2012 Chevrolet Sonic Review: First Drive

Sonic aims to be the performance champ and fuel economy leader

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2012 Chevrolet Sonic Review: First Drive
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Chevy’s new Sonic sub-compact will come in two flavors when it finally makes it to sale this Fall, and while the sedan is expected to edge out the hatchback as the volume seller, it’s obvious the 5-door is where the marketing punch is. And Chevy isn’t the first, following Ford in pumping up its new sub-compact with the more youthful hatch design.

FAST FACTS

1. The Sonic will come with two engines a 1.8L 4-Cyl with 128-hp and 125 lb-ft of torque and a turbocharged 1.4L with 138-hp and 248 lb-ft.

2. Chevy is targeting 40-mpg highway for 1.4T models with a 6-speed manual transmission.

3. Standard equipment on all Sonic models includes10 airbags, aluminum wheels, power windows, locks and remote keyless entry.

4. Hatchbacks get 19 cu-ft of cargo room behind the rear seats and 37 cu-ft total, while sedans get a 15 cu-ft trunk.

This fact couldn’t have been more obvious when Chevy called together a select group of auto journalists to bang gears on a few prototype Sonics well ahead of the official “first drive”. As prototypes the team at Chevy was clear that they weren’t looking for impressions on design, or materials or even ride quality. Lead development engineer John Buttermore said he wanted to get feedback on the car’s handling, looking to do away with any perceptions that might be held about Chevy small cars, while hoping to rid any future reviews of comments about how the Sonic isn’t as much fun to drive as its competitors.

“This was designed to be the most fun to drive car that gets 40-mpg,” says small car marketing director Margaret Brooks.

Ignoring the sedan for the moment, Chevy arranged three pre-prod Sonics and a reasonably tight auto-x course on which to throttle the tiny 1.4-liter turbocharged 4-cylinder, and its tires. And as a sign of the confidence Chevy has in this new product they also brought out what are regarded to be the performance benchmarks in the small car segment: the Ford Fiesta and Honda Fit.

Memories of the Aveo (the Sonic’s predecessor) may at this point be distant, but the car’s lackluster approach to economy motoring is not entirely forgotten. And with low expectations, Chevy’s boasting about the car’s capabilities seemed a bit extreme.

SONIC OVERWHELMS RIVALS WITH TURBOCHARGED TORQUE

The verdict? It impressed. Matching top-trim levels against each other the Sonic has a bit of an upper hand with 17-inch wheels coated in 205/50/17 tires. It also comes with an optional 1.4-liter turbocharged EcoTec 4-cylinder. Expected to be the volume leader, all models we tested came with that engine.

The turbo engine makes a solid increase in power over its rivals with 138-hp, not to mention what for this class of car is a tremendous amount of torque of 148 lb-ft at a low 1850 rpm. By comparison the Honda Fit is down 21-hp and 41 lb-ft, while the lead over the Fiesta is slightly less at 18-hp and 36 lb-ft. Those numbers might not sound significant but as percentages, they’re huge.

The base Sonic engine is a 1.8-liter 4-cylidner with an equal 138-hp but a less robust 125 lb-ft of torque.

FUN TO DRIVE: CAPALE HANDLING, CONNECTED FEEL BEHIND THE WHEEL

Despite the obvious bump in hustle-power, the Sonic’s unanimously victorious performance over its rivals on the auto-x course shouldn’t take away from its handling capabilities. Averaging out lap times, the Sonic was 1.5 to 2.0 seconds faster than either of its rivals.

Like most modern cars the Sonic uses an electric power steering system. With variable ratios it’s light in town and heavy on the highway. On our course it felt nicely weighted and direct.

The rare few who do opt for the stick shift will get a 6-speed with the 1.4T (the base 1.8L gets a 5-speed stick) that also surprised with smooth short throws, absent of the heavy, notchy mechanical feel we’d expect.

Understeer is evident as it is in any front-driver, but the Sonic proved easy to control at the limit. Body roll is quite minimal, especially considering the type of often-jerky maneuvers required of an auto-x.

Overall, Chevy has done an excellent job at creating a lively performer out of a rear torsion-beam suspension setup – a more rudimentary design, but one that is shared with all of its rivals.

THE COMPETITION: FIT AND FIESTA

With a lower driving position the Fiesta gives a much higher impression of speed, although the course numbers proved the opposite. Of note, the Fiesta provided was an automatic dual-clutch transmission.

The Fit, a more comparable vehicle (considering it shares a much larger cargo volume with the Sonic) provided an added level of driving enjoyment thanks to it’s ability to rotate the rear end.

There’s something to be said about the Fit’s throttle feel, especially once you’ve reached higher rpm levels, although down low the lack of torque is noticeable, whereas the Sonic has plenty of torque to squirt out of low speed transitions.

Were the cards stacked in the Chevy’s favor on this test? Sure they were, with a course better suited to the turbocharged engine. Could Honda or Ford do the same and get a similarly favorable outcome? Probably. But that doesn’t mean this is a fruitless exercise. In fact, what it proves is that the Sonic is on the same playing field as the two most fun cars in the sub-compact segment, with the turbocharged engine’s torque then giving it an advantage.

While true that many b-segment buyers aren’t looking for a sports car, the Sonic’s ability to trounce a Fit on the tarmac will help brand the car in a more positive light.

And while its handling capabilities and fun-to-drive factor are important aspects – especially considering target market – it is just one aspect and for the full review you’ll have to wait.

Until then there are some important facts you should know about the new small Chevy. In addition to all that performance the Sonic, says Chevy, will also deliver a 40-mpg highway rating with the 6-speed manual and the 1.4T engine. Other important features include 10 standard airbags, a hill hold control feature for manual transmission models, standard power windows, locks and remote keyless entry and standard aluminum wheels – even on base models.

THE VERDICT

So is it the most fun to drive car that gets 40-mpg? It might just be, although that “fun” word is subjective. Objectively speaking, it was the clear leader in this performance test, making it the fastest.

Look for a more extensive review of the Sonic to follow. Until then we can say the Sonic is at least near the top of its class in driving enjoyment and performance, with plenty more power than the competition to more than make up any difference.

RELATED READING

2010 Honda Fit Review
2011 Ford Fiesta: First Drive

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