Lavita: A Family People Mover in Search of a Pedigree

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Lavita: A Family People Mover in Search of a Pedigree

Try as I might, I just can't work up much enthusiasm about the Lavita, Hyundai's newest multi-purpose people mover. I can't wrap my mind around the concept. It's neither a minivan (in the North American sense of the word) nor a station wagon. Europeans would never have that difficulty; the continent, after all, is the birthplace of the "small is beautiful" car ethos, which explains why Europeans have gone bananas over mini-MPVs and why they have been so slow to embrace minivans, SUVs and similar gas guzzlers.

Lavita, Italian for "the life," taps into this red hot segment and is purpose-designed for European tastes. So, to understand Lavita it helps to be a European or at least to see it through European eyes.

While Lavita's lines may appeal to some, the final look is a generic utility box reminiscent of a Hyundai Atos on steroids. Who takes the credit or, in my view, the blame? It's not shouldered entirely by Hyundai because for the first time in over a decade, Hyundai has solicited the help of an Italian styling house. This time, it was not ItalDesign (which worked on many projects for Hyundai in the '70s and '80s) but Pininfarina. Just how much input the fabled Turin-based carrozzeria provided is not clear, but according to one company insider, the Italians were brought in to tweak the side view. In any case, Lavita's Italian origins will not be lost on Hyundai's marketers and its exotic bloodline should score some points with European buyers.

The most visually interesting aspect of the interior design is the decision to place the main gauge cluster on the top, front and center of the dashboard. The twenty- and thirtysomething buyers Hyundai is targeting seem to favor this radical design above the center stack, but I'd question any research that suggests gauge visibility is improved. After years of conditioning, my eyes naturally gravitate to the spot above the steering column for a speed check. And old habits do die hard. My experience is that the new layout is unnecessarily taxing on the eyes.

Back row seating is fairly roomy, helped in large part by the tall roof. Also, rear seats sit slightly higher than the front row, giving rear seat passengers a better view of the road ahead, which might create an unusual family dilemma: A fight over who sits in the back. Rear seats also have a sliding adjustment (188 mm of travel) and can be folded flat or double folded forward to maximize cargo space.

The brakes and suspension - borrowed from the Avante - offer no nasty surprises. Jamming the brake pedal, there's a fairly solid feel and braking power is adequate. Lavita's squat shape and tall roofline translate into a higher center of gravity, which conspire against good ride and handling characteristics. The ride is soft and pliant enough but in turns, you sense that this body has a tendency to roll easily. But, you have to remind yourself, this is a family car.

Built on the Avante platform, Lavita comes with a choice of engines: a 1.5-liter or 1.8-liter, both equipped with dual overhead camshafts. Our test car came with the larger powerplant, which served up adequate power. Acceleration times were far from scorching but then again, that's not what you look for in a family car like this. One big demerit: push the pedal to the metal and the engine howls like a banshee. At cruising speeds, engine noise settles down to a level that's well within standards in this class. The automatic transmission (a 1.2 million won option) shifted up and down the four gears with predictable smoothness. In a novel touch, the gear shift lever was mounted on the lower section of the center stack providing step-through access between the front two seats.

Lavita will never see the light of day in North America. Elsewhere overseas, Lavita will sell under the Matrix marque (Hyundai trademarked the name more than a decade ago). Lavita will compete against Renault's Scenic (the best seller in the segment), Citroen's Picasso and Opel's Zafira. At home, Lavita's only immediate competitor is the Daewoo Rezzo.

The base 1.5 LS model starts at 8.4 million ($6,461). The price of the top-level CR as tested with 1.8-liter DOHC engine, leather seating, air conditioning and all conceivable options: 16.07 million won.

Next Week: Chrysler Sebring Convertible

by Oles Gadacz

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