BIG AND DUMB AND MUCH THE BETTER FOR IT. Driven To Write assesses an underdog.
Tinselly, crudely assembled and unattractive sums it up, but luckily that´s just the Chevrolet badge on the bootlid. The rest of the car surprised me by being vastly better than the reputation suggested. The Chevrolet Epica has ended its six year production run and perhaps its reputation needs a little burnishing. I´ll tell you why: there´s very little wrong with the Epica and a lot that´s right.
Regular readers will know that while my personal transportation falls into the “eccentric and old” category, I have a lot of time for unpretentious cars. The words “lifestyle” and “aspiration” and “image” mean as little to me as they did to the Epica´s designers (they are Korean and speak no English). What is the Epica? In marketing terms it´s a big, cheap saloon. In this age of overworked branding and micron-accurate market positioning, such a product is remarkably refreshing.
I tested the 6 cylinder turbodiesel version, launched in 2008. This engine drives the front wheels, surprise, surprise. The petrol engined version had the rare claim to fame that it was a transversely mounted in-line six cylinder and had Porsche input. So did the Seat Ibiza and the Cayenne so that proves nothing. The suspension is probably McPherson struts up front and multi-link at the back. Nobody cares about this though. The example I tested was painted in don´t-look-at me dark metallic grey with a dark grey forget-me interior. It really was nothing you´d notice without really concentrating on it. The impression one gets is that the Epica is low cost re-interpretation of the 2002 Vauxhall Vectra: the interior especially evokes Vauxhall/Opel´s rectilinear school of design which itself was an interpretation of Volkwagen´s seriousness of the late 90s.
Little has been said about the Epica´s exterior styling: it´s a car with simple, slab surfaces and a sharply rising waistline. The proportions look acceptable. As there are so few details there is little to go wrong. Let downs include the alloy wheels which weren´t deeply dished enough (a designer had to point this out to me) and the grille was certainly designed by a committee; the car did service in a wide variety of markets from Australia to Canada and so for a car this big and cheap, this was unavoidable. What is remarkable is the extent and sheer depth of the “I don´t care” simplicity. The execution is without mistakes and also without any flair. The same goes for the interior. This absence of style is not a problem, in fact, it´s rather excellent. The Epica is the equivalent of a comfortable pair of jeans or even a pair of Doc Marten boots. The driving experience reinforces this impression.
It took me a few hours at the wheel to get past the grey plainness of the Epica´s interior to understand it´s real appeal. It´s really, really simple. The Epica has the same equipment levels as the average city hatchback but it´s much bigger. This reverses the industry norm for packing more and more into smaller cars and making large cars more complex than a military helicopter. Get this: you sit into the Epica, put a key in the ignition, turn until the engine starts and then you proceed using one of five gears. Many journalists have bemoaned the over-complexity of modern cars. The Epica does not suffer that problem. The functions I needed were there to hand and the ones I didn´t weren´t fitted at all. This car is in many ways a fine glass of tap water. You can´t always drink Margaux ´76, can you?
The test route first took me from Bishop´s Stortford to Islington. This provided an opportunity to see how the car managed dense urban traffic. For these conditions you need manoevrability, visibility and low-speed pick-up. The Epica is big but not unwieldy and is especially easy to place compared to the bulky class-leader, the Mondeo (the Mondeo is wider, critically). Visibility forwards was more than satisfactory as the a-pillars seem to be unusually slim. I don´t have objective measurements of this but I think the unfashionably upright angle of the windscreen helps here by pulling the base of the windscreen backward. On the downside, the car´s rising waistline made it hard to see who was in the left rear quadrant. The Epica does not want for pick-up: there was more than enough power to make the wheels spin so the skill is to balance the bite of the clutch with the pressure on the accelerator. Done properly, the Epica threw itself into gaps in traffic with a good deal of dumb enthusiasm.
The next step of the trip was to get out of Islington and to direct the Epica northward to Warwick. This tested the car´s comfort and my patience. I don´t commute so it always comes as a nasty surprise to me to see what it´s like to waste an hour in traffic so as to cover ten miles. The Epica´s seats come in for criticism here: they are a bit too hard and a bit too unsupportive. The heater controls themselves are a mix of buttons and dials. The buttons control where you want the air to go (up, down or to the windows for defrosting, for example) and the dials control the temperature and volume of flow. So far, so ergonomic. The problem was that each time I wanted to adjust the radio volume I kept on turning the much more noticeable temperature dial. The ashtray was well placed, just ahead of the gear lever but the lack of illumination of the cigar lighter socket meant I had to take my eyes off the road more than I´d have liked. The digital clock is on the left side meaning both it and the hazard warning switch were hard to see.
