Warren Clarke, Automotive Content Editor
With its devilish smirk and in-your-face Burnt Orange paint job, this 2012 Chevrolet Sonic LTZ looks like a car intent on stirring things up. It's fitting, since General Motors hopes the all-new Sonic (which replaces the forgettable Aveo in Chevy's lineup) will rock 'em and sock 'em in a way that revises the pecking order within the subcompact segment.
Chevy has done this kind of thing before; its compact Cruze came out of nowhere to become a worldwide sales darling. What's clear is that the Sonic is armed for battle. Our test car's turbocharged 1.4-liter inline-4 kicks up class-leading horsepower and torque, and it does so while managing an EPA-estimated 40 mpg on the highway. Handling is relatively keen and responsive, and the car's comfortable cabin — with a stylish industrial motif and ample storage opportunities — is both easy to look at and easy to live with.
The ruling class in the subcompact segment most certainly includes the refined Hyundai Accent, the versatile Honda Fit and the tech-laden Ford Fiesta. Add the 2012 Chevrolet Sonic to that list; it hits the mark for shoppers who value strong fuel economy, brisk acceleration and an accommodating cabin.
Our Chevy Sonic test car is powered by a turbocharged 1.4-liter inline-4 good for 138 horsepower and 148 pound-feet of torque, and it's mated to a six-speed manual transmission (this mill is one of two available engines; an automatic transmission is also offered). The six-speed ably harnesses the engine's power, producing snappy acceleration that allows us to confidently tango with quick highway traffic.
Steering is one of the car's strong points. It's light when it needs to be, allowing you to easily maneuver at low speeds in the parking lot, but tightens up to create a natural, well-weighted feel when cruising at highway speed.
At the track, the Sonic hastened from zero to 60 mph in 8.8 seconds, marking it as one of the quickest in the segment. In braking tests, the hatchback stopped from 60 mph in 123 feet (about average for the segment), with almost no fade and consistent pedal feel.
Stellar fuel economy is a must-have for many subcompact shoppers, and the Sonic charges into this gunfight with pistols blazing. Our test car's turbo engine has an EPA rating of 29 city/40 highway mpg and 33 combined mpg, which places it as one of the segment's most frugal choices; it sips less gas than the manual-equipped Fit (27/33/29) and Mazda 2 (29/35/32), but is slightly less economical than the Accent (30/40/34). In our travels with the Sonic, we observed combined mileage of just under 30 mpg.
The 2012 Chevrolet Sonic gets it right when it comes to ride quality, hitting a note that delivers both comfort and driver engagement; suspension tuning is taut enough to foster a rapport with the road, and it pulls this off while keeping travel free of undue harshness.
Front passengers settle into seats that are welcoming and supportive, even if the cushions are a bit on the flat side. The cabin is roomy throughout, with an emphasis on headroom. Though this is a subcompact, even taller drivers should feel at ease within its interior.
Not that long ago, economy cars were blighted by copious amounts of wind, road and tire noise, but thankfully, things are different these days. Many cars in this segment offer reasonably tranquil cabins, and the Sonic falls in step with this trend. Wind and road noise is minimal, and there isn't much ruckus raised by the tires. Overall, the cabin remains quiet enough to allow passengers to chat without shouting.
One of the things that's most pleasing about subcompacts like the Chevy Sonic is how straightforward and unpretentious they are when it comes to the layout and presentation of their controls. Within the Sonic, controls are placed in a manner that's immediately familiar; they're also labeled in a clear and easily legible way. The end result is a user experience that never once begs you to crack the owner's manual.
Little cars like the Sonic have to make clever use of space if they're to offer decent utility, and the Chevy rises to this challenge. Storage opportunities are surprisingly abundant, given the car's diminutive footprint. There are two glovebox storage areas, with the top one featuring a USB port and a rubber-lined shelf to grip your MP3 player. Door bins are relatively generous and the center console area features nooks designed to bear the random odds and ends that passengers tote on their travels.
Those traveling in the second row will find seating that's wide and spacious. The Sonic's 34.6 inches of rear legroom gives it one of the roomiest backseats in the segment; it offers more rear legroom than rivals like the Ford Fiesta, Honda Fit and Hyundai Accent.
This Chevy isn't such a class leader when it comes to cargo capacity, though. With 19 cubic feet of room offered behind the rear seats, the Sonic falls about midpack in this regard; it has more room than the Ford Fiesta, but less than the Fit and the Accent. Fold those rear seats and capacity swells to 30.7 cubic feet, a figure that places the Sonic ahead of the Fiesta, but way, way behind choices like the Fit and the Accent (57.3 and 47.5 cubic feet, respectively). Outward visibility is satisfactory from most angles.
Design/Fit and Finish
Maybe it was the cheap-yet-chic brand of sportiness evident in its sheet metal, or maybe it was its bold pumpkin-hued paint job; whatever the reason, the Sonic certainly turned heads during its stay with us. With its rising beltline and crisp fastback silhouette, it's certainly one of the more striking models in what has become a surprisingly handsome segment.
Within the cabin, materials quality is decent but not exceptional. Design, though, is quite eye-catching, thanks to an industrial motif that calls to mind modern downtown lofts.
Who should consider this vehicle
The 2012 Chevrolet Sonic is well-suited for drivers who want an affordable subcompact that offers good fuel economy without any compromises concerning horsepower, torque and handling. Its accommodating cabin — loaded with helpful nooks and crannies — makes it one of the most livable choices in its segment. Keep in mind, though, that if generous cargo capacity tops your list of priorities, you'd be better served by roomier choices like the Honda Fit and Hyundai Accent.
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