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2012 Chevrolet Orlando. (GM/Wieck)
2012 Chevrolet Orlando. (GM/Wieck)

ROAD TEST

Chevrolet Orlando: A paper tiger Add to ...

Chevrolet’s Orlando is one of those practical, functional wagons that looks great on paper, yet the execution falls short of the plan.

Here is a seven-seat wagon/crossover with a starting price less than 20 grand ($19,995 to be exact). The boxy design maximizes cargo and passenger space in a parking-lot-friendly package and the engine is a modern, 2.4-litre direct-injected four-cylinder (174 horsepower) mated to a six-speed – either the base six-speed manual or a six-speed automatic. Fuel economy is a perfectly reasonable 10.1 litres/100 km in the city, 6.7 highway, and the Orlando uses regular gas. Heck, even the five-year/160,000-km powertrain warranty is solid, though the bumper-to-bumper coverage is a more modest three years/60,000 km.

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All of that sounds quite excellent. Sure, the hinged doors of the rival Mazda5 minivan are certainly more user-friendly, especially in a tight parking lot. On the other hand, minivans are stigmatized and so the Orlando avoids the little milk truck label, even though the six-seat Mazda is a far nimbler driver and with the current discounting, not much more expensive – perhaps even less expensive – at $21,950 to start.

Kia’s Rondo is another obvious competitor, though if you want the seven-seater, you must jump up to the $25,095 version. Also, the Ronda’s four-banger, rated at 175 hp, is completely in line with the Orlando, while the 157-hp Mazda takes up third place power-wise.

The family-type buyers interested here are solid dollars-and-cents types, so it is also worth noting that, if we take discounting out of the equation, a base Orlando has a $2,045 advantage over a base Mazda5, and even a $51 advantage over the base Rondo. Compared to the Orlando, Mazda charges extra for such things as cruise control, the same security system, and a trip computer.

Yes, the Orlando looks good on paper. Yet in practice, the cabin ergonomics seem a little off. The reach from the driver’s seat to the centre stack controls is a little too much for comfort – and I’m a six-footer. A shorter, smaller person (e.g., a 5-foot-6 mom) will not like this reaching at all.

Then there are the seats. They look like they’re the right shape, but they’re too soft to be truly comfortable on a long trip. Okay, the Orlando is not an expensive ride, so the cost-cutting has to show up somewhere and one place is in the seats. On the plus side, in my tester they were covered in a stain-resistant black fabric that would surely clean up nicely if you acted fast to repair the damage of an exploded juice box.

Ah, but the seats were covered in black upholstery, which by itself is not terrible. Except the interior plastic stuff was all black, too. The relentless black was broken up by some silver-coloured trim bits. That’s too much black for me. Blame cost-cutting. And then we have the huge B-pillars, which create some nasty blind spots to the side. All these little interior design issues add up to a lack of refinement.

On the other hand, the flip-up stereo faceplate is cool. There you have a small concealed storage area for iPods, cell phones and the like, and your iPod connection. Clever. The instruments and controls seem to have been plucked straight from the compact Chevy Cruze and that’s good. Also good are the many cup-holders and storage compartments. Space is another plus. The Orlando has plenty of front-seat room all around, and the rear seating area is more than adequate for adults, too. The third row is tight though. This is where you put misbehaving kids for punishment.

Okay, at least there’s room for a couple of kids if you’re stuck with car-pooling duty. And that certainly happens in the ’burbs. Hockey dads and hockey moms, you know who you are. The rearmost seats fold flat if you don’t need them, opening up about 800 litres of cargo room. That’s plenty of space for a couple of fat hockey bags. And with the second row flat, which is easily done, you double the cargo space for those weekend runs to a garden centre haul. The Rondo, true, has more space than that, but not the Mazda.

This brings us to the safety story. The Orlando has all the requisite airbags and so on, but I can’t tell you the crash test scores. You see, the Orlando isn’t sold in the United States, so it has not been crash tested by either the U.S. government or the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS). You might be wondering why the Canadian government doesn’t test and release crash scores and you would not be alone. I can say the similarly sized Cruse is an IIHS Top Safety Pick and both these rigs share the same chassis basics.

The Chevy spin-meisters like to talk about the bold look of the Orlando, and its low roofline and strong silhouette are, indeed, pleasant for this sort of rig. So are the big wheel arches. But is this look innovative and bold? That’s a stretch.

As I said, the Orlando is better on paper than in person.

jcato@globeandmail.com

Tech specs: 2012 Chevrolet Orlando LS

Type: Compact crossover wagon

Base price: $19,995 ($1,495 freight)

Engine: 2.4-litre, four-cylinder

Horsepower/torque: 174 hp/171 lb-ft

Transmission: Six-speed manual

Drive: Front-wheel

Fuel economy (litres/100 km): 10.1 city/6.7 highway; regular gas

Alternatives: Kia Rondo, Mazda5

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