Driven To Write assesses an underdog.
Editor’s note: This article made its first appearance on DTW in July 2014.
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 its 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).
28 thoughts on “Big and Dumb and Much the Better For It.”
Quite a lot of people view this but don’t leave comments.
I’m guessing they just look at the first picture and run away.
It´s a very endearing car. I have seen versions with non-grey colours and non-grey interiors and they are quite attractive. I have a stronger impression of this car than the Mondeo I drove about the same time. The slab looks even have their value. In the olden days a car as dead simple and honest as this would have had a lot of people saying it was honest and simple in a good way.
I know how you feel about this car – I once developed an equally unhealthy fondness for the 4th gen Hyundai Sonata.
But where you see slab looks, simplicity and honesty, most people will something just as flimsy and uninteresting as a 1st gen Nissan Primera at best. It’s time to let go and move on.
I once decided to buy a Toyota Cressida, though that was more an act of self-mortification brought on by a series of events. In the end, I decided I didn’t hate myself that much, so didn’t go ahead.
Are you sure it’s straight six? Petrols were, but I think diesel were ubiquitous 4 cylinder Chevy diesel….
I am glad you asked. It’s because I did not expect much technical interest I got the description wrong. The diesel is an L4. And in checking this I noticed the L6 petrol engines include a 2.5 litre and a 2.0 litre. That’s what Wikipedia says. The base petrol is a 1.8 litre L4.
I want to repeat how much I liked this car. It’s dead simple but has a lot of character. The steering was excellent.
The Epica’s diesel was developed together with VM Motori.
It had two balancer shafts and a turbo charger with variable geometry.
An old test said it was quite rough in its NVH characteristics – something you would expect from a VM engine.
I always thought these looked rather overbodied at the front – forward of the front axle line, the nose seems less tapered in plan than most contemporary cars did. The result is to make the front overhang seem more than usually prominent. Or, to use a Raymond
Chandler description, “His jaw was strong and purposeful. The rest of his face was just saying goodbye”…
Imagine a parallell universe where British Leyland had survived into the nineties then being sold off to some Korean conglomerate. The Epica would then have been the successor to both the Marina and the Princess, probably built on the same platform and with shared underpinnings. And most likely production would’ve been outsourced to Korea and then being imported back to Europe as a cheap and basic low cost middle sector offering. It checks all the boxes for an imagined early 2000’s Leyland product, transverse six and all.
I looked further in to the history of the Epica, and it really does have parallels with British Leyland, in that its story is possibly more interesting than the car.
Its petrol engine was designed to be modular, so they left very little room between cylinders, meaning increases in capacity wouldn’t be possible. That was fine, under the circumstances.
It’s an odd car – large, quite well equipped and very cheap. It really could be a parallel universe ‘Vectra C Plus’, as has been suggested. With nicer materials, a different badge and a higher price, I wonder if it could have been something like an Insignia.
Few people buy large new cars on price, as if it’s a company buyer, they won’t care about price and if it’s a private buyer, they would worry about running costs. Chevrolets were / are also an unknown quantity in Europe and I guess you’d have to explain by saying it was made by GM; the next question would be ‘Why didn’t they badge it as a Vauxhall / Opel?’.
In its existing form, it makes me think it would have made a very good police car.
I suppose it could have had some modest potential, had they got the spec and marketing right. How’s that for faint praise.
It would cost £107 to fill the tank with diesel, now – an increase of 60% over 10 years.
I remember this car (yes, I do remember it!) when new, and in a dark colour, or even silver, with 17″ alloys, it didn´t look bad at all. The idea of a straight six engine sounds nice.
It seems a fuss-free way to cover a lot of kilometres, and that can´t be a bad thing.
The other day I was chatting with some friends about how a lot of comfort- oriented cars have been a sales failure (Rover 75 and Lancia Lybra come to my mind) because nowadays everything has to be sporty and agressive, precisely when most people need just the opposite.
