Let’s face it; we Americans have rarely created a small car worth considering, we have also rarely built a small car in our own backyard. Case in point: the former Chevy Aveo. While I wouldn’t say the Aveo was abjectly horrible, there was nothing to excite a shopper and it wasn’t cheap enough to compensate. While the Aveo was born out of old-GM’s need to buy every ailing car company around the world (in this case Daewoo), it’s replacement, the new Chevy Sonic, is the only subcompact car currently sold in the United States that’s actually assembled here as well. The platform used by the Sonic is far better traveled than most Americans. GM’s “Gamma II” architecture was designed by GM Korea with considerable input from Opel (as the Opel Corsa will share the platform soon) and re-skinned by Chevrolet. To make the Sonic LTZ Turbo from this multi-national compact car, Chevy dropped a 1.4L turbocharged engine and six-speed manual tranny under the hood. Unlike the Hertz-ready Sonic hatchback Michael Karesh has last year, the Sonic LTZ Turbo is the top-of-the-line Sonic attempting to please those who want a hair more shove and, paradoxically, better fuel economy. Sound like a good start? Let’s see if GM got it right this time.
On the outside, the Sonic strikes some interesting poses. The side character lines are assertive, and the bold nose worn by this baby-bow-tie might be the best look I’ve ever seen from Chevrolet (I’m glad they didn’t get all Camaro-cartoonish on the Sonic). While it seems that the last decade was marked by compact cars that were egg-shaped contraptions with no pizzazz, the Sonic’s headlamps are the polar opposite with “individual” lamp assemblies instead of a single aerodynamic unit. While the look is both unique and striking, I can’t imagine they are “pedestrian friendly” and they look like they’d be a bear to clean (a problem not lost on a guy that washes his own cars). Out back things get a touch awkward with a stubby trunk, tear-drop shaped tail lamps (side view) and a plain trunk lid. While compact sedans are difficult to style to begin with, Chevrolet’s dramatic schnoz makes the boring booty a bit more pronounced. To soften the blow, the LTZ trim includes well-integrated fog lamps and a bump from the base car’s 15-inch wheels to 17-inch 5-spoke aluminum rollers that fill out the wheel wells better than most in this segment (I’m looking at you, Honda Fit).
The problem with looking at the top trim-levels of a particular car is that the interior can disappoint. The reason of course is a practical one; while you might be paying nearly $20,000 for the top-end model, the same interior is used in the base model costing some 25% less. The Sonic LTZ is no different from the rest with plenty of hard plastic on the dash and doors. Fortunately, the interior styling is modern and fairly unique which helps distract from the parts quality. The dilemma of a fully-loaded sub-compact for $20,000 or a base mid-size sedan like a Ford Fusion, Toyota Camry or VW Passat is not lost on me. For the money, if the interior quality matters to you, jump up a size and you will be far happier with your decision. Within its class however, the Sonic is no longer at the bottom of the pack in terms of interior refinement, instead trailing behind Hyundai and Ford but notably above Chrysler and Nissan’s discount offerings. Yet again, features on the LTZ help to distract from any haptic concerns with standard heated seats, a tilt/telescoping steering wheel, leather seating surfaces, and a thick-rimmed leather steering wheel. What isn’t standard is an abundance of rear leg room, a problem common among the majority of the competition (the Nissan Versa is a notable exception). The cargo capacity of 14 cubic feet is very competitive and unlike some of the competition, split folding rear seats are standard on the Sonic.
On the safety front, the Sonic has recently scored an IIHS top safety pick along with the Hyundai Elantra, Kia Forte and Ford Focus. All Sonic models come with a bevy of airbags including knee airbags for the driver and front passenger. GM is quick to point out OnStar as a safety feature; however the Sonic only gets a 6-month subscription for free. While I found OnStar handy on my last vehicle that came equipped with it (a 2000 GMC Envoy), the price could be a problem for budget shoppers with the cheapest package costing $199 a year (there are multi-year discounts available). If you want the turn-by-turn navigation feature (GM’s solution to the lack of an in-dash nav system), that’ll set you back $299 a year. Shoppers with smartphones might want to just stick to their Google Maps app and a basic AAA membership. Still, if you are risk averse and want to know that someone hears you when a tree falls in the forest, the Sonic is the only OnStar equipped car in the class.
