Jude P. Morte / Jude P. Morte | July 11, 2005 00:00
A true bargain haulerMost station wagons seen on local roads today are often of the premium kind - the Volvo V50, the Audi A4 Avant, the Mercedes Benz E230 Kompressor and an occasional BMW 3-Series (E46). Why? Because if you want to carry lots of passengers and cargo AND look good doing it, an SUV or van may not be the best option due to their high ride height.
But a seven-figure (in Philippine pesos) station wagon may be too far to reach for the Broad C family man with serious hauling in mind. General Motors Automobiles Philippines (GMAP) took that matter seriously and released in late 2005 a station wagon version of its Chevrolet Optra compact car volume seller.
"Optra"mum value for money
Priced at Php 850,000.00 (for the pictured test unit; the Optra wagon m/t is Php 804,000.00), the Optra wagon is a definite steal. For starters, a close look at the car shows the resemblance to the 2005 Optra sedan, but with a bigger rearmost section, roofrails, better-looking 15-inch rims and a silhouette reminiscent of its Venture LT minivan. The Pininfarina styling influence is very much obvious in the fender flares, a-pillars, roofline and rear section. For those who are not familiar with Pininfarina's automobile designs, a look at the current Hyundai Matrix multipurpose vehicle (MPV) is enough to remind you of the similarities.
Ingress and egress into the unit is quick and easy, and one is overwhelmed by that "new car smell" once you plop yourself into the plush moquette seats. Keep that in mind as you read this article; there is more on that topic later. Speaking of the seats, the aforementioned moquette fabric is great to the touch, but is a tad unsupportive when it comes to the driver's side backrest. The author found himself constantly adjusting his backrest for the four days the car was loaned to him. The odd thing is that passengers who rode in the shotgun and rear seats never complained about their seating positions or support; in fact they loved their opportunities to ride in the car. Passenger seating is good for three to four average-sized Filipinos in the car; try to shoehorn a six-footer in the back seat (or even the shotgun seat) and the other occupants will complain that they're squeezed together like sardines in a can.
As one enters the car, one is greeted by nearly the same dashboard layout found in the pre-2005 Optra sedan. Grey (and various shades of it) is the color of choice for the Optra wagon, but there are moquette accents (instead of leather) adorning the doors, a lighter-colored dashboard cover, circular airconditioning vents with aluminum highlights (instead of square vents) and a digital clock adorning the center part of the dashboard (specifically near the defogger vents). There's a bit more aluminum trim running through the dashboard and highlighting the a/t shift knob, and the dashboard gauges are perfectly placed for easy viewing, but old folks (or people with glasses) would appreciate bigger fonts (or designs) for the tachometer, speedometer, fuel and temperature readouts.
Nothing but the radio on and a quirky aircon
However, the steering wheel's stereo/horn controls are virtually in the same areas as the pre-2005 Optra sedans. It would be better if there were volume controls on the steering wheel, aside from the on/off, mute and function/radio toggle buttons. If you have a family and you have to deal with sibling warfare between toddlers in the back row and a kid that goes ballistic in the shotgun seat AND the radio's on, volume controls on the steering wheel are a much-needed help. And finding the horn buttons are difficult; they're located at the nine and three o' clock positions on the steering wheel, making them a hazard if road rage suddenly gets to you and you have to honk your horn hard. Just don't blame GM if you get sprained thumbs when depressing the horn buttons.
And the author is not done yet with the quirks of the car. The Blaupunkt head unit (with a five-CD changer and a tape deck) produces decent sound, but the CD eject feature on the test unit didn't seem to work. In fact, the author noticed two or three CDs stuck within the paper-thin maws of the CD changer and tried (without success) to retrieve them using the CD eject button. And who uses cassette tapes nowadays for listening entertainment?
If there's anything that is bad with the Optra wagon's "new car smell", it's that the said smell permeates into the aircon once you turn on the blower knobs. Although the system provides cold air (and the recirculate button was on and the temperature was at the coldest setting), it takes awhile to disperse the stale air and "the new car smell" and inject cool air into the cabin. The author found himself opening all the windows (or even the driver's door) for a good three to five minutes to let stale air and the said smell to get out before closing the door or the windows. Perhaps it's the odor of the sound absorbent foam or part of the wagon's noise suppression system entering the vents, but the aircon can make passengers dizzy if you turn on the aircon and drive immediately with every window and door closed.
Performance, but is it up to par?
Arguably the most unique selling point of the Optra wagon is its rearmost section, and this feature lives up to its billing. The rear seats offer a 60-40 split-folding function, but do not exactly fold flat as in the case of the Honda Jazz's ULT (Utility, Long and Tall) cargo abilities. The Optra wagon also does not have a recess in the rear liftgate window to facilitate easier opening, a problem for the driver who is cradling a ton of groceries in both hands and can barely open the rear hatch. But the good news is that the Optra wagon totes a tonneau cover and a cargo net divider, handy for parents who wish to prevent their kids from going over to the rearmost section (or the family pet that needs to remain in the cargo area) or frequent haulers who require that no one sees their loot. And the wagon's cargo hauling capacity seems that it may not rival that of, say, a Volvo V50, but it can carry three large luggages and a medium-sized Samsonite suitcase with the rear seats upright and the cargo blocking the rear view mirror.
The Optra wagon is powered by a 1.6 liter E-TEC II four-cylinder DOHC engine that puts out 110 hp and 150 NMs of torque. Despite the new engine, the Optra wagon seems sluggish, even when downshifting to first gear. The a/t tends to hover too much between first and second gear in moving traffic. And the unit for this test drive gave back a 6.42 kms/liter consumption rate in city and highway driving, highly unusual for a car that displaces 1600 cc. But the noise suppression system and the new hydraulic mounts keep the 1.6L engine quiet and prevent shift shock from getting to the cabin.
GM's newest product features a unique Euro-Ride Tuning Suspension shock absorbing system, specially designed to accommodate load distribution for any road condition. The suspension managed to dampen potholes and road irregularities with ease, but can be a handful during hard cornering. Understeer is a given due to the added girth of this Optra variant, but can be easily corrected provided you don't get the urge to give your closest impression of (late WRC great) Richard Burns on turns. The 15-inch wheels give decent grip, but would benefit from meatier, better-profiled tires. And steering is heavy, but gives enough feedback for the driver to discern.
The Optra wagon, much like its sedan brother, is a bargain hauler - provided you're the type who: 1) Needs to carry passengers and cargo long distances; 2) Dislikes commercial vehicles, subcompact cars, and paying over seven figures for a four-wheeled vehicle; and 3) Doesn't care whether he or she gets from point A to point B quickly, just as long as he or she gets from point A to point B on time.