In my travels as Chief Justice of the 24 Hours of LeMons Supreme Court, I spend a lot of time in bottom-end rental cars. Sometimes I get press cars and write about them on these trips, but that’s usually more of a hassle than it’s worth. For about 15 four-day race weekends a year (plus a few vacation trips here and there) I’m in a Dodge Avenger, Nissan Altima, Ford Focus, or other rental-fleet favorite. 2013 is a year of Wisconsin visits for me; first, I went to my wife’s Milwaukee high-school reunion with a ’13 Jaguar XJL Portfolio, then I spent nine days in Door County with a rental ’12 Sonic, and next month I’ll be at the Chubba Cheddar Enduro at Road America with a ’14 Mitubishi Evo. The Sonic made an unexpectedly strong impression on me in August, so let’s see what life with Chevy’s little Daewoo is like.
When we arrived at the Milwaukee airport, the rental-car agency had just one car available in the class I’d reserved: a 2012 Chevy Sonic with more than 25,000 miles on the clock. Twenty-five thousand miles, on a rental car! Rental-car miles are like dog years, with one rental mile roughly equivalent to seven owned miles, and I had never before seen a rental car (in the United States) with more than 15,000 miles under its belt. I figured I’d be getting a sneak preview of what a Sonic with 175,000 hard miles would be like in the year 2025— an opportunity, not a disappointment, for the serious automotive journalist.
Minutes after leaving the airport, I spotted a good-sized car show, complete with live music, so I figured I’d get right into Upper Midwest car culture.
In a way, trips to the Upper Midwest serve as reminders of my cultural roots; though I spent most of my childhood in California, I spent my first six years in Minneapolis. Here we see the Martin Family Motor Pool, circa 1970.
Yes, before the commissars of California turned me into the coastal-elitist Zaporozhets lover I am today, my family lived a proper Old Milwaukee-drinking, sauerkraut-eating, snow-shoveling, Custom 500-driving life in the heartland. In fact, every photo from my early childhood features Old Milwaukee (or Old Style, or Grain Belt) beer bottles and/or Old Dutch pretzels somewhere in the frame.
Right. So, a Milwaukee car show did a good job of getting me back in touch with my inner Midwesterner, plus there were a few interesting machines standing out from the usual background of first-gen GM F-bodies and pre-Pinto Mustangs. Say, this Stovebolt six with vintage Offenhauser intake.
Or this more modern version of the custom-Chevy theme.
We were hungry, so we headed to the south side of Milwaukee to grab some dinner. Before leaving, however, I futzed around with the audio system of the Sonic long enough to get my MP3 player hooked up to the stereo’s AUX jack…
… at which point I discovered that this no-frills econobox has functioning Bluetooth integration. How long ago was it that only luxury cars had this stuff? Ten years?
The Sonic felt a bit loose and rattly, as you’d expect with a high-mileage rental, but everything worked fine and the 1.8 liter Ecotec still made decent, if buzzy, power. In fact, I can say without reservation that this is by far the best overseas-designed badge-engineered subcompact in General Motors history; the mildly unpleasant Aveo was better than the punitive Metro, which was better than the miserable Sprint, which was far superior to the wretched LeMans, which beat the hell out of the excremental Chevette, which seemed like a fine automobile next to the unspeakably terrible Kadett. With those comparisons in mind, we rolled into the south Milwaukee neighborhood in which my wife’s grandparents spent their entire lives.
Dinner was at Three Brothers, a little Serbian joint located in the building that once housed one of Joseph Schlitz’s first breweries.
It’s always a good sign when you’re eating dinner at a restaurant with one of these things on the roof.
Really getting into the Upper Midwest thing at this point, I tried to imagine rolling up to this restaurant in 1964, driving the rental-car equivalent of a Sonic. A Chevy II sedan with four-cylinder engine and 10,000 miles on the odometer?
For dinner, I had the stuffed zucchini with dumplings. Highly recommended. No, I didn’t drink Schlitz with it; there is such a thing as carrying local authenticity too far.
After spending the night at my mother-in-law’s place just north of Milwaukee, we hit the road for the 140-drive to Sturgeon Bay, a Lake Michigan town about midway up the Door County peninsula.
The Sonic’s suspension was a bit rattly and the body was pockmarked by old hail damage, but the unapologetically plasticky interior had held up to all those miles of rental-car punishment pretty well. I continued to be impressed by the number of once-luxurious features that are now standard on even the stripper rental version of the lowest-end car of a car company’s entry-level marque. Cruise control!
Tilt steering wheel! No power seats, but we may see them go the way of manual-crank windows in the next few years.
I had to supply my own GPS device for the Sonic, but once backup cameras become mandatory in all new cars we can expect all those little screens to enable GPS in even the cheap Daewoos of the US car marketplace.