I´m afraid that getting spare parts in 2023 for that engine should not be easy…
As far as I could find the engine was only used in a couple of Chevrolets/Daewoos and then was of interest only for European customers.
It must have cost them an arm and a leg to develop (or have VM develop) an engine for these couple of cars.
And it should be difficult to find spares for them. It’s good that VM engines normally are on the robust and long lived side.
mobile.de has a couple of dozens of them, mostly diesels and almost all around 100,000 kms which looks as if a replacement toothbelt would be due then and would be too expensive…
Good morning Richard and thank you for your impressions of the Epica. Your review is the precise antithesis of what one reads in the automotive media, hence much more relevant and informative for the vast majority of potential buyers, who haven’t a clue what understeer is and wouldn’t recognise a MacPherson Strut if they were hit over the head with one.
As to the car itself, it really is a throwback to an earlier age when every mainstream manufacturer had a range-topping large saloon that provided lots of space (if little to ‘surprise and delight’) and drove perfectly well for its intended usage. It’s telling that the Epica was launched two years after GM Europe discontinued the similarly sized Opel / Vauxhall Omega, on the basis that the market for non-premium large saloons was defunct.
What the Epica really needed was an estate version. That might have found a nice niche in the market.
Parallelogram boot hinges, a clean A-pillar (absent meandering cutlines), and even a heckblende.
There is nothing crass, cheesy, or dodgy about this car (although perhaps the lack of a rubbing strip was slightly avant garde). The designers must have been punished severely.
It´s a really useful bit of car. The grille lacks finesse and the seats are bit hard, that and the overly large HVAC knob are the things counting against it. I don´t mind that it´s a Chevrolet but the “Chevrolet” badges are really awful: horribly placed and nasty in themselves. Other than that, it´s quite a fine car. I can still remember the nice drive across the Midlands too. Generally, the motoring press despise this kind of car. Honest John says this :”Extremely well kitted out for comfort and safety. Huge boot. Keen value. 6-speed diesel auto. 2.0 straight six petrol is chain cam.” The downside is made up of good points (the feel-free steering is a bonus in my view) and things nothing to do with the car as designed, that it attracted taxi drivers: “Curious feel-free and heavily self-centering steering. Quite a lot ended up as taxis”. If you like the Citroen CX self-centring then the Epica is your car.
Hi gooddog. Amazingly, the Epica was treated to a mid-life butt-lift when the heckblende (great word!) was added. Here’s the original tail:
Higher spec cars had a chrome rather than body-coloured strip connecting the rear light clusters.
The photo above is from Car Magazine, where they were clearly and pointlessly testing the limits of the handling. The magazine awarded the Epica three stars out of five and summarised it as follows:
So would we recommend the Epica? We were certainly surprised by this Korean saloon. It won’t exactly blow Mondeo drivers away, but it offers a little quirkiness and interior comfort that we admire.
“So would we recommend the Epica? We were certainly surprised by this Korean saloon. It won’t exactly blow Mondeo drivers away, but it offers a little quirkiness and interior comfort that we admire. It’s not a good car by any stretch of the imagination, but it is intriguing. Just the way we like cars at CAR.”
Which begs the question, what are Car Magazine’s criteria for a good car? They’re clearly far removed from those of the average driver.
In any event, DTW seems to identified another unlikely and unsung hero of the automotive world!
Sometimes Car likes interesting cars as much as good ones. Hence the disdain for Corollas. They rather liked the Citroen C6 but never as much as to really actively support it.
Thanks Richard. The Epica and its ilk are just slightly too nondescript to for me to really like them. To me, the 406 (for not so coincidental instance) has more character. I have, however, never been in the kind of personal situation where I needed a car this large. So these are personal preferences.
For the kind of thing the Epica seeks to offer, it seems extremely well turned out and therefore worthy of it’s moment in the DTW sun. ☀️
It reinforces the point made in Daniel’s Euro-Chevy article though: all the admirable things from the Epica come from Daewoo and have very little to do with Chevrolet.