The one thing which would really lift the Epica more than any multiplex, triple-acronym feature I can think if is more cheerful upholstery. This car is crying out for the kind of fun fabrics used on superminis. It simply doesn´t need to look as pompously self-important as other expensive saloons with their depressing palette of charcoal, anthracite and off-black.
The Epica doesn´t have Bluetooth or Blackberry compatibility or even sat-nav. Then again I don´t have a mobile telephone and I prefer to navigate by reading a paper map. Suits me fine.
Having escaped the juddering tedium of the A10 I emerged onto England´s famous M25 London Orbital where the car had a proper chance to demonstrate its high speed capability. Some of you are laughing but zip it, please. Yes, the Epica is not a BMW M5 or a Porsche 911 but it more than exceeds the likely practical speed limit which is that one set by the traffic around you on a typical road. The truth is the car was obviously more than happy to cover ground at or near 100 miles per hour. Mid-range acceleration from the diesel power plant proved useful: there´s a gap in traffic, shove the accelerator, zoom. What you notice at motorway speed is the slight vibration from the steering but little else. The steering has a noticeable self-centering effect which I rather liked. Cars, after all, spend most of their time going forwards so it´s a good default. Neither wind noise nor tyre rumble troubled me though I am sure there are measurably quieter cars.
Cross country roads across Warwickshire, from Coventry to Northamptonshire to Leicester offered the last test. I have written before about poor steering quality and I will do so again. In this case, lack of feel is the right design choice. The Epica´s steering is set up with imprecision and it´s deliberate. Provided you understand the Epica this is not a problem. The Epica´s mission is to damp out the irregularities, as a drive across the lumpy backroads of England shows. This smothering is done by having a relaxed suspension and a steering column that eats the first few degrees of movement. The result is that you can move pretty quickly over lousy blacktop without constantly correcting the steering. Given this is not a sports-saloon this is eminently sensible. Where the Epica scores less well is in bump absorption and suppression. You aren´t exactly thrown around but you hear the bumps a shade more than you´d like. This is down the to the lack of insulation (which keeps weight down) and perhaps a want of refinement in the rear suspension.
I didn´t test the car for understeer on tight left-handers and nor did I test the car at its limit. I expect there is one but finding it would have been stupidly risky and also pointless. Testing a budget saloon as if it´s a Caterham is like sending the Michelin inspector into a Burger King. It proves nothing. If you use the car in the way for which it was designed, it will cope entirely satisfactorily.
The Epica served up some useful educational lessons. One lesson is that a car need not be drenched in character to be likeable. The Epica´s humble, self-effacing ability to go about its tasks without complaint is worth commending. The second lesson is that a large saloon with supermini features has more than enough equipment. Derived from the second lesson we learn that a lot of what we pay for on cars with more kit is not adding much to our driving enjoyment. Perhaps it´s even making it less of a pleasure. Without razor sharp steering and without a sixth speed and without cloth-covered a-pillars I had a hugely enjoyable high speed late night drive across the middle of England. I extract from this the notion that getting the basic elements roughly right is far more important than getting them perfect and drowning them in complexity.
Facts: Engine: 2.0 in-line six cylinder diesel Weight: 1560 kg (Mondeo: 1481 kg)) Length 4805mm (Mondeo: 4778 mm) Width: 1810 mm (Mondeo: 2078 mm) Height:1450 mm (Mondeo: 1500 mm) Engine power: 150 hk O-60: 9.7 seconds Fuel consumption: 46,3 mpg Fuel tank: 63 liters (ouch, it cost 70 pounds sterling to fill) Years produced: 2006-2011 Price: £14,595 (Mondeo: £17,595) Anorak fact: To sound knowledgeable about the Epica, call it by its internal code name V250. Tested March 3-5th, 2011. Conditions: dry, light wind, 2-8 degrees. Ergonomics: test driver is 5´ 9″, 70 kilos, 50th percentile male (height).