Car companies equate small car buyers with young car buyers and for good reason; in the US small means cheap and the young buyers typically have little cash. The problem with this segment and the supposed target demographic is that the young demand technology. Unfortunately for Chevrolet (aside from OnStar), the Sonic has little going for it in the cellphone/music device integration department. There is an “OnStar app” which allows you to perform a variety of tasks from your Apple iPhone or Android device including: locking or unlocking the car, getting vehicle service information, setting up service appointments, viewing your tire pressure and finding your car in a parking lot. Two problems exist with this; the yearly fee and the fact that none of those features address the behind-wheel experience. While you can plug your iPod or iPhone into the Sonic, there is no voice command ability for your tunes ala Ford’s SYNC or Kia’s UVO. Adding to the frustration is an incredibly slow interface and tiny screen. I’d say you would be better off unplugging your device, browsing, then plugging it back in – except the system seems to always start at the first tune on your device in alphabetical order. If you’re young and not a Luddite, good luck finding your beat. On the bright side, the Bluetooth system operated flawlessly with above average sound quality.
Ford has been touting their turbocharged engines as the answer to all the world’s ills, so it was only a matter of time before GM hopped on the boosted-bandwagon. Instead of a boring name like Ecoboost, by checking the $700 option box (on LT and above trims) Chevy gives you the “Turbo Sonic” or “Sonic Turbo.” Take your pick. Either way it sounds like something from The Jetsons. For turbo duty, the engineers blessed the 1.4L cast-iron engine with aluminum heads, dual variable valve timing, a suitably small appetite for fuel and a tiny power bump verses the base 1.8L engine. While both engine choices are good for 138HP, the 1.4L turbo delivers peak power 1,400RPM lower than the 1.8 and, typical of turbo engines, it delivers 23 ft-lbs more twist with the peak hitting at 2,500RPM (1,300RPM lower than the 1.8). What does this mean for the driver? As long as you don’t mind the turbo lag, the 1.4L engine will serve up 60MPH about a half second faster than the 1.8L while delivering a 22% improvement in economy (4MPG city and 5MPG highway better). If you are waiting for the Sonic RS, be aware there are no planned power upgrades, just styling and possibly wheel changes.
Due partly to the turbo engine and the 2,850lb curb weight, the Sonic LTZ Turbo is rated for 29 MPG city and 40 MPG highway. Our tester came with the 6-speed manual transmission and, until sometime this spring, this is the only transmission choice for the turbo. I am told however that when the 6-speed automatic does drop, we should expect to see essentially identical EPA numbers. If you live in the mountains as I do, just wait for the automatic. As much as I love a good manual, the tiny engine runs out of steam around 5,000 RPM and as with most small turbocharged engines you don’t just have to downshift to get up a hill, you have to downshift and wait for the turbo to spool-up. When the mountain roads start twisting, the electric power steering is as numb companion, however the chassis is well sorted and grip from the 205-width low-profile Hankook Optimo tires was greater than I had expected. Despite our testing, mountain climbing and plenty of idling at the photo shoot, we averaged 34.6 MPG during 865 miles and easily hit 41 MPG on the open highway.
While the outgoing Aveo was named the Least Satisfying vehicle by Consumer Reports, the new Sonic has a few things going for it. Aside from being the patriot’s choice for being in Michigan, it delivers a competent driving experience with excellent fuel economy. While the $19,420 price tag may seem high, it is less than a Hyundai Elantra Limited and a hair cheaper than a fully loaded Fiesta SEL sedan. The Sonic wins points for being more fun to drive than either, unfortunately it loses more than it gains(in my book) for its poor smartphone integration. Fortunately GM has announced that their new “MyLink” infotainment system is coming to the Sonic in the 2013 model year. While I hesitate to speculate on new products, I have to say the thought of a 2013 Sonic Turbo with the 6-speed automatic and the new MyLink system makes me think GM is finally on to something.
Statistics as tested
0-30: 3.0 seconds
0-60: 8.7 seconds
1/4 Mile: 16.6 seconds @ 83 MPH
Average Fuel Economy: 34.6 MPG over 865 miles
Chevrolet provided the vehicle, insurance and one tank of gas for this review.