I lnew this looked familiar. In Canada it was sold as Suzuki Verona. My recollection is that on introduction much was made of the straight-six engine. A straight-six? And Japanese (shh)! And cheap! Alas, it didn’t sell like hotcakes.
I remember thinking at the time Daewoo were really branching out here. But I have to wonder who they designed it for. Obviously not the European market. We didn’t want it here in Australia – Holden tried selling it under their brand; I think I only ever saw one. That could however be due to the self-effacing styling and anonymous colour palette, as much as my living in a rural area.
Yet from what Richard says it wasn’t really a bad car, as people actually use them. I get the impression its main problem was the better-established competition. Daewoo seemed to be going “Here’s our equivalent, hope you like it.”, rather than offering something better. Whether using an unknown brand (Daewoo) or hitching a ride on the coattails of a known brand (Chevrolet, Holden….) there was really no point of difference to make a potential customer look – except the transverse straight six which Richard’s car didn’t have.
It was the sort of car that has run out of time- a largish, competent, nondescript sedan from a non- premium manufacturer. When you can’t find enough buyers for cars like the big Holdens, Chrysler 300 or Peugeot 607, what is the hope for these?
I really disliked these when they came out here in Australia. Holden replaced the outgoing Vectra C with this, only for Opel to drop the sleek, suave, sophisticated Insignia A one year later. The Epica’s cheap, drab, low-rent plastic interior felt at least a generation behind the Insignia, proper chalk and cheese. It even felt like a downgrade from the (similarly drab) Vectra in some respects. I also felt the exterior looked clumsy and dowdy with large overhangs and silly hockey stick headlights. To me at the time, it was yet another example of GM throwing away Holden’s Opel-derived brand cachet for a cheap, quick win from the Daewoo factory.
These days I’ve come to appreciate the Epica for all the same reasons as Richard. A simple, unpretentious car in an honest, classical package. I also think the Epica design has aged like a fine wine. With the right wheels it’s a very handsome, cleanly-styled car, & I really enjoy seeing them on the roads. Unlike Peter’s experience, I see plenty of Epicas around Perth, but they are disappearing at an alarming rate as they are completely unappreciated. The Epica is often thrown into the same basket as the lamentable Captiva by the general public – another rubbish Korean Holden best to be either avoided, or driven into the ground.
I don’t feel the blobby Insignia will age as well with its high waistline and excessively ‘coupe’ roofline.
You mean the Insignia “A”?
Ah, so that’s where they all went! The West is different. 🙂 My Epica-spotting experience might be different if I was in Melbourne, but it’s twelve years since I was there last.
I’ll admit I was predisposed to dislike the Epica – another Daewoo replacing an Opel – and never bothered taking a closer look. I suspect I was far from alone in that. While I understand Holden was in business to make money, and the mothership in Detroit needed all the help it could get in that regard, replacing Opels with Daewoos seemed dreadfully short-sighted.
I fear a lot of the less-popular Holdens will be disappearing quickly now that the brand is no more. Some folk near me have an Apollo; that’s a rebadged Camry, so they’ll be right – and their other car IS an XV-10 Camry! Geminis have an enthusiast following, like Toranas. But the Opel- and Daewoo-Holdens might be harder to get parts for. Still, never underestimate a resourceful local mechanic with time to search the net.
For whom was the Epica designed for? The answer is obvious: Koreans. While I’m sure GMDAT had an eye on export during its development, the bulk of sales would be in the home market and its aesthetics, dynamics, etc reflect that. Designed in the years before South Korea became a (pop) cultural powerhouse, the Daewoos of the time got the fundamentals right but were bland from a Western perspective, just liked Korean fashion, pop music, movies and hip hop. If it was still around, Daewoos would probably exhibit more confident styling like Hyundai and Kia.
Given how few were sold here this clearly wasn’t a car a lot of people wanted. Looking at the low prices for a good example on the second hand market it still seems people don’t care for these. In many ways this car is like a fleece sweater. It does was it’s supposed to see, but I’d rather have merino wool.
supposed to do, not see, obviously 😉