Passing through Belgium, Wisconsin, not far out of Milwaukee’s sphere of influence, I spotted a highway sign for the Luxembourg American Cultural Society Museum. As my legal surname should make clear to any lifelong resident of southern Wisconsin or Minnesota, I am a proud Luxembourg-American— just like Chris Evert and Dennis Hastert.
The museum wasn’t open at the time, but it seemed like a pleasant place. No, I don’t understand why the Luxembourg American Cultural Center is located in Belgium when the town of Luxembourg, Wisconsin is nearby.
Here we are in traditional Luxembourger outfits, which gave me a powerful hunger for some traditional Lëtzebuerger Grillwurscht. So, we climbed back into the Sonic and resumed our journey.
Rural Wisconsin is one of my favorite road-trip states, not least because you can stop in just about small town and snarf up an excellent meal based on the principles of the Upper Midwest Food Pyramid (more of a Food Holy Trinity, really): cured meat, cheese, and beer. The Port O’Call in Kewaunee didn’t have Lëtzebuerger Grillwurscht, but they did offer the full spectrum of New Glarus beers and a good selection of meaty, cheesy fare.
Arriving in Sturgeon Bay, which is sort of a weird mashup of corn-fed Midwestern town, salty port city, and upscale resort community, I wanted to pose the Sonic by all the old-school taverns with nicely weathered Malaise Era beer signs.
I suspect that the Red Room’s Blatz sign predates the Malaise Era by a decade or two.
Beer at local prices! I gave up on the Sonic-with-vintage-beer-signs idea once I realized that such a project would take about a week to finish.
Actually, I lost focus on beer signs when I spotted this Nissan Figaro parked in downtown Sturgeon Bay. I couldn’t find the owner, so I can’t tell you what no-doubt-innovative paperwork magic was performed to make this car legal for US roads.
Nor can I tell you how a Citroën 2CV can survive in Wisconsin without vaporizing in a cloud of red dust within hours of arrival.
One feature that really struck me about the Sonic was the cheap-and-cheerful instrument cluster, a discrete standalone unit that can be mounted on left or right side of the dash without too much trouble. No doubt using the same Korean-design/Taiwanese-capital/Chinese-labor system that brought us $25 boomboxes that can be tumbled down several flights of concrete steps and still crank out the Tang Dynasty, Daewoo has produced a tough, easy-to-replace analog/digital instrument cluster that provides all the needed driver information, looks vaguely science-fictiony, and probably cost less than the fuel gauge on a Maepsy.
In fact, this cluster is the first thing you see in the add for the Japan-market Chevy Sonic. Wild compact!
Now that we’re watching Sonic commercials, let’s take a look at a few more examples of the way this Daewoo is conquering the world. Here’s how they pitch it in Brazil.
In Australia, the Sonic gets badge-engineered into the Holden Barina.
In Argentina, this Sonic ad gives the econo-futuristic instrument cluster heavy billing.
The Thai-market Sonic is So You. Note the instrument cluster on the right side.
This US-market ad features Theophilus London and the sort of hoonage that would have been illegal under Malaise Era car-ad restrictions.
Speaking of hoonage, marketers of the Korean Sonic (still called the Aveo in 2012) encourage “Fun Riding” in Italy.
In Mexico, all night party people use the Sonic sedan to escape oppressive techno-state control.
Former Warsaw Pact countries got local-language versions of this ad.
This Indian-market ad is for the previous-generation Aveo, but I’m including it for general entertainment value (and to provide yet more evidence that GM has gone seriously global with its Sonic/Barina/Aveo/Zafira/whatever).
OK, back to Wisconsin! After admiring the instrument cluster a while longer, I headed to the log cabin.
My wife’s grandparents bought this log cabin on the Lake Michigan shore back in the 1940s, and I parked the Sonic in the spot where generations of Buicks and Packards once parked.
Over the course of the next week, I took the Sonic on many trips into town, to purchase crucial supplies (and to get internet access, so I could write about my Bonneville Salt Flats adventures of the previous week).
Sonic trips to fine Wisconsonian eating establishments such as the Nightingale Supper Club, took care of my recommended yearly allowance of perch and whitefish.
Naturally, the Sonic went on a few shopping expeditions for treats to bring back to Denver.
In the end, I was a little sad to return the hail-battered, much-traveled Chevy to the rental-car lot at MKE. The current generation of Sonic turned out to be a decent transportation appliance. If it can survive 25,000 miles in a rental fleet, you have to figure it should be good for at least 200,000 miles on the street, right? My Rental Car Review Verdict™ of the 2012 Chevrolet Sonic LT: Utterly bereft of Mack Daddy style, surprisingly pleasant to drive. If given a choice between this car and a Nissan Versa at the rental-car counter, take the Sonic (and if given a choice between the Dodge Journey and walking, take walking).