Chevrolet Sonic is a sound subcompact
This may come as a surprise to some motorists, but Chevrolet, a brand celebrating its 100th anniversary this year, has only now figured out how to make a good subcompact.

Just as frustrating that it took it an entire century to bring us this new car called the Sonic is that it wasn't even a gradual effort.

The Sonic's predecessor, the Aveo, was so hastily conceived and executed, it was like the forgotten book report written on the bus to school. And the small Chevys before it are more noteworthy for the pockmarks of chronic failure than the few and negligible triumphs.

So thank the confluence of a post-bankruptcy General Motors Co. and the tightening of fuel economy regulations that forced the company to make a small car that people might actually want to spend money on.

But be careful how you spend that money, as it seems not all Sonics are created equal.

Like its competitors, which include Hyundai Motor Co.'s Accent and Ford Motor Co.'s Fiesta, the Sonic comes in both sedan and hatchback configurations.

The darling of the two styles is the sedan. It's better largely because it feels quieter and more refined than its spunkier hatchback sibling — and compares well even beyond this cheap-seats segment of vehicles. Its degree of quiet motoring is worthy of a larger and more expensive class.

The Sonic sedan also wears the tidy proportions of a subcompact car better than the hatchback. Both Sonics are the same from the front doors forward; the look is chunky-handsome and offsets the car's diminutive nature.

But the Sonic hatchback's design is curt when viewed from the rear. Like an Angry Bird that was transmogrified into a little car, the five-door model has squat proportions that seem a bit off when compared with the more rakish yet ovoid dimensions of peers such as the Fiesta and Accent.

Those cars manage to look simply like a small car, rather than a cheap car. The same can't be said for the Sonic hatchback, especially with the standard 15-inch wheels.

Inside, the Sonic is a little inconsistent in layout but excellent in craftsmanship. The plastics are nicely textured to offset what could have been an otherwise cheap look. The buttons and switch gear on the center console are well-organized and provide an excellent tactile feedback when operated.

The seats, especially the heated Leatherette units that come on the loaded $18,555 Sonic LTZ sedan I tested, are nicely padded and bolstered. Interior space is about the same as in Hyundai's Accent and greater than what the Ford Fiesta offers. The only place things get tight is rear legroom, but only if the front and rear passengers are all 6 feet tall.

Although most of the cabin is laudable, the Sonic's oddly packaged instrument cluster became a focal point of ire during my time with the car.

The cluster is dominated by a large analog tachometer (largely useless in Sonics with the automatic transmission), to the right of which sits a small digital cluster. Crammed into that smaller space is the speedometer, fuel gauge, compass, odometer, trip computer and gear indicator.

Chevy cites the design of a motorcycle's cluster as the inspiration, which frankly seems a bit silly. It's like designing a great laptop computer and then giving it an iPhone keyboard as "inspiration."

Next time use a car's layout as inspiration.

Returning to the list of advantages the Sonic sedan has over the hatchback, we have the icing on the cake: It's cheaper. The Sonic sedan starts at $14,495, while the basic hatchback goes for $15,395.

Every Sonic comes with a healthy complement of safety features that include 10 air bags, stability control, four-wheel anti-lock brakes (disc in the front, drum in the rear) and a tire pressure monitoring system.

Other features include the trip computer, power windows and locks, air conditioning, a solid stereo with CD, auxiliary jack and three months of free XM satellite radio, split folding rear seats and heated side-view mirrors.