COAL: 2006 Pontiac Wave (Chevy Aveo/Daewoo Kalos) – The Worst New Car Of A Lifetime

GM Canada has a long tradition of Canada-only cars, and one of them was the Pontiac Wave, a badge-engineered Chevrolet Aveo, which in turn was a very thinly disguised Daewoo Kalos. My Korean friends had warned me to never buy a Daewoo product, but like an idiot, I refused to listen.

The Aveo was a Daewoo design spawned before their gargantuan 1999 bankruptcy. The Kalos was marketed as a new product from a new Daewoo, one that had much better styling and was finally engineered in house. Prior to this time, every Daewoo car was a joint venture of some sort or other, with heavy technical assistance from both GM and Suzuki. Even engines were imported for many years. Such technical tie-ups resulted in some truly horrid cars like the Prince, Espero and Tico.

While the cars had a terrible reputation for quality in Korea, it didn’t matter that much in the early 1990’s, since Koreans were car-starved and would buy pretty much anything available to purchase. When I arrived in Korea in late 1994, Korean car buyers were often waiting a year to get a car. This was because exports were seen as more important than the domestic market. Keeping cars in short supply kept the prices up, too. For example, my boss bought a Hyundai Marcia in 1995, a gussied up Sonata, and it retailed at W17,000,000, or $24,000 at the exchange rates of the day. Pretty dear for a car without leather.

I had seen the Kalos all over Korea, and the car, with a 1.2 litre engine, was popular when it was introduced in 2002. I drove a Kalos in Korea and  it seemed like a decent, cheap little car. It had nice styling, the space usage was very good, and it had plenty of features to keep one happy. In 1999, GM bought out Daewoo Motor, and now the Kalos was theirs to sell all over the world. The car, while obviously cheap, seemed reasonably well assembled with materials that were quite good, considering the price.

Fast forward to late 2005: I was now working as a service adviser at a GM store. At this point, the writing was on the wall for GM and we all knew it. We had weekly meetings during which the zone rep harangued us to buy a car to keep our jobs alive. Since the sales people were making next to zippola, it was up to the service guys to do our bit.

The car business was not a place I wanted to be for long. At the time, I was working on a new business that required frequent trips to meet people at their home. I was driving a 1992 Eagle Summit beater, which just didn’t do. Since we hadn’t seen a lot of Wave/Aveo’s back for service, I assumed they were a pretty good car.

The deal was in fact excellent: a Pontiac Wave-5 Up-level, loaded with everything except a/c and sunroof. It was a five speed and I loved the features. For example, the keyless entry fob was integrated into the key, the first car to do this. The deal on the car was $1000 discount, $1000 off as an employee and 0.9% on a four year lease. The payment was $197 a month all in, with no down payment. I correctly saw that as a screaming deal for a car I would not have to wrench on for a few years, or so I thought! So, with faith that GM actually could build a good car, I signed on the dotted line for a four year lease. I reasoned that even if the car were a total disaster, I could just give it back when the lease was up.

The initial impression of the car was good. It was well assembled and had good quality stuff inside. Picking up the car was a family affair; my wife, kids and mom were all present. We got in our new car and I put it into gear. The first impression of the shifter was of a long stick stuck in a vat of pudding. I assumed this was normal. The car seemed under-powered, which I chalked up to the five people inside. Finally, whatever undercoating applied at the factory in Korea was all over the exhaust, which stank like hell!

The car had lots of features, like an MP3 capable radio, power windows, nice little touches like a sunglasses holder and the car looked good. The first major disappointment was fuel consumption: the first tank came in at 10.5L/100km, which is really not good for a 1.6 litre. I assumed that the motor was tight and kept filling up. It never did get better and on the highway, it struggled so badly to keep up a reasonable speed it never went above 9.0L/100km. I still wanted to like the car, and kept going with it. It also made a much better impression on clients. Since it was my first new car since 1990, I washed and polished it feverishly. It was, in my mind, a sign that I was back on track in the real world.

The first big test was in December 2006, when we planned a family trip to Disneyland, in Anaheim, California. It was a last minute kind of thing, so airfares were outrageous, so why not drive? From my house, all I have to do is make two turns and I am on Oak Street; follow for 2096 km and arrive at your destination. We bought a compact DVD player for our young children and off we went.

