GM’s effort to bring some competitive new cars to market continues with the Canadian-only Pontiac Wave. Hard on the heels of the Saturn Aura, the Wave is more proof that, by relying on global affiliates with experience in the car market (vs. trucks and SUVs) GM can offer world-class products at competitive prices.

Efficient small cars are the norm in Europe and Asia. That efficiency, in terms of both space utilization and fuel usage is expected and auto makers competing in those markets have vast experience in meeting those needs.

The Aura got most of its good genes from Opel and the upcoming replacement for the Ion will come from that same brain-trust. The Wave, from Bupyong, South Korea-based affiliate Daewoo, is a bona fide contender against fellow South Koreans Hyundai Accent and Kia Rio and Japanese efforts like the Fit, Versa and Yaris.

Many like it small

This market is hot and getting hotter in Canada. While Americans have avoided this segment like the plague until recently, more heavily-taxed and cost-conscious Canadians are flocking to it like pre-teens to a Hillary Duff concert. The automotive market is incredibly competitive and, despite some lapses over the past couple of decades, GM didn’t get to be the biggest kid in the sandbox by ignoring trends.

2007 Pontiac Wave

In the past couple of years we’ve seen the arrival of the several newcomers and updates to existing models: Toyota Yaris, Kia Rio, Honda Fit, Hyundai Accent and Nissan Versa from Asia alone. The significant update to the Chevy Aveo and its Pontiac sibling, the Wave, for 2007 is timely indeed.

GM and Ford have a long history of turning to South Korean companies for cheap small cars for the North American market. Most of them were disasters, poorly built and unable to withstand the rigors of our wide open spaces, long distance travel and salt-riddled winters. But the new South Korean auto industry that spawned Hyundai, Kia and Daewoo is a much more international entity.

After flirting with financial disaster, these companies have turned their attention to the international scene, studied wants and needs, responded to quality surveys and in a relatively short period of time addressed the issues. Hyundai and Kia are enjoying chart-topping success in the most recent quality surveys and the 2007 Wave gives the impression that Daewoo is on the same path. GM’s new six-year, 160,000 km warranty should remove any further doubts.

But it’s big inside

The initial impression of the Wave sedan is of space and modern design. The front end is distinctly Pontiac. There are stylish blisters over both front and rear wheels and a character line that flows from head to tail light. The new Wave is longer and wider than the outgoing version and that results in loads of head room in the front seat and ample space in back for two big adults. The materials covering seats, door panels and instrument panel look and feels much more upscale than the “cheap and cheerful” expected at this price point.

2007 Pontiac Wave

The dash is particularly impressive for both design and layout. Everything is where you’d expect it and operates with a tactile quality not associated with this price point. Two prominent vents dominate the dash atop the audio and HVAC controls. The audio system is operated by push buttons with a single rotary knob in the center.

The HVAC is controlled by a trio of nice big rotary knobs which can be easily deciphered and worked with gloves on. On the negative side we found the secondary instruments are buried so deep within the chrome-ringed pods as to make them dark and difficult to see in daylight. With the headlights on, visibility improves. The rear seat back is split 60/40 and either or both sides can be folded down to increase trunk space.

Acceleration mild at best

Modern mechanicals allow the Wave (and Aveo) to be the most fuel-efficient vehicles in the extensive GM line up, rated at 8.9 litres/100 km city and 5.9 on the highway. We didn’t even approach those numbers during our test period, averaging 10.1 for a combination of city and highway use. But several factors explain the difference: our driving habits tend to be more aggressive than the norm, Transport Canada ratings are out of touch with reality and winter is here with cold taking a considerable toll on fuel mileage. Still is heartening to feel the pump shut off earlier than expected as the 45-litre tank fills up.

2007 Pontiac Wave

The 1.6-litre aluminium four-cylinder has all the modern attributes like dual overhead camshafts, and a variable intake system and produces 103 horsepower and 107 lb-ft of torque. Performance could be termed adequate when paired with the five-speed manual gearbox as was our tester, but drops off considerably with the four-speed automatic. With one or two fewer gears than some competitors, the engine is hard pressed to deliver anything resembling performance when saddled with the self-shifter. But, it should be pointed out that it is smooth, quiet and adequate if driven in a less aggressive manner.

