First Drive: 2012 Chevrolet Sonic

2012-chevrolet-sonic

Subcompacts -- B-segment cars, in world lingo -- have come on strong lately here in supersize America. Ford added the Fiesta to its U.S. lineup last year, joining established players like the Honda Fit, Nissan Versa, Hyundai Accent, and Toyota Yaris. Three of those four have just been revamped, and now Chevrolet has ditched its underachieving Aveo in favor of the new Sonic.

The Sonic is a world car, and GM’s engineering center in Korea took the lead in development. Still, there’s much about the Sonic that’s specific for our market, including its two engines, extra air bags (for a total of ten), quicker steering, hydraulic engine mounts, additional structural bracing, and, of course, specific chassis tuning. The Sonic was designed in Korea, and it’s supposed to be reminiscent of a motorcycle (presumably a sport bike rather than a Harley). Design manager Kathy Sirvio lent some credibility to that assertion when she revealed that she rides a Moto Guzzi.

Money matters
Chevrolet Sonic prices range from $14,495 to $17,995. That’s in line with its major competitors and about $3000 less than a comparable Chevy Cruze. The Sonic follows common practice by charging more ($700–$800) for its chopped-tail hatchback than for its surprisingly un-dorky-looking sedan (a rarity among four-doors this small). There are three trim levels.

What's inside
Despite being more than a foot shorter than the sedan, the hatch is able to swallow more cargo, even before you fold the rear seats. There’s a highly useful 19 cubic feet back there (plus underfloor storage); flop down the rear seatbacks and you get 30.7 cubic feet, which is good, but the Sonic doesn’t challenge the Honda Fit as the cargo-hauling champ. As for the sedan, its 14 cubic feet is better than most.

Both body styles offer decent space for four adults. Seats are comfortable; in the LS and LT they are upholstered in a typical cloth that looks fine but feels nasty. The LTZ gets a perforated faux-leather that’s considerably nicer. Real leather is not on the menu. There are three interior color schemes, all two-tone. Interior plastics look okay but they’re all hard surfaces. We don’t expect a lot of plush, soft-touch surfaces in this price class, but the door armrests, at least, could be padded. The unusual gauge cluster features an analog tachometer alongside a digital speedometer. It’s one of the bits that’s supposed to be reminiscent of a motorcycle, and it’s actually quite functional. So, too, are the switches and controls, which all have a quality feel and are simple to use.

Why you should pay more for the same 138 hp
The Sonic’s two four-cylinder engines are the same as in the Chevy Cruze: a normally aspirated 1.8-liter is the base unit and a 1.4-liter turbo is optional. Both engines make 138 hp, so what you’re buying with the turbo is extra torque -- 148 pound-feet versus 125. That, and a six-speed manual transmission in place of the base engine’s five-speed. The $700 cost strikes us as well worth it.

The extra oomph and extra gear are particularly important given that the Sonic is the heaviest car in its segment. That mass exacts a toll in fuel economy, particularly in the city. The base 1.8-liter’s EPA city ratings of 25 mpg (with the automatic) and 26 mpg (with the manual) are near the bottom of its competitive set. The 1.8-liter’s 35-mpg highway rating is middling. The 1.4-liter, however, reaches the magic 40-mpg mark on the highway (matching class leaders Hyundai Accent and Ford Fiesta); its 29-mpg city rating is only 1 mpg shy of the best-in-class Accent and Toyota Yaris.

For now, there is no automatic available with the turbo engine, which will surely limit its popularity among the millennials to which the car is being relentlessly pitched (many young people don’t know how to drive a stick). But that situation will be rectified in February, when the 1.4-liter automatic arrives.

Besides better gas mileage, another reason to step up to the turbo is that it’s just generally more pleasant. The boosted engine is more responsive -- reaching 60 mph in 8.2 seconds, compared with 8.6 seconds for the 1.8-liter manual and 9.4 seconds for the automatic. The turbo’s boost is nicely integrated, making for throttle response that is very linear. Both engines are direct injected, but the base unit is somewhat more coarse-sounding, although the engine is not particularly loud in either version.

Shift points
Rowing the six-speed manual is easy work. Shift efforts are light, although the throws are a little long and the action could be more positive. The clutch effort is also light, and, again, the travel is somewhat long, but not lifeless -- you can easily feel the engagement point. Chevrolet engineers and marketers seem particularly excited about the clutch’s standard hill-holder feature, as if they’d just discovered the technology, which has been around for decades. But, indeed, it was helpful on the famously steep hills in San Francisco. The automatic is a six-speed. It has a manual shift mode -- which is more than the Ford Fiesta can say. Rather than being accessed via a plus-minus gate, as in the Hyundai Accent, upshifts and downshifts are called up via a little rocker switch on the side of the shift knob, an odd arrangement.

Stiffen up
There was also much talk about chassis stiffness (100 percent better than the Aveo!), but as always, the proof is in the dynamics. There is only one suspension setup, with 15-, 16-, or 17-inch alloy wheels -- we drove the latter two. Even on seventeen-inch tires, the Sonic was able to deliver decent ride quality on the mean streets of the city -- impacts are not harsh, but there is some pitch (not unexpected given the short wheelbase) and the ride can be busy. On the switchbacks in the hills around La Honda, the Sonic was a pleasant surprise, turning in eagerly -- although not quite as energetically as the Ford Fiesta -- and remaining nicely composed over quick transitions. The chassis overall gives the impression of being well tied down. The car would be more fun to drive but for its electric power steering, the bane of so many cars in this class. Like the steering in the Sonic’s rivals from Ford and Hyundai and in the larger Chevy Cruze, the system feels detached and overboosted. That’s particularly true at parking speeds (are Americans really that frail?) but it’s also the case out on the open road.

Expect to hear more
Chevrolet engineers hint that there’s more to come with this car. For sure, there will be a raft of SEMA-ized Sonics at the Specialty Equipment Manufacturers’ show in November. But the more significant news is expected at the Detroit auto show, where we could see a higher-performance version, which would take better advantage of what at first brush strikes us as a solid little platform.

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