The Chevrolet Sonic does not level a segment-shattering boom, but it demolishes low expectations set by the much-maligned Chevy Aveo that went on sale in the United States eight years ago--mostly to the benefit of fleet sales rather than anyone looking for a fun, high-quality subcompact car.
However, the B-segment evolved a lot in that time, as sharply engineered entrants such as the Ford Fiesta and Honda Fit arrived for drivers in search of worthwhile options. But "worthwhile" in this category is defined no longer merely by dollars saved at the dealership and the gas pump but rather by style, build quality and, yes, driving performance and enjoyment. With those shifting demands an inescapable reality, the new Sonic must deliver in a way the Aveo never could.
Even with the class's evolution, these are still "economy" cars; little details and, perhaps more important, perception still count for a lot. That's why engineer John Buttermore, who led the Sonic's development, argued successfully for installing alloy wheels (15 to 17 inches) on all models as standard, a class first. The five-spoke look complements both the sedan's and the hatchback's forward-lunging front-end styling and conspicuous, angled beltline crease and fender flares.
The Sonic is based on General Motors' new Gamma global small-car platform, and the underpinnings in this incarnation appear solid, as do the powertrains. Two engines and three transmissions are available, all of which we've seen already in the Chevy Cruze (except for the Sonic's available five-speed manual gearbox). The engines are a normally aspirated 1.8-liter I4 that makes 138 hp at 6,300 rpm and 125 lb-ft at 3,800 rpm and the 1.4-liter turbocharged four-cylinder producing 138 hp at 4,900 rpm and 148 lb-ft at 1,850 rpm. Six-speed manual and automatic gearboxes are available with the turbo engine, while the 1.8-liter uses the six-speed auto or a five-speed manual; all manual-equipped cars feature a hill-holding brake function. Notably, the single-scroll turbo Sonic is more powerful than both of its obvious competitors, besting the Ford Fiesta by 18 hp and 36 lb-ft and the Honda Fit by 21 hp and 42 lb-ft.
Underneath the Sonic's skin, Chevy says that 60 percent of the car is made from high-strength steel. It also has several targeted sound-deadening zones as part of a formula designed to provide low, premium-car levels of noise, vibration and harshness. While the Sonic cabin-like those of the competition-is trimmed in hard plastic, the motorcycle-inspired, red-needled analog tach and attached digital display look sharp and effectively communicate information. The center stack is equally stylish and straightforward, and buyers will be able to opt for two-tone, softer dashboard trim and faux-leather seats on the Sonic LTZ if the standard plastic dash and cloth seats scream "budget" too loudly for their tastes. Passengers should ride comfortably in front and rear; we discovered ample legroom in the back even with the driver's seat adjusted for a six-foot, one-inch occupant.
Cargo volume is respectable but not segment-leading, with the sedan offering 14 cubic feet and the hatchback 19. The hatch also has a removable rear-floor cover that allows the seats to fold flat and level, providing up to 30.7 cubic feet of storage area. As for safety, all Chevy Sonic trims boast 10 airbags, leading the class; Chevy says it expects to score "excellent" crash-test results.
What's it like to drive?
Before our brief run in preproduction hatchback turbos, Chevy said the development team aimed to create the "most fun-to-drive 40-mpg vehicle" sold in the United States. We aren't ready to agree with that statement after driving the car only on a makeshift autocross course, but it is apparent that the Sonic more than holds its own against the Fit and the Fiesta and, by extension, the Mazda 2.
The Chevrolet Sonic employs a MacPherson-strut front suspension and torsion-beam rear, with disc brakes up front and drums in back. The Sonic drives on a line between the Ford Fiesta and the Honda Fit, with a more comfort-tuned setup than the Ford and not as much of a relatively high-strung nature as the Fit. Minor turbo lag is evident at low engine speeds despite the torque peaking at rather mundane rpm, and the electronic power steering and shifter leave some room for improvement in terms of feel. It is possible that those two minor points of complaint will vanish when the final production cars arrive.
Regardless, the Sonic was easily the fastest and quickest of the three cars around the autocross, with composed handling right up to the limit before the platform's natural understeer tendency overwhelmed the balance. We switched off the standard traction and stability control, and trailing-throttle oversteer was on tap immediately through a quick (for an autocross) right-hand corner. This is a competent, fun-to-drive car that showed no glaring deficiencies relative to the other contenders.
Granted, the Chevy's horsepower and torque advantages are most likely what allowed to it set the best times on a course made up of very slow chicanes followed by bursts of open throttle on the ensuing straightaways. We need more time behind the wheel and in real-world driving conditions to make definitive judgments about driveability and utility. But from our experience so far, GM has created a solid B-segment entry and a potentially strong foil to other manufacturers' offerings.
Do I want it?
Certainly, the 2012 Chevy Sonic is worth more than a glance; it demands, at the very least, a test drive by small-car shoppers. Some might find that it lacks the absolute styling appeal of the Ford Fiesta, but that is a matter of individual taste. From an engineering and performance standpoint, the newest Chevy delivers more than enough to let us almost forget that the Aveo ever happened. And for buyers who consider a car's birthplace an important factor, the 2012 Sonic is the only car in the segment built in the United States.
2012 Chevrolet Sonic
ON SALE: Fall
BASE: $14,500 (AW est)
LAYOUT: Five-passenger, front-engine, front-wheel-drive four-door sedan and five-door hatchback
DRIVETRAINS: 1.8-liter I4, 138 hp at 6,300 rpm, 125 lb-ft at 3,800 rpm; FWD, five-speed manual; 1.4-liter turbocharged I4, 138 hp at 4,900 rpm, 148 lb-ft at 1,850 rpm; FWD, six-speed manual
CURB WEIGHT: 2,800-2,900 lb (AW est)
0-60 MPH: 8.0 sec (AW est)
FUEL ECONOMY: 27/40 mpg (AW est)