In an effort to completely remake its showroom, Chevy has added another car to its lineup: The all-new 2012 Chevrolet Sonic. Sonic is a new nameplate for Chevy, replacing the outgoing Daewoo-sourced Aveo in Chevrolet’s global lineup. Designed in Korea and built in Michigan, the 2012 Chevrolet Sonic has a price range of $14,495 to $20,520 and fuel economy estimates from 25 mpg city/35 mpg highway to 29 mpg city/40 mpg highway.
First Glance: Not an Aveo
During our press preview for the new Sonic, Chevrolet expended a great deal of energy explaining "Millenials" -- consumers between 18 and 29 years of age who make up the the target market for the Sonic. As the largest generation in U.S. history, they are destined to be a growing force in the economy, and Chevy's extensive research shows that they are ready to buy cars -- and that they haven't yet developed any brand loyalty. So the Sonic is what car people call a "get-'em-and-grow-'em" car, a product designed to bring them into the Chevrolet family.
Chevy's research said that Millenials respond to transparency and reject artifice, so the exterior of the Sonic is simple, yet not without fetching details. There's a hatchback and a sedan, but the hatchback is by far the more striking, with a certain Asian flair and classic minicar proportions. Sonic is very close in size and shape to competitors like the Ford Fiesta, Hyundai Accent and Toyota Yaris. A dual port grill with a big bowtie in the middle links it to other Chevy models, while quad headlights taillights further reinforce the family resemblance. Little details like the gloss black headlamp surrounds add an unexpected pop. Crisp rising body lines lend a sense of motion and increase the impression of an aggressive stance, and even the cheapest Sonic (the $14,495 Sonic LS sedan) gets standard alloy wheels. All of these details add up, and Sonic feels like a real car as a result.
In the Driver’s Seat: Definitely not an Aveo
Sonic's interior is a world away from the Aveo it replaces. Instead of a traditional collection of circular analog gauges under an eyebrow, Sonic’s designers came up with an innovative motorcycle-inspired instrument cluster (link goes to photo). A large digital speedometer is flanked by an analog tachometer and a driver information center with an odometer, digital compass, and fuel economy display -- practical, useful information available at a glance.
Millenials apparently dislike surfaces and materials masquerading as something else, so there’s no fake wood trim or “leather-look” plastic, just a bit of crisply chromed trim and a technical pattern on the dashboard. Each trim level adds a bit more luster, with standard cloth seats in the entry-level Sonic LS, textured cloth in the LT, and heated "leatherette" in the top-of-the-line LTZ. All of the materials had a decent feel, although the seats themselves were a little narrow for my generous torso and ample butt. The back seat is surprisingly adequate, and because of the generous roofline and big door openings, entry and exit is easy. The hatchback stores 19 cubic feet of cargo, nearly as much as the class-leading Honda Fit, while the sedan's trunk stows away 14 cubic feet.
The center stack sits proud of the dash and houses the audio system and controls for the standard-fit air conditioning. OnStar is standard in all Sonics, but the LS only gets an AM/FM radio with an auxiliary input jack; a CD player is an extra-cost option. LT and LTZ models get a six-speaker CD stereo with satellite radio, and the LTZ adds a connectivity package with a USB port, Bluetooth phone and streaming audio and steering wheel-mounted controls. Navigation is not offered.
A few quibbles: The seat-adjustment levers are on the inboard side of the seat, next to the transmission tunnel, so you have to get in before adjusting them. I prefer them on the outboard side so you can slide the seats back from outside the car. My wife is 5'3" and I'm 6'2", so if she's been driving, I can barely jam myself in behind the wheel. And although Chevy extolled the importance of in-car connectivity to Millenials, this Gen X-er was less than thrilled with the Sonic's iPod interface. I found no quick way to scroll through the lengthy list of artists on my device, which was frustrating. Needs work.
On the Road: This ain’t your father’s Aveo
The Sonic comes to market with two engines: A 1.8 liter inline 4-cylinder with either a 5-speed manual or a 6-speed automatic, or a 1.4 liter turbo 4-cylinder with a 6-speed manual, offered only in the LT and LTZ. I say skip the 1.8; the turbo is the engine that makes the Sonic super. If you can’t live with a manual transmission, what’s wrong with you? Sorry -- what I meant to say was that Chevy has promised an automatic later in the model year.
The 1.4 and 1.8 are close in power ratings (138 hp for each; 148 lb-ft of torque for the 1.4 turbo and 125 for the 1.8 non-turbo), but worlds apart in character. The turbo sounds great and adds to the fun; the non-turbo feels underpowered and noisy and had me wishing for more.
"So what?" you say. "This is an entry-level economy car." Yes, but the steering and suspension are so well sorted and the ride so quiet and refined that the Sonic begs to be driven assertively, if not aggressively. It’s not a sports car, not by a long shot, but it has lots of spirit and personality, and it’s a shame to let those qualities go to waste. Besides, the 1.8 liter engine isn’t that economic -- its EPA ratings of 25 MPG city/35 MPG highway are yesterday’s news. The 1.4 turbo’s 29/40 figures are much more becoming of a modern-day economy car.
And speaking of economy, I always find it odd when a manufacturer decides to save a few bucks by putting drum brakes on the rear of their economy cars, as Chevy has done with the Sonic. I didn't notice any degradation in braking performance, but in the long run, I'd rather have discs than drums on my car for the lower maintenance and repair costs and more reliable performance in high demand situations. Chevy would argue that other manufacturers make the same choice, and that consumers don't care or don't demand rear discs. I would counter that there are plenty of features on the Sonic that consumers didn't demand, like ultra high strength steel, but they make a better, safer car. Chevy splurged on safety with ten airbags, more than most of Sonic's competitors -- so why skimp on the brakes?