The car struggled to keep up with traffic that flowed at more than the speed limit, which was practically always. In sections of northern California, for example, the traffic was moving at close to 90 mph. It was in this area that the first major problem came up. While driving uphill on an exit ramp at about 4000 rpm, the car made a god-awful rattle. I instantly assumed a lifter and thought it an easy repair. When I got back, I took the car back to the dealer, for which I was, incidentally, not working anymore, glory be!


With shocking surprise, the car came back “NFF” or “no fault found.” The reason for this was simple: since the car was a lease, it didn’t count on CSI scores and if it wasn’t CSI, they didn’t care. My former work place saw the car as a money loser and gave me the shove-off. Talk about great service, eh? The next dealer was almost as bad. I got a tech to go for a drive with me and he heard it plain as day. Then I forced the service manager to listen. It was pretty hard to deny the symphony of knocking and the car went in and I was given a Buick Lacrosse as a loaner. Ironically, it was only marginally harder on fuel than the Wave!

A week went by and finally they called me; the car needed lifters. A new set of lifters were installed and the noise was still there. Instead of calling me, they backpedaled; finally, after another two weeks, they called me and told me it needed an engine. One of the cylinder bores was out of round and could not be further bored out. The closest short block was in Korea. I didn’t care that much since I was driving around their loaner car, getting free kms on it. The Buick 3.8 was pretty fun, too, but the suspension sucked in anything but sedate driving.

The engine replacement on my Wave took another six weeks. I later learned that the reason for the hold-up was the stealership did not want to pay the carrying costs on the engine before the warranty claim was paid out, which could be three months or more. This is the reason it took them ten weeks to replace an engine and why I had received not a single call. As per norm at a GM service department, the internal concerns of the people working there were far more important than the client getting his car back promptly. Needless to say, this experience rather soured my relationship with the dealer.

I could go on and on about my Wave, but suffice to say the car was a total POS. Poorly engineered, bad quality control and plain poor parts. The next major issue happened only a few months later; second gear in the transmission had failed at only 12,000 km (7,456 miles); this after the engine had failed at 9,000 (5,592 miles). The transmission replacement took five weeks. This time I was so mad I demanded a car that was at least as fuel efficient as the Wave, which really wasn’t asking much.

A few months later, the PCM failed in my lane. There were 10 cm on slushy snow on the ground and pushing the car to a parking place took five strong guys. On my way home (and two weeks later), the replacement PCM failed because the tech had damaged the wiring harness. I was making a left hand turn up a hill when it shorted and I was almost nailed by a five ton truck. I was scared to death, and after a mere eighteen months of Wave driving, I made up my mind the car had to go. I was not going to risk having the car out of warranty, especially since it had an engine job done by a tech who was fired soon after he did the work. Nor would GM add an extra year on the warranty until the lease was up. But really, the most galling thing about the Wave was the utter indifference the dealer showed to standing behind the product they sold. Neither dealer I went to gave a rat’s behind about their customers. Keeping the techs happy was the main order of the day; nobody wanted an engine job because they’d lose time on it, so finally they get the youngster to do it. This process takes, get this, ten weeks. That is completely inexcusable; can can any company run itself like this? Obviously not because GM was tits up not long after.

Fortunately, even at this time, there were still dyed-in-the-wool GM people in existence. I advertised the car for like six weeks and got no takers. It was a simple lease take-over and the payment was so low that I thought it would be easy to get rid of it. How wrong I was, try selling a manual transmission car in Vancouver. Anyway, a recently retired GM lover contacted me, fell in love with the car and took over the lease. I was free of the Explodo-Wave as I called it. I drove straight from the GM store to the Honda dealer and picked up a 2008 Honda Fit DX, my next COAL.


The Wave was emblematic of everything that was wrong with GM; bad product that should never have been in our market. Sure, were it cheap enough, it would have done well in markets like India, where it in fact did fine. However, the basic lack of decent engineering and quality control meant the cars were not reliable. The Consumer Reports ratings were awful after the first couple of years. GM should have developed their own small car and really tried to keep its customers away from Honda and Toyota dealers. When I finally dumped the Wave, I told anyone who would listen, “This car is the best advertisement Honda ever had.” I was completely correct, too, because my Honda Fit in three years never had a single warranty issue. Now GM is bringing in the Spark, also made in the Bupyong plant in Incheon, a place known for horrible labor-management relations. Anyone want to buy one and see how good it is?