Never say General Motors can’t think outside of the box. As its Detroit rivals tout their European-engineered, Mexican-built subcompacts, GM is replacing the aging Aveo with a Korean-German-American confection called the Sonic, to be produced for our market in Orion Township, Michigan. What’s more, Chevy thinks it will be the enthusiasts’ choice in the segment, and has brought us to an autocross outside of Indianapolis — with some competitors in tow — to prove it.
Among the many qualities the outgoing Aveo was not known for, confident handling might top the list. It thus comes as no surprise that GM dumped the wet Kimchi-noodle Daewoo platform in favor of a new architecture woven from a few Opel Corsa DNA strands. High-strength steel makes up 60 percent of the new car’s structure — roughly the same percentage Ford quotes for the Fiesta. North American models have additional bracing at each corner. All this structural integrity comes at a (literally) heavy price, as the Sonic weighs in at some 2800 pounds, a good 300-pounds more than most entries in the segment. Sonic lead engineer Joaquin Nuno-Whelan also attributes the ballast to a relatively large footprint (about 1.5-inches bigger than the Fiesta in both wheelbase and track) and a class-leading ten standard airbags.
Regardless, no one’s going to be picking on this fat kid: the Sonic employs the same four-cylinder engine lineup as the even larger and heavier Chevrolet Cruze. With either the 138-hp 1.8-liter base engine or the 1.4-liter turbo, rated at a provisional 138 hp and 148 lb-ft of torque, the Sonic handily outguns most competitors. Chevy expects the turbo to achieve the all-important 40-mpg benchmark when paired to a six-speed manual transmission, which it always will be, since the 1.4-liter Sonic can’t be had with an automatic [UPDATE: Chevrolet says it will offer a six-speed automatic with this engine beginning early next year]. The 1.8-liter comes with either a five-speed stick or six-speed automatic.
Our forays through the cones are in turbocharged, preproduction Sonics. These are early-build examples lack dash graining but boast impressively consistent panel gaps and a fundamentally good layout. The view out is relatively unobstructed, the small steering wheel both tilts and telescopes, and the rear seats have enough room for two adults. Designers also did a commendable job injecting personality into the cabin. A motorcycle-inspired gauge cluster, dominated by a large tachometer and digital speedometer, speaks to the car’s sporting intentions and, we might add, is easier to read at speed than the instruments in Chevrolet’s V-8-powered sports cars. Unfortunately, there isn’t quite enough material quality to make the style convincing. We haven’t yet become so spoiled that we expect a soft-touch dash in this segment– though the Fiesta provides exactly that — but the Sonic lacks even a patch of squishy stuff on the door armrest. The gauges, framed in unconvincing faux aluminum, look a little like an aftermarket affectation, especially on lower-end models that don’t have a vibrant dash color. From a purely functional standpoint, though, the Sonic’s interior is one of GM’s best pound-for-pound efforts.
With a bit of tire squeal, the Sonic makes its way onto the course. A short shift into second before the first turn briefly exposes the car’s weight, but once the turbo catches its breath, the car shoots energetically through the cones. In fact, we soon gather up too much speed for a set of S-curves, at which point we stand on the brakes and prepare to eat a row of cones. That’s when the Sonic serves up a delightful surprise. Rather than understeering badly as most front-wheel-drive cars would in this situation, the Sonic turns in obediently with nary a squeak from the front tires. The U.S. engineers cite their extensive chassis work (most of the actual platform development took place in Korea under the direction of the Corsa’s lead engineer). In addition to the aforementioned structural reinforcements, the American team played with damper and bushing rates and swapped in a faster steering rack. The seventeen-inch Hankook Optimo tires went through an exhaustive twelve-round development process (versus the usual three for four) to find a compound that would provide better response and ride without adding too much rolling resistance. With stability control disabled on the second run, the back end’s readiness to rotate nearly catches us off guard — and then becomes our greatest ally — through a fast sweeper and then a succession of tight second-gear changes.
This chassis balance becomes all the more evident when we set out on the track in two capable competitors — the Honda Fit and Ford Fiesta. Both of them prove much more reticent to change directions at speed and to rotate under braking. Somehow, the porky Chevy feels like a nimbler cone carver than either the Honda or the Ford. The numbers bear that out, as we post our best times of the day in the Sonic, though it’s worth noting we had three times as many tries than in either competitor. That’s not to say the Sonic was our clear favorite to drive. Like the larger Cruze, its steering is far too light, a trait that belies its accuracy. And though its six-speed manual is sufficiently smooth, it still doesn’t match the Fit’s five-speed for precision or its clutch-to-throttle calibration.
You have our attention, Chevy
Ultimately, a few hours spent drifting around in second gear leaves us with more questions than answers. For one, we’d like to see how the Sonic performs on real roads and against more competitors, particularly the feather-light Mazda 2. We also still wonder if GM, spurned by its disastrous experiment with the Saturn Astra, wouldn’t have been better off adapting the handsome Corsa for our market as Ford has done so successfully with the Fiesta. Still, our morning at the track proves the Sonic will be a formidable and intriguing offering. And it should get better. Chevy will follow the fall launch of the Sonic hatchback and sedan with a Z-spec appearance kit and, sometime later, with a more substantive RS suspension package. An SS, we’re told, is still “vaporware” at this point, but is certainly in the cards.