Children may have posters of Italian exotics on their walls, but the most exciting action in the auto industry is taking place in the lower end of the segment, the so-called “B” and “C” segment cars that Americans have always equated with poverty or worse, Europhile tendencies.
|1. The Sonic starts at $14,495 for an LS Sedan, all the way up to $17,995 for an LTZ hatchback.
2. The 1.4L turbo engine is a $700 option.
3. Fuel economy is 25/36-mpg city/highway for the 1.8L and 29/40 mpg for the 1.4L turbo.
4. Bluetooth, USB integration, cruse control and fog lamps are available on the LTZ.
The “C” segment saw a bloody war waged last year, as the Ford Focus, Hyundai Elantra and Chevrolet Cruze duked it out for supremacy, with the Cruze coming up short against its rivals. 2011 looks to be a year full of further downsizing, as the Ford Fiesta’s reign is challenged by the Hyundai Accent, Toyota Yaris, Nissan Versa and now the Chevrolet Sonic.
WHY BUY USED?
The crux of the Sonic’s marketing strategy is to draw in “millennials”, those 18-29 year old consumers who make up a substantial portion of the car market – but not necessarily new cars. GM was astute enough to realize that young buyers are likely to gravitate towards a used car based on style or performance criteria, with the caveat that a significant number of them are having their car paid for by their parents, and that means that less sexy factors like safety (it has 10 airbags) and fuel economy need to play an important role.
Making a vehicle that is sporty, stylish, fuel efficient, safe and practical is an often-stated goal that is almost never achieved, and of all the automakers, General Motors would not be our first choice. Yet somehow, the Chevrolet Sonic manages to cover all the bases.
A CHEVY SMALL CAR WITH DESIGN, INSIDE AND OUT
The Sonic very much relies on Chevy’s new design language, with a broad front end and prominent bow-tie logo spanning the grille. Get up close and you’ll see some neat design cues – exposed headlamps said to mimic those on a motorcycle, and rear door handles on the hatchback that mimic those on an Acura NSX or Alfa Romeo 156. Alloy wheels are standard, and all the designs, from the 15-inch base versions to the beefy 17-inch examples are attractive.
Inside is a significant amount of hard plastic, but it doesn’t have the typical “melted down action figure” look of some subcompacts. On the other hand, the HVAC and stereo controls are extremely intuitive, with clear, easy-to-use buttons devoid of any complex or infuriating infotainment system. The instrument cluster is totally unorthodox, using a motorcycle style pod with a large tachometer, and a digital readout displaying a speedometer, gas gauge and fuel economy information – everything that one could possibly want is clearly displayed and available at a glance. The cluster is a cool piece in isolation, but also leads to a large empty expanse on the driver’s side of the dashboard.
As for the functionality of this sub-compact, there’s a total of 19 cubic feet of space behind the rear seats in hatchback models, which expands to 37 cu-ft in total. Sedan’s get 15 cu-ft, which is simply enormous for this size of a car.
LITTLE 4-BANGER FEELS BIG
The Sonic’s core competency lies on the road, where it delivers a driving experience far beyond our expectations. We were lucky to spend most of our time behind a wheel of the 1.4L turbocharged four-cylinder engine (making 138 horsepower and 148 lb-ft of torque), a $700 option, mated to a six-speed manual gearbox. The 1.4L is good at disguising its turbocharged nature – it simply feels like a bigger, torquier four than its diminutive displacement would suggest, but at higher RPMs and steeper grades, it seems to run out of steam. For most applications, the power is certainly adequate, and we found ourselves going much faster than the posted limit without trying very hard. The 6-speed gearbox is a pretty good unit, with precise throws, although the clutch engagement point is a bit high up.
DYNAMIC AND COMFORTABLE
We were really impressed with the Sonic’s chassis, which manages to strike a wonderful balance between a smooth ride and great handling. Even when equipped with fairly pedestrian all-season tires, the Sonic bites into corners with enthusiasm, and lets us correct any understeer with a gentle lift of the throttle. Handling remains remarkably neutral in most conditions, and the steering’s weight and feedback are undoubtedly at the top of the class. Absent are the common plagues of body roll, inadequate damping or any dead spots in the steering, and Chevrolet deserves serious praise for making such an inexpensive car so rewarding to drive.
The Sonic’s road manners when not being flogged are also remarkable – there is very little road noise, the ride quality is consistently smooth and comfortable, the engine never feels strained or overworked. And while the Cruze is notable for a significant amount of window noise coming from the A-pillar at highway speeds, we found nothing of that nature on our drive with the Sonic.
TURBO 4-CYLINDER, A SMALL PREMIUM AND WORTH IT
At the end of the day, we switched to a 1.8-liter 4-door sedan, just to make sure it wasn’t all a fluke, and we came away equally impressed. The same handling chops are there, but the 1.8-liter engine is just as torquey or fun to wring out. Even the 6-speed automatic (generally a flawed piece of equipment on GM models) is solid. With the 1.4-liter getting 29 mpg in town and 40 mpg on the highway, versus the 1.8-liter’s 25/36 mpg rating, we don’t see why anyone would opt for the 1.8-liter despite the $700 premium – though an automatic 1.4-liter won’t be available until the 2012 calendar year.
The base Sonic LS comes well equipped with features like alloy wheels, anti-lock brakes, power locks and windows, 10 airbags and keyless entry. LT and LTZ models can be equipped the 1.4-liter engine, USB and Bluetooth connectivity, OnStar, cruise control, fog lamps and bigger wheels. Pricing starts at $14,495 for an LS Sedan, all the way up to $17,995 for a Sonic LTZ hatch.
There’s no question that the Chevrolet Sonic is a very compelling choice in the subcompact segment. Competition in the segment is stiff, and Chevrolet has found a way to set itself apart from the Accent, Fiesta and Fit, all of which are very competent vehicles and worthy of your dollar.
Some buyers may gravitate towards the more premium interior of the Ford Fiesta or the perceived reliability of a Japanese make, but if you have an enthusiast bone in your body, this is without exception the car you want. Customers interested in a vehicle like the Hyundai Veloster may want to take a look as well. The Sonic doesn’t have the visual panache or the nice interior of the Veloster, but it’s thousands cheaper and a much more rewarding vehicle to drive.