William Maley-Editor/Reporter - CheersandGears.com
Drew Dowdell - Chief Editor - CheersandGears.com contributing
March 27, 2012
General Motors doesn’t have a great track record with subcompact cars. One only needs to read through a list of names of former Chevrolet subcompacts to see the trail of disappointment; Vega, Monza, Chevette, Sprint, Spectrum, Metro, and Aveo.
But, at last year’s North American International Auto Show, GM introduced a new subcompact car - one that would hopefully banish away the bad reputation GM was known for this class. The car was called the Sonic. Chris Perry, vice president of Chevrolet marketing said at the time, "The all-new Chevrolet Sonic blends the practicality of a small car with the passion for driving that Chevrolet vehicles like the Corvette are known for."
It sounds like a bit of a tall order; practical and driving passion on top of trying to remove the tarnish of previous models. Can the Sonic achieve all of this or will it end up like its forebears and continue the tarnishing?
Chevy sent me a Sonic LTZ with the 1.8 liter 4-cylinder and 6-speed automatic and they sent Drew a Sonic LTZ with the 1.4 liter turbo and 6-speed manual.
On to the Exterior!
Will: When the Chevrolet Sonic 5-Door first arrived at the house, the first words that came out of my mom’s mouth were, “That looks like an Aveo.”
Ouch… that is not a good first impression. You could say there’s a resemblance between the Aveo5 and the Sonic 5-Door after a quick glance. Yet, after giving it a good look, the Sonic begins to show some major differences.
One of the resemblances between the Aveo5 and Sonic is the front end. When GM refreshed the Aveo5 2009, they replaced the rounded front end for a blunt one and replaced the grill with now common double grill opening. The Sonic carries on with blunt front end and double grille opening. The big difference between the two lies in the headlight. While the Aveo used a pair of regular headlights, the Sonic goes with a pair of headlights that uses three lenses.
Step around to the side and more differences begin to appear. While the Aveo was plain, the Sonic adds some flair with two character lines running from the front wheel wells to the back. The back door handles are recessed into the window frame, taking a design cue from the W-Body coupes. Finishing off the side is a set a 17-inch 5-spoke wheels standard on the LTZ. Moving to the back, the Sonic's tailgate juts out and new pair of taillights finish the look.
The overall look of the Sonic is aggressive, ready to attack at a moments notice. In comparison, the overall look of the Chevrolet Aveo is like a slice of white bread; plain and boring.
Drew: I don’t think it looks like an Aveo other than the fact that it’s a 5-door hatch and it has a Chevy face. The angry headlights set in barrels on either side of the aggressive grill really set the Sonic apart from the “Scream Mask” Aveo face. The Aveo was a very upright looking hatch and the Sonic maintains the same basic shape, but adds some sport to the silhouette with the roof mounted spoiler. The wheels look huge on this little car, but that’s not a bad thing. I feel like the tail lights are cartoonishly oversized. They take up more than 50% of the vertical distance of the tailgate.
On to the Interior!
Will: The driving passion that Chris Perry talked about with the Sonic begins with the sport-bike inspired instrument cluster. A large tachometer flanks a digital display that handles the speedometer, odometer, fuel gauge, and trip computer duties. I wasn’t sure how I would feel about the setup, but after driving with it for a week, I got used to it.
The Sonic’s dash is sea of grey and black hard plastics, which didn’t bother me at all. The hard stuff is common for the class. LTZ models come equipped with a standard six-speaker premium sound system with an AM/FM/XM stereo with a CD player, Bluetooth streaming and connectivity, USB, and auxiliary jack. The sound coming out of the system was alright. LTZ models also come standard with heated front seats and remote start. Those two features came into heavy use during the week I had the Sonic due to temperatures dropping into the single digits.
Cargo space in the Sonic sits right in the middle of subcompact class. With back seats up, the Sonic has 19 cubic feet. That puts the Sonic between 15.4 cubic feet offered in the Fiesta and 21.2 cubic feet in the Hyundai Accent. Fold the back seats down in the Sonic and you're rewarded with 30.7 cubic feet. Once again that sits between the 26 cubic feet in the Fiesta and 47.5 cubic feet in the Accent.
Drew: Historically, the interior of an economy sub-compact car, particularly a domestic brand sub-compact, has been one of the weakest points in the car. Chevrolet has completely leap-frogged the competition here and changed the benchmark for the entire segment. The interior’s design is handsome and well built. It does have some cheaper plastics inside, but they still have a very good quality feel to them appropriate for a car that has a base price in the low teens. The controls are logically deployed, simple to operate, and feel solid in your hand.
The front seats were exceptionally comfortable for me and I found my seating position quickly. Rear seat passengers will be a bit snug in the legroom department, but the seats themselves are comfortable. For a compact hatchback, the cargo room is generous. In the second installment of me shoving too much I.T. equipment into a compact (see the 2012 Volkswagen Beetle Turbo Review for episode one) I managed to fit twelve 17” flat panel monitors into the rear cargo area of the Sonic without dropping the rear seats.
I purposely left the instrument pod for last. I think that this feature really makes the Sonic stand out from the rest of its competition. It is a unique design element that is both interesting and functional. Besides, how could we at Cheers and Gears not like the design of the tachometer.
