I like to tout myself as the youngest full-time auto writer in the industry, but sometimes it backfires – like when an Acura exec came up to me on my first press trip (at 19 years old) and warmly told a few assembled journalists and PR types that he hadn’t seen me since I was this big.
On the other hand, my youth gave me particular insight into two products that launched within the last month, and are aimed squarely at my demographic – the Hyundai Veloster and the Chevrolet Sonic. Both cars launched at the 2011 North American International Auto Show, though their reception couldn’t have been more different.
The Veloster was absolutely mobbed on the Hyundai stand, with the assembled press crawling all over the swoopy hatchback, while the Sonic was tucked away in the back of Chevrolet’s display, prematurely written off as “the replacement Aveo”. I admit complicity in both of these prejudicial acts. At the time, GM had the underwhelming Cruze, while Hyundai had not only kicked it to the curb with the 2011 Elantra, but also launched the Sonata Turbo, Sonata Hybrid and the Equus, as well as riding the success of the Genesis lineup.
I went on a couple Hyundai events in the run-up to the Veloster’s launch and talking with the engineers and PR people, I got the sense that they were on to something. A number of them have some kind of “enthusiast” background, and not in the sort of forum-posting perpetually single know-it-all sense. They ride sport bikes, take part in NASA HPDEs or race in Grand-Am (in the case of one engineer), and have had experience working on high profile sports cars (one chassis engineer is a veteran of Ford’s SVT group).
Hyundai put together a launch that insufferable marketing types would describe as “experiential” to give an insight into what the supposed Veloster customer would do with their time – events included a music festival, eating at food carts and tailgating at a college football game. Doing bong rips and playing Call of Duty was noticeably absent, likely for legal reasons.
I was able to see some good bands, attend my first college football tailgate (us godless, socialist Canadians don’t really have NCAA-style sports) and take trip to Portland’s famous Union Jack’s gentleman’s club, but things started to fall apart before we even got in the car. We were treated to the typical Hyundai presentation, boasting of their booming sales numbers, their competitive advantages over other vehicles and the various advanced technological features that the Veloster had to connect with music players, smart phones and even an XBOX.
The car turned out to be a bit of a dud to drive. My review is essentially a diplomatic explanation of its adequate nature as a road car that really doesn’t like to be driven hard. The biggest problem for the Veloster is that expectations were set too high, and to Hyundai’s credit, they were put in place by the media and auto enthusiasts who expected the next CR-X but got something more like a Scion tC.
The Sonic launch was the quickest I have ever gone from cynic to believer, and GM didn’t even have to ply me with a trip to Dubai or a supercharged Cadillac. Walking into the presentation area of the hotel, I saw the room (well, the parking garage) decked out in Chevrolet Sonic themed graffiti – the automotive equivalent of seeing your Dad trying to “Superman Dat Hoe” at a Bar Mitzvah. Chevrolet went on and on about “millennials”, the 18-29 demographic that the Sonic is aimed at, but somehow forgot the most crucial thing about this generation – we cannot stand any contrived attempts to pander to us via marketing. I wanted to wretch when one marketing flack, talking about the generational anxiety regarding our economic situation said that “They are navigating these tensions [and]…we feel there’s a very big supporting role for a brand to play.”
Even though that remark made me near-homicidal, the next thing that came out of his mouth was the best bit of wisdom I’ve heard in my too-brief career as an auto journalist. The same exec said that while millennials are 40% of the car buying population in America, that does not mean they will buy new cars. On the contrary, he said that most new cars do nothing for this demographic and a lot of them tend to buy used. The team responsible for this car did what no one else did, and saw the world for how things really are rather than trying to have it conform to whatever vision they dreamt up in a board room according to sales targets and management directives. Hyundai pegged the Veloster’s competition as the Honda CR-Z and Mini Clubman, two cars that the 18-29 demographic wouldn’t be caught dead in. Chevrolet knew that for the same $14,500-$18,000 that a Sonic costs, one can buy a used 330ci, G35, S2000 or something else with a lot more panache, performance and prestige than a Chevrolet econobox hatchback. The Sonic has to be really damn good to force people to shy away from something that will impress their friends.
And it is. I’ll say right off the bat that the interior isn’t great. I made some rude comments to a GM Design employee about how the hard plastic would be great for rolling blunts, and her retort was that Chevrolet decided to go right for hard plastic rather than try and make it look like faux leather or carbon fiber. I get that the car is built to a price. Fortunately the rest of it is on point. It looks pretty decent, the 1.4L Turbo and 6-speed gearbox do the job well – it’s about half a second quicker to 60 mph than the Veloster – the steering is excellent and the car’s handling limits are far beyond what’s reasonable to expect for a subcompact. Ford can hype up their Ken Block Rallycross nonsense as much as they want, but the Sonic is the real deal for the real world, a sort of poor man’s Mini Cooper S without the awful reliability.
I’ll save any meta-judgments about whether this is Hyundai’s first mis-step or whether Chevrolet is really back. Parking the Sonic outside a trendy lounge won’t get you past the velvet rope, but it’s a well-made, unpretentious product that is genuinely good and doesn’t cost too much money. Car companies spend exorbitant sums trying to promote their crappy wares via concert promotions, X-Games athlete endorsements or even launching entirely new brands. Meanwhile these contrived efforts are totally transparent to those they’re hoping to sell their cars to. Take those funds and just make a decent car that doesn’t suck and you’ll get the best kind of marketing in the world; one young person telling another “I just bought (insert vehicle here) and you know what? It’s a fucking great car.” Hopefully Chevrolet proves my theory right, or we’ll be seeing another Gymkhana video in a few months time.