The mediocre acceleration with the auto box was born out by instrumented tests we conducted in conjunction with the 2007 Canadian Car of the Year event. The 100 km/h mark was reached in a full 12 seconds from a standing start and the Wave covered the quarter mile in a leisurely 18.63 seconds, with a peak of only 119.1 km/h (74.0 mph) at the timing mark.

Subsequent testing, aboard a Wave SE equipped with the 5-speed manual gearbox, produced a slightly better 0-100 km/h acceleration average of 11.35 seconds, while the quarter mile went by in 17.75 seconds, with a speed of 128.1 km/h (79.6 mph) at the timing point.

Graphic braking differences

Our electronic equipment also clearly revealed that the Wave’s stopping distances, during simulated emergency braking tests from 100 km/h, were out of line with the competition. The littlest Pontiac sedan stopped over a distance average of 53.37 metres (175.1 ft). Those tests were performed in a car that was not equipped with ABS (ed. note: in spite of GM Canada’s best efforts to provide a Wave thus equipped for COTY testing) and brake modulation proved difficult for even a seasoned tester. This leaves one to believe that the average consumer who jumps on the brakes when faced with an emergency will have even less hope of preventing lockup and the resultant lack of control.

2007 Pontiac Wave

The good news is $960 away. That’s the tab for the poorly-labelled “security Package” which in addition to the critically-important four-channel ABS system also brings side airbags for both driver and passenger. It might be much more appropriately called the “safety package”.

Equipped with the optional ABS, the Wave SE we tested stopped from 100 km/h over a distance of 43.42 metres (142.47 ft) on average, a gigantic difference of 9.95 metres or 32.63 ft. There can be no better illustration of the unquestionable safety benefits of ABS braking.

Solid pricing

The 2007 Wave is available in four-door sedan and five-door hatchback body styles in base and SE trim levels starting at about $13,000. While ABS and side bags can, and should be added to the base model, the fun actually begins at $16,500 for the SE with that package. Our SE tester topped out at $18,660. It included a $1,120 package which added 15-inch alloy wheels with larger tires and an audio upgrade incorporating steering-wheel-mounted controls and provision to plug in your iPod or similar digital audio player.

2007 Pontiac Wave

Our tester also came with a $985 sunroof which could be replaced by an automatic transmission if that is your desire, keeping the total at $18,645 plus taxes etc. At that you get almost all the bells and whistles: remote keyless entry, automatic transmission, power windows, power locks, air conditioning, cruise control, alloy wheels, six-speaker audio system and power/heated mirrors.

The Wave also comes with tilt wheel and a height-adjustable driver seat making it possible for folks of diverse dimensions to become comfortably positioned for the job of driving. And that is not a task. Despite the relatively diminutive nature of the Wave, the suspension does a decent job of isolating occupants from the road blemishes, providing a supple ride while retaining some semblance of alacrity in the turns.

Pontiac’s littlest sedan understeers resolutely when pressed, but this is an economy car, not a sports car and when driven accordingly behaves admirably: Hats off the sound engineers for a great job in making a small and inexpensive car so quiet. Both wind and road noise is nicely controlled, even at highway speeds. The clutch is light and progressive and the shift linkage, while a bit vague, easily handled.

Conclusion

The Chevy Aveo came to Canada in 2004, followed a year later by the Wave. The redesigned 2007 versions are a considerable step forward and worth consideration for those in the entry-level econobox market. You can shop at the country’s largest dealer network as the Wave and Chevrolet Aveo are identical in everything, including price, other than name and grille.

ROAD TEST SUMMARY

2007 Pontiac Wave

Here are the salient points and overall rating of this new model, as established by our reviewer:

Overall rating: 7.9 / 10

Pros

  • Modern upscale appearance inside, in particular the instrument panel
  • Quality feel, fit and materials throughout
  • Can be fully equipped (including ABS) for less than $20K

Cons

  • One solitary cup holder – out of reach
  • Standard braking system inadequate
  • Rather lethargic performance