Chevrolet has had more than its share of proud product moments, but introducing its roster of entry-level cars have not been one of them. Dating back to the unfortunate Vega, with its handsome but rust-prone bodywork and fire-prone aluminum engine, there have almost always been better cars at the very bottom of the new-car food chain than Chevrolet's offerings.
Certainly the all-new 2012 Sonic is the best of the bow-tied bunch, though it may be damning it with faint praise to insist that it is better than, say, the Chevrolet Sprint, the Geo Metro and most recently, the plucky Aveo. There's a little of the Korean-built Aveo left in the Sonic, but although the Sonic was largely developed in Korea, it is built in General Motors' Orion Township plant in Michigan.
The Sonic is certainly a better car than the Aveo, and a few years ago, the Sonic might have been considered the best in class. But with competing manufacturers upping their game — the 2012 Hyundai Accent comes to mind — the Sonic still lags behind the competition, but only by a bit. And for the price, I expect it to find a ready audience.
The Sonic comes in two basic flavors — a sedan with a conventional trunk, and the sportier, better-looking hatchback. The sedan starts at $13,735, and there's really nothing wrong with it if you're laser-focused on pure transportation. At $14,635, Chevrolet expects most Sonic customers to opt for a little more style and spunk with the hatchback.
There are two engine choices and three transmissions offered, and this gets a bit complicated. The standard engine is a 1.8-liter four-cylinder, and the optional engine, for an extra $700, is a smaller 1.4-liter four-cylinder, and both pump out an identical 138 horsepower. These engines are also used in the Chevy Cruze.
So why pay more for a smaller optional engine? Because it has a turbocharger, and while it doesn't give you more horsepower than the 1.8-liter, it does give you more torque, which is the measure of pulling power. You might think, then, that the smaller engine feels stronger from lower speeds, such as from a standing start, but it's certainly no drag racer, torque increase or not. It does give you better fuel economy, though — with the six-speed manual transmission, the EPA rating is 29 mpg city, 40 mpg highway. We averaged just over 37 miles per gallon in real-world driving, which is commendable. Transmission choice is a six-speed manual, a five-speed manual with the base engine, or a six-speed automatic as an option. The six-speed manual works pretty well, with a light clutch and easy shifting. With the five-speed manual, the base 1.8-liter engine is rated at 26 mpg city, 35 mph highway, and the automatic is 25/35.
The test Sonic was the top-of-the-line LTZ model, which has the turbo engine, the six-speed manual transmission and fat P205/50R-17 tires on alloy wheels. In a truncated but impressive demonstration last May, the Sonic LTZ consistently beat the more expensive, refined Honda Fit and Ford Fiesta on a tight autocross course, which surprised everyone in attendance, including me. That said, while it corners very well, it isn't as much fun as you might expect to drive quickly — the tires are doing most of the work, and the slightly numb electric power steering and just-average brakes erase a bit of the sporty flair. The Sonic is also a little heavier than we expected it to be, which works for increasing crosswind stability, and works against a light-on-its-feet feel on the back roads.
On the highway, the Sonic LTZ holds its own, but expect a lot of up- and downshifting to maintain pace, especially if you want to pass other cars. Front bucket seats are surprisingly good, instruments and controls a bit trendy in design but functional and easily accessible. Even the rear seat isn't bad unless you have a car full of six-footers. There's more cargo space than you'd expect, too. One disappointment was the six-speaker sound system — it sounded muddy regardless of how you fine-tuned it. XM satellite radio comes standard, including a three-month subscription. OnStar is also standard, as are all the safety features we've come to expect, such as electronic stability control and plenty of airbags.
List price of the test Sonic LTZ was $18,695 including shipping. About the only significant option it didn't have was the sliding sunroof, which would have fit the little car's cheerful personality well, but would send the price to over $19,000, and that would buy you a very nice Chevry Cruze.
We could live happily with the Sonic, but perhaps just a little more happily with a couple of other little cars in this price range, the Cruze included. But no longer is Chevy's small car the lowest common denominator.