2012 Chevrolet Sonic LSView Vehicle Profile
Chevrolet Sonic improves on the dull Aveo
Well-priced as a first car, but Chevy’s small hatchback has its issues.
“Cheap but cheerful” is how automakers seem to traditionally try and present their small-car offerings. They’re hoping to appeal to the youth market while offering solace for those whose budgets apparently exclude pricier, more upscale models.
It doesn’t always work out that way. No one would accuse the Chevrolet Sonic’s predecessor, the Aveo, of being “cheerful”. A mid-life rework definitely helped, but soggy dynamics, forgettable styling, and a cabin awash in hard plastic does not make for a cheerful buyer. Good thing it scored on “cheap”.
Right from the get-go, the Sonic is different. Cheerful is still not in the program, although the glowering scowl of its quad headlamps hints otherwise. The shape of those lights suggest “serious” as in good-serious, like Chuck Norris or Clint Eastwood.
Obviously the even smaller Spark, set to join the line-up as a 2013 model, will have to take over as Chevy’s cheerful value-leader.
Ironically, the sub-compact market is huge in Canada, particularly in Quebec. The Sonic sedan starts at $14,495, and add a thousand dollars for my tester’s hatchback body style. There are cheaper new vehicles available — Nissan’s distressingly dull Versa Sedan seems every bit of its $11,798 base MSRP, for example — but most of the others are within a good dealer-haggle in price when similarly equipped.
Either Sonic would make a fine choice for a driver’s first new car (there are up to 10 airbags available) or for those on a budget. Go easy on the options though, as it’s easy to make the Sonic costly: the “Appearance Package”, available on LT models, adds things such as 17-inch alloy wheels, fog lights, and a sunroof, but also tacks $1,550 to the bottom line. Upgraded audio (USB, SiriusXM, Bluetooth, and six speakers) is $510 more.
The first of my two Sonic testers listed at $22,055, the other was $20,375. You may wish to consider that it’s not a big step up from a base Sonic to the added room and refinement of the Chevy Cruze ($15,655) before taking that plunge.
Why two Sonic testers? The car you see photographed was my second Sonic. The starter in Sonic number one suffered a freak failure, though it later started without assistance and was driven trouble-free back to its keepers. Sonic number two had some sort of audio system fault that made the rear speakers work only at greatly reduced volume, regardless of settings. Two Sonics, two glitches; not very confidence inspiring.
Since I haven’t heard of similar experiences from colleagues or elsewhere (including the Sonic sedans evaluated at AJAC’s TestFest), I’m going to chalk the issues in my early production test vehicles up to teething pains on the Sonic’s newly upgraded Michigan assembly line — the only U.S. facility currently producing a subcompact car.
Anomalies aside, it’s interesting, given the similarities on paper to its Daewoo-sourced, Korean-made progenitor, how much better the Sonic is in almost every quantifiable way. From a driver’s standpoint in particular, the Aveo — also sold as the Pontiac Wave and G3, and by Canadian Suzuki dealers as the Swift+ — was a transportation appliance at best. The Sonic, on the other hand, at least suggests to its users that it might be ready to turn the excitement level up to, say, mildly interesting.
The Honda Fit and Mazda2 remain the tarmac gymnasts in this category, but I can vouch, having spent track time in a Sonic, that it makes a respectable showing. Like Ford’s Fiesta, it does so with better ride quality than the comparably choppy Honda.
Still, Road Warriors with a subcompact Chevy-fixation should wait for the 2013 Sonic RS to really light their fires.
Although the Sonic’s base 1.8-litre, four-cylinder engine is only 198 ccs larger than the Aveo’s 1.6, with 30 more horsepower (tying the Accent and Rio at 138), it’s much more eager. Mated to either a five-speed manual or a new six-speed automatic, highway merging is accomplished without drama.
The automatic, which features a shifter-mounted toggle switch for manual operation, works quite well for the most part, the odd-time proving momentarily indecisive, such as when asked to accelerate briskly from a near stop. It’s still far better than the Fiesta’s dual-clutch automatic, and it has two extra ratios on the Mazda2 and Toyota Yaris’ four-speed autos.
A 1.4-litre turbo four-cylinder engine is available in the top, currently six-speed manual-only LTZ model, which provides additional torque while returning slightly better economy.
As the Aveo wasn’t exactly known for fuel frugality, either engine — both of which are shared with the larger Cruze — has got to be an improvement in the real world, even if the government’s official numbers for the Sonic are similar to the Aveo’s. Most others in this class rate better.
The Sonic’s interior still uses lots of hard plastic, but at least it looks richer, with a two-tone scheme and metallic accents aiding the overall appearance. There are now several bins and cubbies and two glove boxes for stashing stuff. Wind and road noise are both well controlled.
Perhaps not as upscale or mature as what’s in the latest Hyundai Accent or Kia Rio, the love-it-or-hate-it “motorcycle-inspired” analogue/digital instrument cluster is a whimsically cool touch as far as I’m concerned, and includes a compass and basic trip computer.
I wasn’t as keen on the large tachometer’s brightly illuminated needle, which is somewhat irritating at night. Also, it’d be nice to have some kind of engine temperature indication; there’s not even the “cold” light used in some competitors. While I’m carping, perhaps a “simmer” setting to accompany the existing “fry” position on the optional seat heaters as well, Chevy?
The stylist’s decision to place the hatchback’s rear exterior door handles where the Aveo had rear door quarter windows was ill-advised, since younger children will have a hard time reaching them, and the resultant loss in rear quarter visibility is substantial.
As someone who loves the greater versatility of hatchbacks (and wagons), I’m sad to say that the Sonic sedan is probably the better choice for this reason alone, though I’d still sit in and test drive both before choosing; hatches often have better rear headroom.
2012 Chevrolet Sonic LT 5-Door
PRICE: “LS Sedan”/”LTZ 5-Door”/as tested “LT 5-Door”, $14,495/$20,995/$22,055 (1) $20,375 (2)
ENGINE: 16 valve 1.8L 4 cylinder
POWER: 138 hp/125 lbs.-ft.
FUEL CONSUMPTION: (L/100 km) City/Hwy, 8.3/5.5
COMPETITION: Ford Fiesta, Honda Fit, Hyundai Accent, Kia Rio, Mazda2, Nissan Versa, Toyota Yaris.
WHAT’S BEST: Good ride/handling dynamics and tied for best-in-class horsepower, cool gauge cluster, up to 10 airbags available.
WHAT’S WORST: Worrying glitches in testers, gets expensive fast, unspectacular predicted City fuel consumption.
WHAT’S INTERESTING: The Sonic’s suspension was tuned by Corvette engineers.
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