The Chevrolet Aveo was probably the last bargain basement car sold (now that the Hyundai Accent has been redesigned) in the US and thankful it has gone the way of the Yugo. Introducing the all-new 2012 Chevrolet Sonic coming to the US after years of development in Asia. It will begin with a base price of $14,495 which is in the neighborhood of its competitors like Honda Fit, Toyota Yaris, and Ford Fiesta. Chevrolet is banking on the quality and success of the Cruze to bring customers to see the Sonic. At first glance, the Sonic looks pretty good.
After at lap around the Auto Club Motor Speedway inner track, the all-new Sonic feels even better with handling that surprised me and fellow journalists at every turn. The suspension in the 5-door 1TL model with just 15 inch wheels and all-season tires was crisp and yet forgiving when the road got rough. All the Sonic models get the same MacPherson strut front suspension with coil springs and a small stabilizer bar. This is where the Sonic excels in cornering and handling overall. The car never feels like it is nose-diving or preparing to under-steer.
Even though the rear suspension follows with a semi-independent, torsion beam axle-mount compound link-type design, the car does not move clumsily around corners or over railroad tracks. The rear stays planted at higher speed maneuvers, giving the Sonic a nod over the competitors. Body lean is minimal. The gas-charged shocks are well suited for highway travel as well. No need to bump all over the road at this price point if you don’t have to! The front and rear tracks are identical at 59.4 inches.
The Sonic platform is stiff enough to be noteworthy, unlike GM/Daewoo products of the past. This unibody integrity helps with reducing road noise and unwanted vibrations. The Sonic is on par with the Cruze, which is really good for this price. GM is also using a “flat top frame” cradle designed in Asia to increase rigidity in the front chassis portion of the vehicle. I did notice some extreme engine growl under full-power that some liquid engine mounts should take care of. I know, picky, picky!
Speaking of power, driving the 2012 Hyundai Accent just a minute before the Sonic demonstrated how much better the power delivery is from Chevy’s new 1.4 liter Ecotec turbocharged engine. Both cars have 138 horsepower but the Sonic’s torque just pulls the car along with greater speed and mid-range power.
Standard power comes from GM’s Ecotec 1.8-liter engine paired with a five-speed manual or a six-speed automatic transmission. The optional Ecotec 1.4 liter turbocharged engine, thankfully, comes with a six-speed manual. After driving both engines and all three transmissions, the 1.4 liter with 6-speed “stick” is a better choice. Furthermore, this drivetrain delivers 29 mpg in the city and 40 mpg on the highway.
That being said, the Sonic 1.8 liter (138 hp @ 6300) with the 6-speed automatic transmission is the second best choice by a hair. One of the things that held back the Cobalt and Aveo was the dated 4-speed auto gearbox. Ford’s new 6-speed double-clutch transmission is quicker shifting but the new GM gearbox is so smooth that most will forget about it the second they put it into drive- which is what an automatic is all about.
The auto transmission shifted too often when pushed for power, for my taste, but when climbing hills, the down-shifting happens with no fret or fuss. The 5-speed manual with this engine is also fairly precise but not as clean to shift as the 6-speed manual with the 1.4 liter turbo engine.
Many new cars come with electronic power steering these days to reduce power drain from the engine and reduced maintenance (no steering fluid). Yet, road feedback is sometimes limited and the Sonic is no exception to the new rule. However, steering boost is not over pumped on the highway and boosted about right for parking lots. GM also uses a “wear compensator” that continually adjusts the system interaction with the steering gear to ensure more accurate steering over the life of the system.
The brakes felt good for a system this small. The ventilated front discs are 10.8 inches across and 276 mm wide. The rear drums are 9 inches in diameter and come with standard ABS. This is not a place to save money and four-wheel disc brakes should be standard on all Sonic models in order to be competitive these days. Time will tell if these are too small for general use. A range of wheel sizes available are 15-17 inch wheels and tires but the 16 inch wheels with the P205/55R16 tires handled very well on a short track and on the streets for an afternoon.
The interior is futuristic and strikingly simple. It reminds me of a motorcycle console with clear gauges that are easy to read at a quick glance. It takes only a second to read the instrument cluster featuring a large, round analog tachometer set within an asymmetrical LCD digital speedometer display. Interior door panels and dash come in two colors (dark titanium and brick) that flow well into other panels with low-glare finishes. The rest of the interior is a mix of shapes and design elements like “cobra head” shift knob, tubular air vents, and some strange storage compartments. Really, guys, one theme at a time.
The rest of the interior is much more functional and appealing. Seats are comfortable and supportive. Front bucket seats come with bun-warmer seat heaters for a little more money. The rear seats fold virtually flat for carrying larger items. There is 19 cubic feet of storage with the rear seats up and 30.7 cubic feet with them folded in the 5-door hatchback. The sedan gets folding rear seats and a truck with 14 cubic feet of space. These numbers compare to other sub-compacts in the market but the Sonic has fewer panels sticking out so boxes stow more easily.
It is also important to note that production of the 2012 Sonic will be at the General Motors Orion Assembly Center in Michigan. The plant received a $545-million investment in upgrades and retooling, and has already restored over 1,000 jobs in the metropolitan Detroit area. With union contracts being settled, this makes the Sonic the only subcompact built in the United States.
The Sonic will also be fun to drive to the local Sonic Drive-in because it comes with a load of stuff like standard StabiliTrak electronic stability control with rollover sensing, 10 standard air bags, antilock brakes, electronic brake force distribution, brake assist and OnStar with Automatic Crash Response. Options include Turn-by-Turn navigation, XM Satellite Radio, USB port, and Bluetooth. Consumers will also get options like remote start, heated front seats and sunroof.
Even with all this, prices will run up to $17,570 for a great American value. After a longer drive, the Sonic looks even better now, as does GM’s small car division. Hopefully, GM will make headway for return buyers as well.