Back in April, Sajeev and Steve found some time to reply to my letter where I posed the impossible question. As gearheads, we all want something fun, fast, efficient, and cheap (well, most of us want cheap). Much like a traction circle, all these needs are in competition and in order to make good on one you need to sacrifice another. The ultimate gearhead car, unfortunately, does not exist and it never will.
That doesn’t mean there aren’t good, affordable vehicles out there which are fun to drive while ticking most of the boxes. And, this time, I actually followed the advice of someone else and couldn’t be happier.
For a number of weeks, my girlfriend and I scoured the classifieds, made calls, and generated lists of cars we wanted to check out. Initially, a Mazda Protege5 seemed to fit the bill. The interiors are still great to look at to this day, the engines torquey and fun, and the Protege5 is halfway between a proper wagon and a hatchback. She had laid down the law saying she wouldn’t be caught driving a wagon, so for me this was a solid win.
Once we started looking around to see what Protege5s were available, we were promptly disappointed. All were in various states of disrepair, from simple electronic accessories being broken to full on rust infestation and everything in between, the east coast climate was claiming Protege5s at a steady, rapid rate. Our dream econobox choice turned out not to be a valid choice at all.
After a few Mazdisasters, a personal friend of mine invited us to one of Canada’s largest GM dealerships to check out their used inventory. This particular dealership doesn’t keep any wholesale stock sitting around, so the price of entry is relatively steep on the used lot. “Just show me the cheapest cars you have,” I said, hoping there would be some unloved goldmine hidden behind the service bays, waiting for a new owner to care for and cherish her.
“Well, our most affordable option on the lot is a 2006 Chevy Aveo 5-door hatchback,” replied my friend who is relatively new to the car hawking business.
At this point, my internal monologue was unleashing a series of expletives cursing the Aveo’s existence, but on the outside I am telling my girlfriend to take it for a drive, hoping she will come to the realization the Aveo is the automotive equivalent of a polished turd. Even worse, this is someone else’s former polished turd.
I drove the first half of the predefined test route, bemoaned the underpowered 1.6L four-pot smushed together with the lazy 4-speed automatic, and tried to think happier thoughts, such as getting repeatedly kicked in the groin by someone with a size 15 shoe. I felt dirty, like I had done something completely forbidden and totally frowned upon if anyone found out. I’d driven an Aveo.
Shortly, it was time for us to switch seats and for my significant other to take over for the rest of the journey back to the dealership. Though she didn’t show love or heaping praise for the Korean tin can, she didn’t hate it either. I found this strange. The engine to her was adequately powerful, amenities were few but simple and easy to use, and the steering was fairly light in her hands. On arrival back to the dealership she uttered three words which could have laid waste to my automotive reputation: “I like it.”
If I hadn’t have been there, I am sure the Aveo would have been sold that day.
Over the course of the next couple of hours, the salesperson and my girlfriend exchanged text messages about the red little Chevy while I frantically went dealership to dealership looking for an affordable alternative. And, out of nowhere, an oasis appeared. At a used car dealership sat a vehicle suggested by TTAC’s own Steve Lang, a 2008 Saturn Astra 5-door hatchback with a proper manual transmission.
Two years newer, slightly more mileage, and a hell of a lot more car than the Aveo, the Astra was priced slightly above our budget . When my girlfriend saw the price displayed on the other side of the windshield she winced at the thought of paying more than our budgeted allotment, but I was determined to show her this was the better choice.
The Astra was a victim of being in North America wearing the wrong badge at the wrong time. Saturn was about to get cut from the team and with the economic crisis commencing nobody wanted to pay the premium Saturn dealers were asking for the European built hatch. Fortunately for us, prices for Saturns have tanked since then and the parts and service network still exists. We took the Belgian C-car for a drive around the neighbourhood, my girlfriend fell in love with the car, and the rest is automotive history I can be proud of.
If there is a lesson in this, other than listening to your two knowledgeable TTAC suggestion machines, it’s there is always a better option to “settling”. Nobody deserves to drive an Aveo.