Full view of theChevy Sonic instrument pod here
On to Ride and Drive!
Ride & Drive
Will: The Sonic that Chevrolet sent me was equipped with the base 1.8Liter four-cylinder motor producing 138 HP and 131 lb-ft or torque. Power comes out strong and is adequate for day to day driving.
Sending the power to the front wheels is the LTZ’s standard six-speed automatic, which has some glaring problems. The transmission exhibits the herky-jerky shifting between gears. Plus, there is a delay in the gear changes when trying to make a pass. It makes me wonder if some new transmission programming could fix these qualms like they did on the Cruze a year ago.
Thankfully, the Sonic’s ride lives up to its claim. The stiff chassis, well-tuned suspension, and nicely weighted steering make it a joy to drive. Driving along one of the rare curvy roads in southeast Michigan, the Sonic held its own, providing safe and confident handling.
Aside from the corner carving, the Sonic is a comfortable car. The suspension soaked up the bumps and craters that dot the southeast Michigan roadways.
Drew: My Sonic LTZ was the 1.4 liter turbo with 6-speed manual transmission. This engine is also rated at 138hp but gets a bump in torque to 148ft-lb. This engine, while not going to win any pink slips, gives you a boy-racer feel. Unlike Will’s slushbox Sonic, if there was any herky-jerky shifting operation in my Sonic, it was my own damn fault.
Chevy has equipped the Sonic with one of the politest little manual transmissions I have ever driven. Shifting is soft and easy with just enough click through the gates to let you know where you are. It is also very forgiving if you select the wrong gear. The clutch is lightweight, but action is linear. Dads out there who want to teach their daughters to drive a manual would probably find the Sonic an excellent car to play professor in.
The 1.4T in the Sonic has a refinement that belies its class. It is happier when revved, but doing do will hurt your fuel economy. You can beat around town shifting when the light comes on and you won’t get irritated looks from your fellow drivers.
As with the turbo option on the Cruze, the engine upgrade is more about fuel economy than outright power. The EPA rates the Sonic with this powertrain combo at 29mpg city and 40mpg highway. In my suburban driving, I was able to keep the MPG around 34 and on the highway I nailed the 40mpg rating exactly. If there were demand, Chevy could probably equip the Sonic with the specially tuned manual transmission from the Cruze Eco and bump that highway MPG up a little further.
The ride of the Sonic is something else that is above its class. On the highway, the Sonic has the solid and comfortable ride of a mid-size sedan. I didn’t get to take this car on a long road trip, but I would have no hesitation doing so. I equally loved its agility in and around busy shopping centers where I could dart around with the deftness of a jackrabbit.
Will: The Chevrolet Sonic pulls off a seemingly impossible feat, a well done subcompact car from General Motors a domestic. This was the company that only ten years ago introduced a bad joke of a car, the Aveo. Somehow during that time, GM found the guidebook on how to build a subcompact car, followed it, and created possibly one of the best in the class.
But there are a couple caveats. The 1.8L engine provides enough power, but falls short when talking about fuel economy. Then there’s the six-speed automatic, which exhibits some very odd behavior when changing gears.
As I went through my notes while writing this review, there was a line that caught my eye. It said “I would buy this Sonic as is, but I wonder how much more would I like the Turbo.” I wonder indeed…
Drew: GM didn’t follow the guidebook, they re-wrote it. There is just too much material in the Sonic that is above the class. From noise, harshness and vibration, to ride and handling, to material quality and fuel economy, the Sonic doesn’t just beat the competition, it embarrasses them.
Fuel Economy on the 1.8L engine
Six-speed automatic’s odd shifting
Aggressive front end styling
Above class noise and harshness control
Zippy but frugal 1.4T
Polite 6-speed manual
Cartoonish tail lights
Will: General Motors creates one of the best subcompacts on the market. Needs some tweaks on the 1.8L engine to make it the best in class.
Drew: Ditto… but I’ll take the 1.4t as is.
Disclaimer: General Motors provided both Sonics, Insurance, and one tank of Gas in each car.
Will's 2012 Chevrolet Sonic LTZ with 1.8 and 6-speed auto
Year - 2012
Make - Chevrolet
Model - Sonic
Trim - 2LZ Five Door
Engine - 1.8L Four-cylinder
Driveline - Front Wheel Drive, Six Speed Automatic
Horsepower @ RPM - 138 @ 6300
Torque @ RPM - 125 @ 3800
Fuel Economy: City/Highway/Combined - 25/35/28
Curb Weight - 2684 lbs
Location of Manufacture - Lake Orion, MI
Base Price - $18,495
Drew's 2012 Chevrolet Sonic LTZ with 1.4T and 6-speed manual
Year - 2012
Make - Chevrolet
Model - Sonic
Trim - 1LZ Five Door
Engine - 1.4L Four-cylinder Turbo
Driveline - Front Wheel Drive, Six Speed Manual
Horsepower @ RPM - 138 @ 4900
Torque @ RPM - 148 @ 1850
Fuel Economy: City/Highway/Combined - 29/40/33
Curb Weight - 2684 lbs
Location of Manufacture - Lake Orion, MI
Base Price - $18,890