Sonic Boom: If Small Is the Next Big Thing, Then the 2012 Chevy Sonic Is Huge
Chris Walton, Chief Road Test Editor
We weren't expecting much from our first drive of the 2012 Chevrolet Sonic: a fuel-sipping subcompact about which we've heard tentatively good European reviews. We knew Chevy was replacing its Aveo with the Sonic, that it would be all-new and built by Chevy in Detroit instead of by Daewoo in Korea. We knew it was supposed to be competitive in its class, but we weren't prepared for what we experienced on our drive from hilly, urban San Francisco south to the serpentine, forested roads east of Half Moon Bay.
Starting at $14,495, the 2012 Chevy Sonic is available in both sedan and hatchback body configurations with either a naturally aspirated 1.8-liter four-cylinder engine or a turbocharged 1.4-liter four. Both engines operate on regular unleaded and make the same peak horsepower (138), but the 1.4-liter turbo offers far more torque and is also the more fuel-efficient of the two by 5 mpg on the highway. A five-speed manual is the base transmission, a six-speed automatic is an upgrade (late availability on the turbo) and a six-speed manual is available only with the turbo.
The One To Get
The 2012 Chevy Sonic we drove most — because it's clearly the enthusiast's choice — is the LTZ four-door hatchback ($17,995) with the optional 1.4-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine and six-speed manual transmission ($700) coated in Inferno Orange Metallic paint ($195). At $18,890 as-tested, the top-tier Sonic is about $500 more expensive than a comparable Ford Fiesta SES Hatchback or Honda Fit Sport, but worth it.
If small is the next big thing, then the Sonic is huge. For starters, the 138-hp six-speed manual Sonic LTZ Turbo is easily the quickest subcompact by a healthy margin. Chevy estimates the turbocharged LTZ will run to 60 mph in 8.2 seconds — about a second quicker than a 120-hp Fiesta or 117-hp Fit. In a fortunate twist of fate, the "fun one" is the most fuel-efficient as well. That same turbocharged Sonic with the six-speed manual transmission will be able to make the 40-mpg-highway claim its nearest competitors cannot. From our drive (where we observed just under 30 mpg), we'd say those stats sound about right. Impressively, the little hatch didn't even feel like it was trying that hard when we approached its limits.
There's one simple reason for this.
Besides class-leading horsepower, the 2012 Chevrolet Sonic's turbocharged engine provides a welcome characteristic utterly absent in the subcompact world: torque. Producing a stout 148 lb-ft of twisting force at just 2,500 rpm, the Sonic's 1.4 turbo practically loafs compared to the Fiesta and Fit's naturally aspirated engines that need to be near full boil to make their peak torque at 5,000 rpm and 4,800 rpm, respectively. This low-rpm drivability around town in the Sonic is unique and is one of the reasons the competition needs to worry.
People will notice that the 2,743-pound Sonic Turbo is never caught flat-footed, delivers remarkably linear power, and on our drive, pulled itself up those notoriously steep streets of San Francisco with ease. Aiding in that effort are hill-holding brakes (standard across the entire Sonic line), which keep the car steady for 2 seconds in either 1st or Reverse gears.
Clutch bite and pedal feel are about as good as they get in a car like the Sonic, with intuitive and light action for urban repetition, but snappy response and feedback for the back roads. The shifter's throws were short and positive, with a well-oiled and robust feel. Pedal placement, too, was just right for heel-toe downshifting. Chevy didn't miss a thing.
What Planet Is Your Car From?
We often ask ourselves why electric-assisted power steering (EPS) isn't more often modeled after traditional hydraulic steering. In the 2012 Chevrolet Sonic, that's exactly what appears to have happened. Sure, it's light in a parking lot, but as soon as the car is in motion, it will fool almost anybody with its appropriate effort, response and self-centering ability. Given its excellent EPS, medium-firm brake pedal and intuitive clutch, we observed a consistency in this Chevy that Porsche engineers strive to achieve: matched effort in all driver controls.
Think about this the next time you drive your car: Do the steering, braking and clutch efforts complement each other? In the Sonic, control feel is consistent and that's important.
Muted and Mellow
You might criticize Chevy for using an iron engine block, but there are obvious NVH advantages in doing so. A muted engine in a subcompact car is unexpected. On the highway at 70 mph, the tach hovers around 2,000 rpm (just below its torque plateau) so the Sonic may remain in 6th gear for a lazy pass or be quickly slotted into 5th if more speed is necessary.
