportioned with clean lines and, significantly, a long wheelbase relative to its overall length. In this competitive sub-compact – or C segment – class, this is becoming a major point. Cabin space – and, generally, ride quality – benefit most from having the front wheels positioned as far as possible from the rears, which means buyers looking to downsize need not sacrifice too much in terms of space and comfort.

So, Optra’s shape is free of frills and frippery – there is a prominent front bumper, a Volvo-ish shoulder runs along the flanks just below the window line, the wheelarches are pronounced and, apart from the lamp clusters, that just about sums up the highlights. Uncontroversial, which perhaps is partially explained by the fact that it has to appeal to a mass global market. In some countries, Chevrolet Optra is known as the Daewoo Nubira, and in others – including the US – as the Suzuki Forenza. Whatever the guise, the car aims to be a value-for-money package, which it certainly qualifies as in SA.

Initially, three models are on offer: a base 1,6, an LS-spec 1,6, and a 1,8 LT to top the range. The test car is the entry-level model, which manages to offer a reasonably comprehensive amount of kit for its R141 700 asking price. Notable concessions to cost saving include the absence of ABS, steel rather than alloy wheels, and exterior mirrors you have to adjust by hand. Other items differ in number or sophistication when compared with LS/LT spec, but for a base model the equipment is well considered and on par with most of the Optra’s rivals. Quality levels appear average for the class of car, and there were no complaints about fit and finish.

Open up – selective central locking buttons are incorporated into the key – and the spacious cabin is immediately evident, helped by the grey environment colour and generous glazing that includes a small window behind each rear door. Slightly off-putting is a smell of plastic, but it goes away once air circulates. Upholstery is a pattern-and-plain brushed cloth, and the front seats are comfortably soft but do not offer much in lateral support. The range of fore/aft adjustment will accommodate longlegged types without amputating anyone sitting behind. Head-, shoulder-, foot- and legroom are excellent, front and back, and the footwells are large, too, with a left-foot rest for the driver. The roof extends far enough back to cover rear passengers’ heads.

For the driver, finding a satisfactory position is easy thanks to a seat with two cushion height/angle adjusters, and the four-spoke wheel that adjusts for rake. The left-hand column stalk controls all the main light functions, and the right-hand one all wipe/wash (flick, variable intermittent and two speeds) plus rear foglights. Both exterior mirrors have to be adjusted from the inside via joysticks, and the driver’s mirror has flat glass that can create a blind spot. Seatbelts and head restraints are height adjustable. Front door windows are power operated, there is a remote fuel flap release on the floor, and a button in the door panel releases the bootlid.

Behind, the rear bench is a bit flat and featureless, but the pushbuttonlatched backrest is split 60:40 and folds down on to the fixed cushion without having to remove the two height-adjustable head restraints. Outer seats have three-point harnesses, the middle one a lap belt only, but there is a child seat attachment point (with bolts provided in the glovebox). Pockets are attached to the rear and inner side of the front passenger seat only. There is a single centre roof dome courtesy light, and grab handles are sited above each passenger door.

Comfort and convenience items include air-conditioning with fourspeed fan, and a custom radio/tape/ CD player (single front loader) with four speakers, an antenna incorporated into the back window, and logical finger-friendly buttons. Only the passenger visor has a vanity mirror: the driver’s has a ticket flap.

The instruments appear almost unnecessarily cramped in the binnacle, but they are clear and easy to read. Dominating the four regular dials is the speedometer, which incorporates a digital odo with a choice of total and two trip readouts. Backlighting when lights are on is pale blue, and there is rheostat adjustment. Storage space includes bins in all the doors, a usefully sized non-locking cubby in the facia, and a floor console that houses an open compartment and a dual holder for drinks of different sizes. There is another open bin at the foot of the facia’s hangdown section.

Although cabin space has been optimised, luggage capacity has not been compromised as a result. The boot is evenly shaped and holds a useful 344 dm3, with an also handy utility space of 976 dm3 if the large opening in the rear bulkhead does not restrict the size and shape of your cargo. A full size spare wheel lies under the mat. The load height is a reasonable 680 mm, and a hook in the left-hand wheelarch keeps single bags secure.

On the road, initially the Optra felt a bit sluggish but, later, the performance figures showed it to be around average for the class. The engine’s outputs are healthy enough – 80 kW at 5 800 r/min and 150 N.m of torque at 4 000 – but the car weighs in at over 1 200 kg, and the gearing is more conducive to cruising than sprinting, so these factors, combined with the car’s general quietness, probably account for the less than sparkling feeling from behind the wheel. And the gearbox does not help. The test car’s ’box was rubbery in action and the gate ill-defined, the 2-3 change needing an exaggerated movement of the gear lever, but the 4-5 shift hardly anything.

But once up and running, it bowls along nicely with little road nor wind noise imposing. Wheels are 14x5,5J steel shod with 185/65 tyres, which Chev SA recommends are best inflated to 210 kPa rather than 240 as given in the handbook. The ride is supple, and the suspension soaked up irregularities with no suggestion of bottoming out. Yes, softness like this usually means roly-poly cornering but, in fairness, the Optra is not too wallowy, though we found it moved around in strong wind, and if you brake through a fast corner the tail can rise and lean somewhat. The absence of feel from the otherwise accurate steering does not help matters. Brakes, too, object to abuse: our 10-stop test from 100 km/h brought on fade early. However, most drivers will find the overall ride/balance characteristics – which is to say fairly benign – satisfactory for the type of car that it is.

TEST SUMMARY
The Optra is another contestant in what is already a congested market segment, but what helps it earn consideration is the value for money spec and the interior space that it offers, particularly in this base 1,6 derivative. It does not excel in any particular area, although ride quality is excellent, but fulfils its role as a family car with ease and competence. Although not US-sourced, the Optra comes closest to being a modern example of old Chevrolet values, and has plenty of appeal if you look upon it with an open mind.