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Daewoo Kalos


Old sayings always contain an element of truth; it's probably how they got to become old sayings.

That old saw, you can't judge a book by its cover (or in its blues lyric variant, you can't judge a book by looking at the cover) came to mind when I was collecting my thoughts on Daewoo's cute Kalos five-door hatchback. The saying came with another equally cliched rider: more's the pity.

For the Kalos - the five-door hatch, not the rather dumpy four-door sedan, which recalls Toyota's abominable Echo sedan - is one of the best-looking small cars on the market.

That's probably no surprise once you discover the styling was penned by Italian outfit ItalDesign, the firm headed by the charismatic Giorgetto Giugiaro.

Giugiaro has been responsible for many of modern motoring's most beautiful prestige cars. Now he's shown his studio can do the same for cars in the $20,000 market segment.

The brief for the Kalos was to come up with inidividuality.

The resulting five-door is a good-looker indeed, with a rising wedge hipline, high roof and chopped-off, neatly detailed tail and hatchback door.

The wedge line extends into the rear door windows whose lower edges rise into quarterlights that reach up and draw attention to the rear roofline.

In the metal the Kalos looks very good, echoing its name which is derived from the ancient Greek word for beauty.

Forget about the rather unflattering low front-angle photos Daewoo is using the promote the car. They make it look bulbous and nose heavy and don't serve it well.

So that's the outside story. ItalDesign and the Daewoo stylists have got the look of the car right, but that only serves to prove the veracity of the judging a book by its cover saying.

For sadly, much of the rest of the Kalos fails to match the promise of its cover.

The Kalos is the first new product launched since General Motors took over Daewoo cars to form GM Daewoo (though of course the car was well down the track before GM got involved).

It's not bad - don't get me wrong, I enjoyed my few days with it - but the substance of the car doesn't live up to the expectation its sublime body styling stimulates.

Take its performance. The Kalos is powered by a four-cylinder 1498cc, multi-point fuel-injected, Single Overhead Camshaft engine.

It develops 62kW at 5600rpm and 128Nm of torque at a reasonably-low 128Nm.

Those figures look reasonable on paper, but fall a little short on the road. Daewoo doesn't quote vehicle weight or final drive ratio in its spec sheets but we suspect one or both to have a blunting effect on the performance.

The Kalos is brisk in flat city running and will cruise at 100km/h with ease on the motorway and highway (Daewoo says 0-100km/h takes 13.3 seconds and top speed is 170km/h). But meet any sort of real hill and you find yourself zipping down through the gearbox to retain momentum. In practice the motor feels more like a 1300 than a 1500.

We tend towards the high-geared theory because of the car's excellent fuel economy. We covered around 420 kilometres on three-quarters of a tank - and that included some very brisk driving on demanding roads and long periods idling in traffic jams. Even so, we estimate we achieved around 40mpg in a mix of running, much of it in the city.

Daewoo refers to the motor as "lively" which is a fair summation: it's happy to rev. It's just that its willing nature isn't well-displayed by the car's rather average performance when the going gets tough.

The test car was a five-speed manual; what extra sap would the four-speed auto make on the performance?

The manual is light and pleasant to use and shifts quickly and accurately, despite a rather rubbery feel.

The power-assisted rack and pinion steering is light and accurate enough and the Kalos turns-in to corners willingly.

Handling is biased towards understeer, and you have to wind on a fair amount of steering lock when cornering on highway corners.

When you're really pressing on, the best method is the classic front-wheel drive technique of setting the car up early and letting it almost drift through the corner on a late-apex line. That way you avoid running wide on the exit of left-handers.

There's moderate body roll and you're reasonably conscious of the Kalos' 1495mm height.

The car is at its best on state highway-type corners; asked to constantly change direction it can get a little flustered and eventually runs wide as the corner count builds.

If you wanted a small car that could storm a winding road with an aplomb that was once reserved for hot hatches, Holden's Barina is a much better bet - if you want to stay with a GM product.

But the Kalos has good ride quality and the MacPherson strut front and torsion beam rear suspension cope well with bumps.

That's helped too by the longish wheelbase - 2480mm in a 4235mm overall car length - which also gives good directional stability. The track of 1450mm (front) and 1410mm (rear) helps stability too. The Kalos runs on 14-inch wheels wearing 185/60 R14 tyres which gave strong grip even if they were a little noisy on chip-surfaced roads.

The disc front/drum rear brakes - complete with ABS - provided strong and fade-free stopping.

The Kalos' high roof gives good headroom and we found legroom in front and rear to be good. The front seats are comfortable and provided adequate lateral support.

Luggage space is around a fully-loaded supermarket trolley-and-a-half and can be extended by folding the seatbacks forward.

The cabin trim includes a lot of hard plastic: only time will tell whether that will become rattly with age.

Some passengers thought the dashboard over-styled with its contrasting colours, big circular air vents and prominent circular hazard flasher switch. Personally I thought it was fine - and characterful.

Standard gear includes air-conditioning, key-operated central door-locking, power windows (though curiously manually-adjustable exterior mirrors), passenger's seatback picnic table, Compact Disc sound system, engine immobiliser and dual front airbags.

That's not a bad feature list - standard on all models - on a car whose prices start at just under $20,000.

The car gets a black mark for having only a lap seatbelt in the centre rear seat position, a curious omission in a car marketed by a company as safety-conscious as GM Holden. We know the argument about most people only carrying four occupants in smallish cars, but if they didn't expect you to occasionally carry five why have they included a central seatbelt at all.

The Daewoo Kalos is a mixed bag, with standout styling, good build quality, good fuel economy, plenty of passenger space and comfort, and a good range of features. Against that are ranged slightly disappointing performance and handling. We know it's not a sporting car nor is it intended to be, but GM shows with its Barina that you can engineer a car that meets basic transportation requirements while also delivering fun handling and excellent road manners.

This is the first GM Daewoo-badged new car; let's hope later versions get some of the Opel chassis magic added. With sharper handling and a little more go the Kalos would be a much better car than it is now.

Instead of being merely an easy and pleasant car to drive it might very well be a best small hatchback contender. The basics are there, they just need fine-tuning.

Story and pictures by Mike Stock

Auto Trader New Zealand