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March 7, 2005

Review: 2005 Chevrolet Optra 1.8 LT

Enter a showroom, any kind of showroom, and you’ll immediately get whiffs of lies and deceit.  And it’s not the plastered smiles on the receptionists or even the sales personnel.  It goes much deeper than that.  I’m talking about the sales pitch—the kind of talk that promises you a whole new experience.  Cars can promise you performance numbers that rival Michael Schumacher’s Ferrari or deodorants that make girls go ga-ga over you.  But, do they ever happen?  Did the last juicer you purchased give you houses of pulping fun?  Did the last 15-peso burger meal really look like a pound big like it did on the store poster?  I didn’t think so.  This is the sort of harsh reality that faces consumers everyday, and the sort that ultimately leads to a dismayed buying public.

Luckily though, there’s a light at the end of the tunnel.  In this market of unsatisfied customers stand a breed of products that cater more to sensibilities rather than the senses.  There are no pretenses here, just plain good old-fashioned values.  For instance, a Swiss watch may give you time, but so does a reliable Casio watch.  It may not be as flashy, but it’s built like a tank and will probably last longer than you.  And then, there’s the case of the Chevrolet Optra—a car that’s not exactly a standout in terms of styling or performance, but a solid long-term investment nonetheless.  It’s a car that’s affordable to run and maintain, well-built, nicely equipped, impeccably finished—in short, everything a car needs to be.

If market share were the sole indicator, then the Optra is on the up and up.  It’s a consistent seller, threatening the likes of Honda and Toyota, though certainly not on the areas of drive train and looks—the main forte of the Japanese.  Instead, Chevrolet has given the Optra with something more than meets the eye: value.  Its interesting formula of low-price plus high-kit is certainly a big factor for the Filipino consumer.  Imagine this: for 800,000 pesos, the range-topping 1.8 LT is 15,000 pesos cheaper than the mid-range Honda Civic VTi-S and a whopping 100,000 pesos south of a similarly-engined Corolla Altis 1.8G or Nissan Sentra 180GT.  And yet, it gets everything on the other’s wish list as standard: leather seats, a Blaupunkt radio with 5-disc in-dash CD changer, steering wheel audio controls, silvery stuff on the instrument cluster, fake timber, split-fold seats and keyless entry with remote trunk opening.  In short, it’s a mid-range luxury car for all but in size and price.

The Optra’s ability to provide excellent value extends much further from just the 1.8 LT’s beige-tan interior.  Skinning Chevrolet’s world-car (so-called since it’s sold with the same configuration worldwide) is renowned design house Pininfarina.  Unlike the striking lines of Ferraris and Maseratis though, the Italians opted to give the Optra some tasteful restraint.  It was as if Pininfarina’s stylists understood the Optra’s design brief and gave it all the necessary ingredients for practicality (high roofline, wide body, etc.) and street credibility (bolstered fender flares, short overhangs, etc.)  Yet, for all it’s worth, it’s bordering on the elegant, if a bit bland.  There’s nothing genuinely wrong with it mind you, it’s just easy to lose in a shopping mall car park even if you opt for the wilder choice of colors (denim blue anyone?)

Chevrolet’s inoffensive assault on the senses continues in the realm of the Optra’s performance, which lies somewhere in the middle, neither flamboyant nor awful.  It’s the little car that could, just don’t expect too much.  It has 121 horses under the hood that goes and runs.  Despite the sporty intake note, it rarely excites even if 100 km/h comes up faster compared to the 1.6-liter variant.  The 4-speed automatic responds well, and is smoother, far smoother than some other so-called “new” Japanese models.  Of course, the extra displacement meant some Greenpeace penalties for the Optra 1.8 LT: 7.51 km/L versus our 8.29 km/L figure for the 1.6 LS.  It’s by no means a sports car, but at least it’s not pretending to be one either.

While the Ecotec engine doesn’t excite, it’s on the twisty stuff where the Optra really shines.  Employing independent struts fore and aft, a rarity in its class nowadays, the Optra absorbs and cushions the occupants against bumps and road joints.  Although it doesn’t communicate minute road conditions as some new compacts do, it humbles even the biggest Manila pothole with good suspension travel and soft springs.  The body structure is surprisingly solid and stable.  There’s considerable amount of understeer thanks to a larger steering ratio, but it’s never annoying even when doing emergency lane change maneuvers.  And speaking of emergency maneuvers, the 1.8 LT provides surefooted stopping power with disc brakes all around with standard ABS and EBD.  With a gyro meter at hand, the Optra quantitatively stops better than even the ‘sporty’ Mazda 3 2.0 R!

And at the end of the day, that’s where the Optra really becomes a winner: the value.  Like its surprisingly good braking performance, the Optra can’t be judged on looks alone.  It’s a fact: the Optra isn’t hip or cool.  It’s not the best car to serenade a date in on a Friday night.  Then again, cars aren’t supposed to be fashion items; mobile phones, clothes, bags and shoes exist for a reason.  Cars are long-term investments, and with this, the Optra 1.8 LT is a solid one.  With a low entrance fee, you get everything as standard including a comprehensive warranty package that includes free maintenance (parts, labor and consumables) for the first two years.  You may not be jolted by the Optra’s looks right now, but judge it right and you’ll have enough money in the bank for another Chevrolet: the lusty Corvette.

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