Best of 2007: Nirvana, starting at 12 grand

Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

Desire, the Buddha informs us, is the root of all suffering -- also, a leading cause of alimony, but let’s move on.

The craving for comfort, luxury, prestige and me-first acceleration drives us to buy more car than we absolutely need to go from point A to point B. And do these cars -- the Maserati Quattroportes, the Porsche Caymans, the Range Rover Sports -- make us happy? Well, yes. Yes, they do.

But at what cost, karmically speaking? And for how long? I would point people to a common experience: Call it “rental car phenomenology.” You go on vacation, rent a chintzy, buzzy little economy car with crank windows, cloth seats and all-but-crystal-set radio, and by the second day you discover, lo, you can get along quite fine with your miserable little scrap of a car. We adjust quickly to our automotive surroundings.


Conversely, the satisfactions of a magnificent Mercedes S-class often seem to decline in direct proportion to the distance from the dealership. After a few months, auto-ennui settles in, and you may ask yourself: Why did I blow all that cash on this boat?

In a material culture running out of ways to besot consumers, I propose a different kind of pleasure: buying less car than you can afford. Maybe a lot less. Cars are, after all, an awful waste of money. For most of their existence all they do is sit there -- in the driveway, the parking deck, on the street -- in a cloud of dissipating residual value. Why not, just for one round in the auto-buying cycle of life, opt out, break the bewitchment of automotive status and indulgence. Consider the joys of modesty.

The 2007 Chevy Aveo LS and the 2007 Nissan Versa are a couple of the cheapest cars on the market, with out-the-door prices between $12,000 and $15,000 (the average new-car price is $28,400). Both are four-door, five-seat, front-drive runabouts with sub-2-liter four-bangers under the hood. Both come in hatchback and sedan configurations.

And both repel the attentions of the opposite sex like Gortex repels water. These cars have the erotic charge of abstinence-based education, the epicurean frisson of room-temperature tofu.

Yet both are, I discovered, pretty endearing little cars. To drive them is to benchmark how far cheap transportation has come since the days of the death-wishful Ford Aspire and Chevy Celebrity. Both are safe -- with good to great government ratings in front and side crash tests and reasonably fuel-efficient (in the 30-mpg range). Both are spacious, lively and fun to drive within their cheapskate limits. Either has fit and finish and a list of optional equipment that would have been the envy of Rolls Royce a decade ago.

And both are fairly representative of the suddenly sexy class of wee-compact overachievers that includes the charismatic Toyota Yaris and Honda Fit. Collectively, these cars offer considerable personal growth opportunities without the stale cookies of a 12-step meeting.

To be sure, the Chevy Aveo is the more spiritual. Built by GM fiefdom Daewoo, the Aveo got a pretty significant restyling for 2007; the previously lax flow of the sheet metal has been given a crisp, geometric gloss similar to the four-door Cobalt. Yet it remains determinedly nerdy. Tall sided and piled high like dorm-room laundry, the Aveo’s most notable visual feature is the big-and-proud Chevy bowtie and dual-port grille, direct from America’s heartland by way of the Korean peninsula.

The Aveo comes with a 1.6-liter four-squirter sending 103 hp and 107 pound-feet of torque to the front wheels by way of either a five-speed manual or optional four-speed automatic. The base LS is so bare bones you don’t need a mechanic but an osteopath: steel wheels and plastic covers, crank windows, manual outside mirrors, a four-speaker AM/FM radio, rear drum brakes. No anti-lock brakes, no stability control, no head air bag, no remote locking, no cruise control.

With the addition of the automatic, a CD player (with auxiliary jack) and alloy wheels inside 185/60 14-inch Kumbo radials, our Aveo LS came in at $13,990. At that price, the Aveo suffers in a straight-up price-per-feature comparison against not only the Versa but the smaller, more lithe and fuel-efficient Scion xA, which is more stylish in every category, right down to the badge typeface.

That said, there’s something quite agreeable about the Aveo. It’s comfortable, solidly constructed, and surprisingly eager to please. The little dual-cam motor will happily pull its guts out to get up to speed. The ride quality is reasonably composed for a short-wheelbase (97.6 inches) commuter car, and the interior noise levels more than respectable. The exterior paint quality and panel gap consistency are excellent.