Wind noise is low enough for casual conversation. Road seams and harsher impacts are damped without the expected concussion or compact unibody "echo" common in other small cars. Tire noise is also better than others in its class, and that's particularly noteworthy considering the Sonic LTZ rides on high-performance all-season tires. And measuring 205/50ZR17, the Hankook Ventus rubber is the largest in the class.
Heading out of town where the roads grew less traveled, more crooked and resultantly more fun, the 2012 Chevrolet Sonic LTZ Turbo Hatchback revealed more talent.
The Fun Parts
We finally ran the engine up to its 6,500-rpm limiter and discovered how much more was in this car when we put the spurs to it. As discussed, the steering weight and precision are a revelation, but its ability to grip and go around corners with authority is also notable. It reminds us of the Fiesta SES in this regard, but the Fiesta's 16-inch wheels-tires don't provide the same near-silent high-limit confidence — or the driver-defeatable stability control system.
It's easy to criticize the Sonic's rear drum brakes, and we're not certain that the pedal softness we felt late in the day was the result of inadequate brake hardware or just a car that had been driven hard on consecutive days (we were among the third wave of journalists to drive the cars). We'll wait until we get a fresh car for our instrumented testing before we issue a final verdict on brake fade.
Scale, Interior and Features
Having the longest wheelbase and widest track width, the 2012 Chevy Sonic is between 200-250 pounds heavier than the Honda Fit and Ford Fiesta. The one dimension where the Sonic is noticeably larger is in front-rear shoulder room. There's a miniscule rear legroom advantage over the Fit, but we can vouch for the open and airy feeling of the Sonic's front seats and especially generous rear legroom and headroom. Cargo capacity is competitive but not class-leading at 19 cubic feet with all seats occupied and 31 cubic feet with the rear seats folded. We doubt that includes the area available under the cargo floor.
Exterior design? The Fiesta and Fit are probably less polarizing, so you be the judge. We like the Sonic's hidden rear door handle and almost-VW-Golf-like proportions. The corporate grille is perhaps the weakest aspect.
Interior materials quality is very good. Yes, there's plenty of plastic, but there are soft-touch and padded materials where hands are likely to rest. Without laundry-listing, things like perforated, heated, leatherette front seats; a leather-wrapped steering wheel (better than a Corvette's); and 17-inch alloy wheels are all standard on the LTZ. In fact, alloy wheels are standard on every Sonic regardless of model. In terms of content, the only thing not available is an inexpensive in-dash navigation system. We've used the one in the Nissan Versa and your smartphone does a better job. Chevy made the right call here.
The design of the Sonic's cockpit is intuitive and well labeled — something we cannot say of either the Fit or Fiesta. The instrument panel is particularly out of the ordinary, as its design is inspired by a motorcycle gauge cluster. We like the intent and execution with its large, analog tachometer with very large LCD/LED speedometer alongside. We found it very easy to read at a quick glance.
A six-speaker stereo with AM/FM/XMSirius is standard on the LTZ, and both Bluetooth and wired iPhone connectivity on our hatchback were a breeze. A USB jack in the upper glovebox (there are two) with a cutout for the cord provides a charged connection (with expected head unit menus/submenus). Unlike recent GM products, the Sonic's Bluetooth connection is thankfully not a 5-minute-long voice-activated negotiation. A few button presses and it's done. The music menus/submenus remain active on your iPhone, and using the steering wheel buttons allows you to advance or reverse one song at a time.
Finally, Chevy was quick to point out that the Sonic was designed from the beginning to be a world car. And not just any world car, but a car that would score five stars, or recommended, or whatever the top safety rating is by any crash-testing agency in the world. Standard equipment includes ABS with brake assist, stability control with a defeat button and 10 airbags (dual front-side, dual front knee, dual rear side and dual side curtains).
It's obvious GM is very serious about the subcompact class. Name a category and the Sonic either matches or dominates its competitors. The difference between the Sonic and say, the Cobalt SS is that while the Cobalt SS made good numbers at the track, it was utterly lacking in personality. The Sonic will clean up at the track, but it is actually fun to drive and has a personality. The ride quality, quiet and airy cabin and aggressive feature content are icing on the cake.
The 2012 Chevrolet Sonic LTZ Hatchback doesn't need to be this good to fill the subcompact corner of the Chevy dealership. But we believe both this segment and sales of the Chevy Sonic are about to explode simultaneously. If you're considering downsizing but aren't looking to downgrade in the process, go drive a 2012 Chevrolet Sonic LTZ. It's on dealership lots right now.
Edmunds attended a manufacturer-sponsored event, to which selected members of the press were invited, to facilitate this report.
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