Sure, spending less than $14,000 on a new car is a great deal. But that doesn't mean that $14,000 is a small amount of money. For some people -- whether they're first-time car buyers or just not blessed with mid-six-figure incomes -- it's a serious sum to spend on transportation.
That's why I believe that any car should offer a certain amount of fun and excitement for its new owner. Buying a new car isn't just a purchase -- it's entering into a relationship that one can only hope will happily continue for years.
Or at least until the last payment is made.
Not everyone thinks this way about cars. There are people who view them as simply a mode of transportation, a way to get from one place to another with little thought of the vehicle beyond the steering wheel, gas pedal and brake. I'm not saying I understand these people -- I just happen to know that they exist.
The 2004 Chevy Aveo -- basically a Suzuki Swift rebadged and restyled for the American market -- well suits this type of practical, no nonsense driver. It doesn't call unwarranted attention to itself, it reliably moves you and your limited cargo around, and it refrains from drinking too heavily at the pump.
It may sound like I'm being a bit hard on the little Aveo, a car that would seem to serve its purpose well. But there are some things that are a bit off-putting, starting with the handling. Lots of body roll in turns and a weebly-wobbly feel to highway cruising are both amplified when the Aveo is loaded with four adult-sized passengers. It's a ride that won't be making you any friends.
Unlike most cases, I would recommend opting for the automatic transmission -- the five speed manual is very loose, making shifting a driving adventure of the wrong kind.
On the outside, the Aveo in both 5-door hatchback and 4-door sedan forms can best be described as jaunty, but it fades next to more stylized offerings from other youth-hungry brands such as Scion. Interior design is similarly functional, with a CD/MP3 stereo the main nod in the direction of driving enjoyment.
Then again, for those no-nonsense buyers uninterested in tricking out their cars with neon-lighted cupholders, mood-illuminating stereo controls, and cars designed to be a "lifestyle," the Aveo can be a sensible choice -- particularly with the prospect of fewer trips to the gas station.
The 2004 Toyota Highlander is another entry into the practicality arena, although as a mid-sized SUV with a suitably comfortable quasi-luxe interior, it's in a vastly different league than a commuter scooter.
A base Highlander with a V-6 and all-wheel drive carries an MSRP of $31,380. Add in some premium options such as leather seats, a premium in-dash 6-CD changer, and a rear passenger DVD player as tested here, and you're up to $37,037.
I've often wondered about the utility of DVD players beyond quieting children by encouraging a vegetative state. On a weekend beach trip, I found that it's equally useful for a pair of adults -- the passenger can hole up with the high-quality headphones in the back seat, while the driver can listen without guilt to any music he likes.
And I imagine it's cheaper than couple's therapy.
The Highlander is way more utility than sport -- the back cargo area is ample, readily accommodating luggage, people and combinations thereof. It does, however, feel more like a station wagon that's been jacked up a few inches than it does an off-road weekend warrior. Which is, of course, exactly the point.