By Jim MacPherson
There’s one aspect of the Chevrolet Sonic that might escape a buyer’s initial inspection. Unlike the Aveo, which the Sonic replaced, this subcompact isn’t an import.
In the past, subcompacts -- small cars with a small price tag and razor thin profit margins -- could not be made profitably in the U.S. Even subcompacts with a domestic nameplate were generally imported.
While the Sonic is assembled here, it contains parts built elsewhere. As production ramps up, Chevrolet plans to source more parts from North America, if for no other reason than to simplify logistics.
But what about the car? The Sonic comes as either a sedan or hatchback and with the choice of three trim levels (LS, LT, LTZ). Two engines and three transmissions, borrowed from the Chevrolet Cruze, are offered.
“We’re getting very positive feedback,” says Paul Koldras, sales manager at Carter Chevrolet in Manchester. “The vehicle has a quality feel to it.”
Koldras says there is almost an equal split between sedan and hatchback buyers. The sedan is 14 inches longer.
The standard four-cylinder engine displaces 1.8-liters. A 1.4-liter, turbocharged four is optional. Both engines produce 138 horsepower, but the smaller turbo has more torque, which translates into livelier throttle response.
The 1.8-liter engine can be paired with either a five-speed manual or six-speed automatic transmission. Initially, the 1.4-liter turbo will come only with a six-speed manual. Our top-of-the line Sonic LTZ hatchback was equipped with the turbo motor and the six-speed manual. A six-speed automatic for this engine is coming. The 1.4-liter engine is a $700 option in the mid-level LT and top LTZ trim lines.
This 1.4-liter turbo motor and six-speed manual turned out to be an exceptionally enjoyable combination. Power is sufficient for lively around-town acceleration and the transmission and clutch were light and easy to use. The shift linkage felt very good, with above average precision and feedback that let the driver know when the next gear was engaged. This transmission ranks well above those in some competitors that suffer from a rubbery shift lever feel and an indistinct clutch engagement point.
From a stop, it took 9.4 seconds to reach 60 miles per hour. While lively around town, passing and merging maneuvers could leave some drivers wanting more power. Regardless, downshifting the manual transmission is required for either of these maneuvers. When driving under 60 miles per hour, plan on dropping down to second gear. Over 60, third gear serves best.
The ride is surprisingly comfortable for the subcompact field A solid body structure aids passenger comfort over rough roads. Koldras rates this solid body structure, along with the more modern styling and interior, as the Sonic’s main strengths.
The suspension settings, which aid riding comfort, do interesting things to handling. Long sweeping curves produce some lean but also deliver a sense of confidence thanks to the good tire grip and the chassis’ balance. A slalom test, however, produced significant front-end push with each change in direction. The Sonic is pleasant and rewarding, but it won’t take the place of a sports car.
The interior is nicely done, with our LTZ looking much better than its starting price would suggest. The heated front seats are comfortable and roomy. The back seat will be decidedly tight for adults, who will want more leg room with taller passengers in front. The hatchback cargo area is good for the subcompact field and the rear seat is split and folds, creating more than 30 cubic feet of cargo capacity.
From one perspective, the Sonic should have an easy time taking the place of the lackluster Aveo in Chevrolet’s lineup. From another perspective, the Sonic is in for the fight of its life. The competition in the subcompact field is fierce. The good news is that Chevrolet now has a credible contender.
Starts at: $13,865 (sedan), $14,765 (hatchback)
Engines: 1.8 1.4 Turbo
HP 138 138
Torque (lb-ft) 125 148
EPA Manual 26/35 29/40
EPA Automatic 25/35 N/A