Let’s face it, General Motors has not done well with small cars over the years. Remember Aveo, Metro, Monza, T1000 and Sunbird? A guy on my paper route had a three-year-old Vega on prominent display in his front yard with a shrub growing from the engine bay. It was his revenge when GM refused to replace his blown engine. I continued to date my wife even after I found out she drove a Chevette. It remains proof of how hard I fell for her.
Ford and Chrysler were just as guilty. These were not just bad cars, they are vehicles that drove Americans to the imports.
But lo, there is a light (or should I say sound?) on the horizon and its name is Sonic. Much like Ford, General Motor’s products are truly global these days so Sonic will see duty all over the world. It’s up against Accent, Fiesta, Fit, Mazda2, Rio and Yaris. Small cars, major competition.
If you read no farther, understand one thing: Sonic isn’t just good for an American car, it’s good for a world car. This news will be disorienting to an entire generation of car shoppers.
Built in the Exotic Country of Michigan
A car’s assembly point isn’t generally a big deal, but Sonic is the only vehicle in its class to be built in the U.S. That’s a plus for some, a reminder of past sins for others. At $14, 495 with destination, Sonic is affordable. Choose between hatchback and sedan. My loaded LTZ hatchback press car stickers for $19,545.
On its rear end is a turbo badge which is a $700 option and a box that drivers will want to check. The standard 1.8-liter four-cylinder makes the same horsepower as the 1.3-liter turbocharged motor but it’s the torque and where it comes to life that matters. The turbo produces 148 lb-ft of it, 23 more than the 1.8 and it’s available lower in the rev range. The normally aspirated engine needs to be spooled up near redline to feel its strength.
Go with the turbo and Chevy upgrades the five-cog manual transmission to a six-speed. Throws are average length, clutch take-up is on the high side which takes time getting used to. A six-speed automatic is only available with the standard engine.
Surprising that the turbo engine gets the best gas mileage- 29 city, 40 highway vs. 26/35 for the 1.8L.
Fast Food. Fast Hedgehog. Fast Car?
Sonic doesn’t have the speed of a certain blue hedgehog but the turbo motor is quick, 0-60 in around 8.3 seconds. Again, it’s the low-end torque that satisfies. Sonic will show you a good time on twisty roads. The suspension is pretty buttoned down on this car with a good blend of comfort and sport. There’s not much body roll, the structure is drum tight, brakes have good modulation. Sonic is fun to chuck around while you’re doing errands.
It’s on the quiet side, though many in this class are getting better at keeping the cabin calm. The turning radius is tight. Sport bike riders will feel right at home behind a very readable gauge cluster with digital speedometer, with an added bonus of staying dry when it rains.
Front wheel drive cars that have a little extra power can have something called “torque steer”, a tugging of the steering wheel under hard acceleration. Sonic pretty much keeps that in check. While it has a significant power advantage, it’s bogged down a bit by weight since the Chevy is on chunky side compared to the competition. Still, at least in turbo form, it’s among the most fun to drive.
Have a Seat
The cockpit is what you’d expect these days in class. Nothing rich or expensive but it all works well with a contrasting swath of color sweeping through the instrument panel. Most of the plastics are hard but look good. Seats are supportive and covered in low-maintenance faux leather. Heated too.
The sound system with XM tuner is decent and Sonic talks natively to phones and iPods. There are stash spaces everywhere, even a handy slot for parking garage tickets and Starbucks cards. No covered storage in the center console though, just cupholders and some storage slots.
There is no navigation option but subscribe to the proper OnStar package and turn-by-turn audible directions can be downloaded to the car. It’s pretty slick. Most will simply use their smartphones.
Hands will be happy to hang on to the thick leather wrapped wheel, its chrome trim keeps the overall look higher rent. Switchgear is pretty smooth, the driver’s power window gets auto-up operation. A fashion tip- I favor the LTZ simply because less expensive models have a seat fabric pattern so loud, you might actually be able to hear it.
Passengers and Cargo
Sonic’s rear seat has belts for three. Two adult passengers will be okay here with just enough leg and foot room for average sized folks.
No center armrest, door storage, power port, door trim or center headrest. Only one seat pocket and cupholder for those in back. That’s all pretty standard in the crowd this Chevy runs with. Sonic has 10 airbags, including side impact units in the rear and knee bags for those in front.
While Sonic is available as a sedan, the hatchback offers up much more utility. It doesn’t have the supreme usability of Honda’s Fit, but with split folding rear seats it will meet most people’s requirements.
Hide a laptop computer under the false floor, a removable security cover keeps prying eyes out. Nice to have details like lighting and tie-down hooks in an inexpensive car. There’s even the rare spare tire. With the floor removed to max out the cargo bay, Sonic just manages to hold five packs of the two-ply in my standardized test. Not bad for a small car.
Boom For Sonic?
It all boils down to this: Chevy has finally built a great subcompact car. Certainly, the bowtie brand comes with some subcompact baggage but it would be wise for shoppers to check Sonic out. It has a reasonable price, decent style, modern tech, and a bit of pep in its step with the turbo. It’s fun to drive too. Sonic should make some noise in the small car segment. If only my wife could have driven something like this when we met...