By David Undercoffler, Los Angeles Times
10:25 PM EST, December 7, 2011
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.
Powering the base Sonics is a 1.8-liter, four-cylinder unit that makes 138 horsepower and 125 pound-feet of torque. It's a solid motor and does its job without drama or complaint, though gas mileage for Sonics with the base five-speed manual transmission is an unimpressive 26 miles per gallon in the city and 35 mpg on the highway.
A six-speed automatic will run you about $1,100 more and its mileage is worse, getting only 25 mpg in the city and 35 on the highway. The Sonic LTZ I tested had the automatic, and over 326 miles I averaged 26 mpg.
The transmission certainly tried to get the best mileage though, sometimes to a fault. Upshifts would come too soon and subsequent downshifts would lag until the last possible moment.
Buyers with a little more change in their pocket can spring for the optional turbocharged engine. An extra $700 gets you a sedan or hatchback with a 1.4-liter, turbo four-cylinder unit. Horsepower stays the same at 138, but torque jumps 23 pound-feet to 148, giving you more mid-range power to play with when you need it.
This engine also gets better gas mileage, with the Environmental Protection Agency rating the six-speed manual transmission that comes with the turbo engine at 29 mpg in the city and 40 on the highway. Do yourself a favor and spring for this turbo option; more fun and better gas mileage is like bacon that reduces cholesterol.
A six-speed automatic will be available on the turbo next spring, and at the risk of having my car-guy membership revoked, I'd say consider waiting for that one. The manual that Chevy paired with the turbo just isn't fun to drive; the clutch has a high release point and the shifter is imprecise and sloppy.
Shifting issues aside, either Sonic handles the road well. The suspension is nicely tuned, the steering provides great feedback and the brakes are firm. The hatchback can't dance like a Ford Fiesta or Honda Fit, but it's certainly more lively than the Hyundai Accent.
Yet as an overall product, a means of pure conveyance, I'd still lean toward the Accent as the most complete hatchback in the segment. It may not shine in a particular category, but it just does everything well.
The conversation changes a bit when considering subcompact sedans. It's here that the Sonic's quiet cabin and stout exterior design combine with its relative enthusiasm for the road, especially the turbo, to push it above the Accent and Fiesta sedans.
Chevy finally has a tiny winner. And it only took a century.
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