Cars with automatic gearboxes: as I get older I like them more. There was a time in my life - and many of my younger friends are at a similar points in their's - when I found it to be little less than an absurdity to be driving an auto when I could have been driving a manual gearbox car.
Changing your own gears gave you a greater feeling of control and in days gone by auto gearboxes weren't the slick and quick-shifting units they are now (they also no often have a manual-shift mode, giving you the chance to have the best of both worlds). Can anyone remember the vile attempts at autos in some cars in the 1970s? Like the Morris 1300's ghastly auto gearbox which could change six times, hunting up and down, before you'd hit 50km/h from a standing start.
Auckland's traffic was less of a snarl back then, and the very real merits of the auto gearbox in stop/start, crawling city traffic were less evident.
But as I've gotten older, and their technology and responsiveness has improved markedly, I've grown to appreciate automatics more. For city driving they'd be my first choice, even in something as manual-oriented as a Ford Falcon XR6 or HSV Clubsport. Hard open-road running is a different matter, though many modern autos can be punted cross-country with as much driver satisfaction as a manual.
But to get back to the big city with its nightmare traffic snarl-ups. There, the auto reigns supreme; or so I thought until I drove GM Daewoo's Matiz.
Now this is a city car. Daewoo says so in the brochure: "Matiz, where European styling meets city car size." It's a smartly-styled little car, with lines penned by Giorgetto Giugiaro's ItalDesign studio.
And little is the operative word, from exterior dimensions (3495mm length; 1495mm width; 1485mm height; 2340mm wheelbase) to engine size (796cc three-cylinder) to power output (37.5kW at 5900rpm/69Nm at 4600rpm). Kerb weight is 776kg (manual) or 793kg (auto, as tested).
And as Kiss bassist Gene Simmons roars, size matters, and his macho boast is especially true in the case of the Matiz's meagre power and torque when the car is saddled with the four-speed auto. Automatics rob virtually all small-engined cars of performance; the Matiz's auto leaves the car breathless whenever the going gets hilly. And like Toyota's bargain basement 1.0-litre rear-wheel drive Starlet of the early 1980s, the auto Matiz is not a car in which to go for small and closing gaps in city traffic.
Here's a car that would definitely be far more at home with a manual gearbox, even in the heaviest and snarliest city traffic.
The auto is controlled by a long lever that sprouts up from the floor. It's generally in overdrive which you switch off using a floor-mounted button. The first few times you have to lean down to use it, you're also taking your eyes off the road. Its use soon becomes second nature, even if it is something of a drag to have to bend down to press the button. With the overdrive off performance is more urgent and more raucous and it's essential to switch it off when you're about to tackle the scattering of steep hills that dot central Auckland.
We felt the auto took too much performance away to make the Matiz the necessarily-peppy car you need for inner city work; and we'd plump for a manual every time.
Things were better on the open road and the Matiz cruised comfortably at 100km/h on the motorway. You needed to lean down and switch off the overdrive for the gradients, but the little car made pleasingly brisk progress. We used it to drive to and from the Greg Todd Rally headquarters at Mercer for two days and found it relaxing, rapid and surprisingly stable even in quite strong crosswinds. In fact the diminutive Daewoo was less affected by the aerodynamic turbulence created by truck and trailer units running at speed than many bigger cars we've driven. The only scary thing about getting near trucks was when there was one on either side of you on a three-lane carriageway. You suddenly became acutely aware of how small the Matiz was.
The only glitch on the open road was the trek back north over the Bombay Hills after the Greg Todd Rally. I flicked off the overdrive and we sallied forth and the car got progressively slower as the hill went on. I was starting to think the engine might have been crying enough after two days of rapid and quite hard open-road running. It seemed to be shedding speed at an alarming rate. And then we reached the top, the Daewoo took a metaphorical deep breath and scampered along the top of the Bombay ridge in fine style.
Windscreen wipers were efficient, the headlights cast good low and high beam light, and the brakes (solid front disc, drum rear) were effective.
The Matiz rides on 13-inch wheels that wear 155/65 tyres. The tyres were Hankooks on the test car. That's a brand we've scarcely rated in the past feeling they favoured hardness and longevity over grip, but the ones on the Matiz gave good roadholding even on soaking wet roads.
The Matiz's power steering was nicely firm and reasonably communicative; turn-in to corners was precise and the car tracked and handled well. The ride was firmish and a little bouncy. But overall the car's dynamics felt far superior to its bigger and newer sibling, the Kalos'.
So here was the irony: a car billed as a city car and equipped with what we feel most city cars need - an automatic gearbox - that was far more at home on the open road than it was in the urban jungle. And the gearbox was the chief culprit: an auto in a car with such meagre power and torque seems an absurdity and detracts from the littlest Daewoo's many merits.
Merits like fuel economy: we drove it hard and covered well over 400 kilometres without using more than three quarters (by the fuel gauge) of the 35-litre tank of petrol.
Merits like ease of use and good interior space, though the Matiz is strictly a four-seater. There's simply no room for any more. You can't cram much luggage in without folding the rear seatbacks - a full supermarket trundler's worth seems about the limit for the small boot space.
Merits like a very good Compact Disc sound system that shamed the unit in a $50,000-plus ute we drove a week later.
Merits like good equipment levels: air-conditioning, central door-locking, power front windows (though manually-adjustable exterior mirrors); driver's and passenger's vanity mirrors; driver's and passenger's airbags; and an engine immobiliser. All that in a car whose prices start at $14,995.
The Matiz was a car that surprised and delighted in many ways; and frustrated in others. The regular passenger fell in love with its looks and its practical interior and its paint colour (Daewoo calls it Cobalt Blue, though it's more purplish, like Ultramarine Blue with a touch of white mixed in). The Matiz even had her thinking about resuming her career behind the wheel. A cynical friend calls this category of car - like the Daihatsu Mira and Suzuki Wagon R - the last car you have before you buy your first mobility scooter.
That's selling the Matiz short, though I couldn't recommend it with the auto gearbox. A five-speed manual is standard; the auto is an option, but it's an option we couldn't consider.
Story and photographs by Mike Stock.