And, let me just say, hand-cranked windows? What a clever idea.

The biggest surprise in the Aveo is the interior’s quality. The subject of a major push by GM, the interior is full of over-achieving fabrics, like the dark nail-head upholstery in the door gussets and seats, as well as respectable faux alloy trim on the dash and door pulls, and dense dash vinyl. The switchgear is attractive and well placed; the silver-ringed, black-faced instruments are cleanly legible and well executed.

I actually enjoyed my week in the glamour-deprived Aveo. It could be just my contrarian streak, but I felt a warm glow of moral satisfaction in this car, which clearly announced my disdain for L.A.’s automotive posturing. Remember, Mr. Valet Man, park it out front.

To be sure, the Nissan Versa is more car for the money. The base model Versa offers a bigger (1.8 liters) and stronger (122 hp) engine; a six-speed manual transmission; bigger wheels (15 inches); power mirrors; CD player; side-curtain air bags; and quite a bit more range (396 miles from a 13-gallon tank, vs. the Aveo’s 297 miles from an 11-gallon reservoir). It’s been said that company healthcare and labor costs add $1,500 to the cost of every GM product. In high-line vehicles like Cadillacs, there are lots of places to hide that difference. Not so in this price bracket.

The Versa, built for the North American market in Aguascalientes, Mexico, comes to the U.S. this year after a successful career globally as the Nissan Tiida. Nissan subsidiary Renault will get a version of the Versa in Europe this year. Based on a stretched version of the Nissan B-platform (under can’t-get-’em-here cars like the Nissan March and Renault Clio), the Versa has much the same acoustic and tactile signatures of its Sentra and Altima siblings: quiet, stout, and reassuring. The interior is bright, spacious, airy and -- like the Honda Fit’s -- deceptively large. According to Nissan, the Versa has the largest interior in its class. The engine is silk-scarf smooth, the electric steering light and accurate. Well-balanced and grippy in the corners, the Versa feels like a car built to the higher expectations of Japanese domestic buyers.

Our test car, for $14,155, came with the anti-lock brakes and power package, including keyless ignition and remote locking, power door locks and windows. A maxed-out Versa 1.8SL -- with the Rockford Fosgate stereo, sport trim and sunroof -- can easily top $18,000, at which point you might want to look at cars with a higher base price but longer lists of standard features.

Don’t want the hatchback? Nissan began selling Versa sedans in December, but the hatchback -- with its stylistic echo of the Renault Megane -- is more appealing.

Typically, people ask me what is the best car they can afford. I propose another metric: What is the best car you can get for half what you can afford? Think of what you could do with the difference in purchase price between these cars and a decent BMW? A year’s tuition at an Ivy League school? Shooting lessons from Dick Cheney? As Ringo once said, me mind boggles.

Perhaps, in basic transportation, you’ll find enlightenment.

2007 Chevy Aveo LS sedanBase price: $11,750Price, as tested: $13,990Powertrain: 1.6-liter, DOHC, 16-valve inline four cylinder; four-speed automatic transmission; front-wheel driveHorsepower: 103 at 6,000 rpmTorque: 107 pound-feet at 3,600 rpmCurb weight: 2,531 pounds0-60 mph: 10 secondsWheelbase: 97.6 inchesOverall length: 169.7 inchesEPA fuel economy: 27 miles per gallonFinal thoughts: Good for your soul

2007 Nissan Versa hatchbackBase price: $12,450Price, as tested: $14,155Powertrain: 1.8-liter, DOHC, 16-valve inline four cylinder with variable-valve timing; six-speed manual transmission; front-wheel driveHorsepower: 122 at 5,200 rpmTorque: 127 pound-feet at 4,800 rpmCurb weight: 2,722 pounds0-60 mph: 9 secondsWheelbase: 102.4 inchesOverall length: 169.1 inchesEPA fuel economy: 30 miles per gallon city, 34 highwayFinal thoughts: Painless simplicity