As the two cars cruised side-by-side, a red traffic light put a stop to the climbing speedometers. At a standstill, the 2012 Chevrolt Sonic sedan cast a big shadow around the considerably smaller Aveo. In every size category—height, width and length—the Sonic looms larger. And with chiseled headlamps and a high belt line, the Sonic seemingly sneers at its predecessor. As the Aveo’s replacement, the Sonic booms as a small car with a big attitude.
|1. Sonic sedan pricing starts from $13,865 for the LS trim to $17,925 for the LTZ trim.
2. The Sonic is the only subcompact assembled in the United States.
3. Estimated fuel economy for the turbocharged Sonic sedan is 29/40 mpg (city/hwy), though if you want an automatic transmission, you’ll have to settle for the 1.8L and 25/35 mpg.
Offered in three trims—LS, LT and the up-level LTZ—the sedan’s base price is less than $14,000. Standard equipment on the Sonic LTZ sedan (our test model) includes air conditioning, AM/FM radio with CD player, USB port and Bluetooth audio streaming, heated leatherette front seats, heated outside mirrors, cruise control, fog lamps, a rear window defogger, and 17-inch aluminum wheels. The standard fare list is a substantial improvement from the Aveo, but it’s not radically different from the contemporary subcompact competitors.
BIG FOR A SMALL CAR
Interior roominess is an underlying Sonic sentiment. During the one-week test drive, adult passengers appreciated the interior airiness and didn’t mind spending time in the back seat. The same cannot be said of the Ford Fiesta.
The sedan’s wide-mouth trunk opening handily accommodates the transport of odd-shaped boxes and bags of groceries being stashed inside the large 14 cubic feet cargo den. Twin upright slots—flanking the upper dash console—offer convenient stow spots for portable electronic devices, while two uniquely shaped glove boxes provide nifty enclosed storage options.
The car’s electric power steering will frequently leave the driver with overworked arms and hands, a side effect of the dead space between driver input and reaction by the wheels. While most drivers won’t expect the Sonic to steer like a sports sedan, this otherwise nimble performer is shortchanged by such imprecise steering.
POTENT TURBO ENGINE, BUT NO AUTOMATIC
The Sonic’s 1.4-liter turbocharged 4-cylinder notches a horsepower rating of 138 with a substantial 148 lb-ft of peak torque between 1850 rpm and 4900 rpm. Engine power is on par with the class-leading Hyundai Accent’s 138 hp 4-cylinder and exceeds the Honda Fit’s 117 hp as well as the Ford Fiesta’s 120 hp. It’s the impressive level of turbocharged torque, however, that means the Sonic, unlike many rivals, never feels overworked.
The Sonic’s turbocharged 4-cylinder as well as its 1.8-liter naturally aspirated 4-cylinder also power the Chevrolet Cruze sedan. The turbocharged Sonic engine mates to a 6-speed manual transmission. An automatic isn’t offered with the turbocharged engine, but the 1.8-liter engine is available with either a 6-speed automatic or a 5-speed manual.
While we appreciate the 1.4T combo with the stick shift, it would be nice if a six-speed automatic was available. Without it, unless you drive stick you don’t get anywhere near the claimed 40 mpg numbers. Instead, the 1.8L engine gets 25 mpg city and 36 mpg highway for the 5-speed manual and 25/35 for the 6-speed automatic.
While the turbocharged engine doesn’t toss occupants deep into the seatbacks, it does translate into admirable fuel economy. During a 40-mile trek with speeds in the 65 mph range, our test car’s mpg readout (located within a rectangular pod-shaped display) hovered around 39 mpg. In continual stop and go city driving, the mpg varied between 27 and 34.7.
The Sonic’s stiff body structure—one of the focal points for engineers—underscores the sedan’s comfortable ride. It’s also a decently quiet ride, so there’s no need to crank the 6-speaker audio system just to drown out powertrain or road noise. Identical front and rear tracks (59.4 inches), gas-charged shocks, and a MacPherson strut front suspension help this four-door achieve balanced stability—even during sharp turns at low- to mid-level speeds.
Driver interface points for HVAC, audio, and other controls are via large-sized dials and buttons, so even glove- or mitten-clad fingers can easily make necessary adjustments. The interior isn’t a techno-fest on wheels, so the driver won’t be choosing from seven interior accent lights ala the Ford Fiesta. The Sonic’s most surprising interior feature is the driver’s digital instrument display. It’s surprising merely because its shape starkly contrasts the car’s giant oval tachometer. Chevy says the design was inspired by motorcycles and its easy to see why.
Compared to the Aveo, the Sonic is a step forward in all evaluation categories. The Sonic definitely earns merit points for spicing up the exterior and interior presentations, and for offering a peppy, turbocharged engine that doesn’t ding the fuel economy numbers.
The lack of an automatic with the 1.4T, however, and the fact that the best fuel economy available for automatic models is then 25/35 mpg is a significant ding against an otherwise excellent car.
While the sedan stacks up well against subcompact competitors, its biggest threat are non-subcompact cars like the Hyundai Elantra with a starting price of $15,195 and estimated 40 mpg on the highway. For many consumers, that’s a compelling case to shop based on price and attributes versus a particular vehicle segment.