Road Test: Sonic Boom

Fun-to-drive subcompact set to be a popular choice

April 20, 2012
by Tony Whitney

Fleet Management print edition: March April 2012

Not too many years ago, there was a very poor range of choice in the subcompact segment and automakers didn’t seem anxious to fill the gap. The SUV craze was in full swing with rigs getting bigger every model year, gas was relatively cheap and there wasn’t exactly a passionate interest in saving energy.

The words “economy” and “sustainability” weren’t the first words springing to buyers’ minds when they went shopping for a vehicle. And besides, automakers found large SUVs and trucks highly profitable and were thus happy to go along with buyer demands. It was the age of vehicles like the mighty Hummer and huge Ford Excursion.

Minimalist dash designs are welcome.

But as we approach mid-decade, the story could hardly be more different. Fuel prices are at record highs and the outlook is gloomy. Increasing numbers of auto buyers are anxious to make some kind of sustainability statement and wages and salaries—when they’re increasing at all—are making glacial progress compared to the cost of living. It’s true that full-size pickups still sell strongly, but large numbers are used for work roles.
It’s an environment that was bound to spur small car production and that’s exactly what has happened. Automakers who had more or less neglected the subcompact segment were casting their nets far and wide to haul in products from subsidiaries overseas to plug the gap. Now, most major automakers with broad model ranges have a subcompact in their lineup and some are bringing us even smaller vehicles.

General Motors saw this trend coming years ago and started bringing us small cars developed by Korean associate Daiwoo. The trend continues today with products like the subject of this feature—the 2012 Chevrolet Sonic.

BODY STYLE: 4-door sedan and 5-door hatchback.
ENGINE: 1.4-litre or 1.8-litre, 4-cylinder
TRANSMISSION: 5-speed automatic, 5-speed manual, 6-speed manual, according to model
PERFORMANCE: Zero to 100kmh in approx.
8 seconds (turbo)
FUEL ECONOMY: 7.7L/100 km city; 5.6L/100 km highway (1.8-litre); 7.3L/100 km city; 5.1L/100 km highway (1.4-litre turbo)
PRICE: $14,495, base LS MSRP

The difference this time around is that the car will be built in the US, at a Michigan plant that’s just benefited from a $500-million upgrade. In passing, we should mention that an even smaller car is on its way from Chevrolet—the tiny Korean-designed 2013 Spark (already being talked about as the “SubSonic”). There’s an electric Spark on the horizon too.

The subcompact class is crowded right now with all kinds of excellent products, so the Sonic—which is actually a second-generation Chevy Aveo–has its work cut out. It’s going up against rivals like the Honda Fit, Mazda2, Ford Fiesta, Scion iQ, Hyundai Accent, Kia Rio, Dodge Caliber, Fiat 500, Toyota Yaris, Nissan Versa and several more.

The look of the new Sonic is very much “current Chevrolet” with a grille design and prominent bowtie badge much like that of larger cars from this GM affiliate. It’s a clean-looking car and has a combination of unpretentious style and reasonably sporty lines. The car has what Chevrolet calls “motorcycle-inspired” ro

und headlights and taillights, a wide stance and a wheel at each corner appearance.

The car has a chrome grille surround with matte black honeycomb inserts. Optional are 17-inch alloy wheels. There’s overtly nothing radical about Sonic styling and that’s probably the way most business users will like it.

The Sonic comes in both four-door sedan and five-door hatchback layouts, which will please fleet operators who usually like to have this choice. Some prefer the load-carrying capability of the hatchback while others opt for the slightly better security aspects offered by a trunk. Interestingly, the five-door has its rear door handles located in the C-pillar area to create the look of a three-door hatchback. It certainly makes for a nice clean appearance.

There are three basic trim levels: LS, LT and LTZ, in ascending order of equipment level. The base LS has no air conditioning and features hand-cranked windows, but it does cost just $14,995 in its simplest form. The LT adds air, power windows and other worthwhile extras; buyers who opt for the LTZ get a very well equipped small car at a shade over $20,000.

Two engines are available, depending on model selected. The base powerplant is an Ecotec 1.8-litre four-cylinder developing 138-horsepower. The more entertaining choice is the 1.4-litre turbo (standard on the LTZ), which also produces 138-horsepower (which is a little puzzling), though it does have more torque and offers slightly better fuel economy. Both engines are surprisingly refined for a car in this class, underlining the fact that four-cylinder power units have made rapid strides in recent years. Sonic buyers can choose from three transmissions, according to model: a five-speed manual, a six-speed manual (LTZ) and a five-speed automatic.

The Sonic handles very well for its class and some of this prowess is probably due to the fact that the suspension was tuned by engineers who also work on the Corvette sports car. Naturally for a car like the Sonic, the ride was engineered to suit a wide range of conditions, driving styles and usage patterns. Electric power steering is standard and apart from endowing the Sonic with creditable feel, it eliminates the need for steering fluid and the pump normally associated with hydraulic systems.

As with the exterior lighting, Chevrolet looked to motorcycles for inspiration when laying out the cabin and this especially applies to the instruments. We liked it. With so much talk about driver distraction, relatively minimalist dash designs are a welcome sight. Perhaps automakers are beginning to realize that the “shovel in the gadgets” attitude is simply causing confusion. Even an upscale car can be perfectly acceptable without having a dash like a fighter jet.

The Sonic has some of the easiest-to-read instrumentation that we’ve seen in a while. The speedometer readout is especially good—large and prominently located. The instrument panel surface is available in two colours and there are handy storage bins in the doors and in the central console. The rear seats fold almost flat, so large loads can be squeezed in. Unfortunately, Bluetooth connectivity (surely a “must” for any fleet vehicle these days) doesn’t come with the base car.

The seating is comfortable enough for this class, possibly better than some close rivals, and the fit and finish is better than one might expect given the modest pricing. Chevrolet claims a segment-best trunk capacity for the Sonic sedan but of course, the five-door is best for serious load-carrying.

Safety first

Safety-related equipment includes a full suite of air bags, including side curtains, plus electronic stability control. The seat belts cinch up automatically in the event of a collision and this can be the best life-saver of all when things go wrong. A tire pressure monitoring system is optional and worth having, given the negative effects low tire pressures have on handling, safety and fuel economy.

It was good to find that anti-lock brakes are standard, but only the more upscale Sonics have all-round disc brakes. It’s almost a surprise these days to find rear drum brakes, even on entry-level models and it’s puzzling that they’ve not followed carburetors and starting handles into the realm of automotive history.

The Sonic was recently named a Top Safety Pick of the respected US Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, partly due to its very rugged body structure. The Sonic’s body was designed to be the most rigid in the subcompact segment and one of the side benefits of this policy is that it’s easier for suspension engineers to tune ride and handling.

All Sonics can be ordered with GM’s OnStar system, which uses GPS and mobile phone technology to call for help in the event of a crash. Most fleet managers will be familiar with OnStar and anyone who’s been close to an incident where it’s been needed (as we have) knows its value.
This new Chevrolet is a pleasant little car to drive with good pickup, responsive handling and impressive quietness for its class. Perhaps best of all these days, it’s a very inexpensive car to run—especially for buyers who don’t want the complications and high initial price of the various hybrid products on the Canadian market.

Chevrolet has made a great effort to come up with a subcompact that’s as good or better than its rivals, whether carrying domestic or offshore nameplates. This product is more than just “basic transportation”, as has been the case in the class over the years. It’s fun to drive and it looks good. It should sell well, but for buyers with economy as a prime consideration, the Chevy Spark looms and might just divert a few would-be Sonic customers when it arrives later this year.                   b2b

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