Chevrolet Sonic LTZ

  A truly competitive small car
Why we’d buy it: Fun to drive, peppy, spacious.
Why we wouldn’t: Vague clutch; lack of amenities
Mileage: 29 city, 40 highway. Review by Bill Cawthon.

When Chevy announced it was going to call its new subcompact the Sonic, my first response was to wonder if there would be a tie-in with Nintendo’s blue hedgehog. Having been underwhelmed by the Aveo, which seemed to sum up the problems General Motors has had with small cars since the Vega, expectations weren’t too high for its successor and the cute name wasn’t reassuring.

When the car hit the streets, it quickly became clear that the Sonic was a new car with one very strong similarity to the video game character: it’s good for hours of fun.

The Sonic was designed and engineered by GM Korea and rides on the Gamma 2 platform, GM’s global small vehicle architecture. Sold as the Sonic in the NAFTA countries, Japan, and the Middle East, it’s still a Chevy Aveo in Europe and it’s the Holden Barina in Australia, New Zealand and other countries in that region. It’s built in South Korea, Venezuela, and China, but any Sonics sold in North America come from Michigan.

The Sonic comes in two body styles: a two-door hatchback and a four-door sedan. We pulled an LTZ sedan with the optional American-made 1.4-liter turbocharged four and a six-speed manual built by GM Austria. The engine/transmission package was one of only two options on the car; the other was the handsome Crystal Red Metallic Clearcoat paint that drew several compliments from folks who saw us photographing the car.

At first glance, the sedan’s design is classic Asian: tall and narrow. In fact, the Sonic is only 8.6 inches wider than it is tall. But Chevrolet added sculpting to the fenders and, most important, eschewed the tiny wheels that make some other cars look like roller skates with delusions of grandeur. The Sonic LTZ comes with Hankook Optimo H428 P205/50R17 all-season tires mounted on 17-inch painted aluminum wheels and they work wonders for the overall appearance of the car.

With the rear seat in the upright position, there’s about 14 cubic feet of cargo capacity. While the car’s geometry and large taillights make the opening a bit narrow, the available space is as regular and flat as a Kansas prairie. If more space is required, the split rear seats do fold down.

Wide-opening doors and a tall roof make getting in and out of the Sonic contortion-free. Ward’s Auto named the Sonic’s interior as one of its ten best for 2012, and with good reason.  Though it’s not fancy, it is well designed with roomy, firm-but-comfortable leatherette seats, easy-to-use controls, and a pleasing blend of textures and hues. There is a fair amount of hard plastic but it’s generally located in places where it makes sense from a wear-and-tear point of view, like the kick panels on the doors.

One interior omission was a bit puzzling: the console doesn’t have a covered bin, which means there is no armrest on the cover. The driver’s seat has a nice fold-down armrest, but the passenger’s seat doesn’t. I am not sure whether that’s due to a lack of space or to an abundance of accountants, but most front-seat passengers these days are used to a front arm rest. (The Fiat 500 has the same arrangement.)

The back seat doesn’t have an armrest either, but it does have small buttons in the seat backs indicating the attachment points for child seats.

Once in the driver’s seat, our first impression was that the designers had created this lovely dashboard and at the last minute realized they had forgotten the instruments. A make-do instrument cluster and housing was hastily copied from a Japanese animé spaceship and installed. However, first impressions can be wrong: younger folks thought the pod was cool and, soon, so did I. The 6500-rpm redline tachometer, the only analog gauge, is easy to read, and the electronic display, with speedometer, fuel supply and other information, is clear and legible in any light. Perhaps the real question should be why instrument panels in other cars are so large.

The stalks on the steering column are standard, except for a switch on the left to control the display menu; the right stalk handles the wipers.

The LTZ comes with standard fog lamps, controlled, like the other lights, with a rotary switch to the driver’s left. Unless the fog lamps are needed, it’s simpler just to leave the switch in the “Auto” position and let the car’s electronics determine what’s appropriate.

One thing that might turn off technophiles is the Sonic’s lack of a big display and all the things that usually accompany one. It’s not even an option. Navigation, if desired, is handled with OnStar, and a six-month subscription is standard. XM radio is also included, but forget about album art, notes about the performer, or even who is performing. The small display atop the center stack tells the source and station or track, time and temperature, and that’s about it. Tuning is handled by buttons and knobs just as it was when Delco introduced the first pushbutton radio back in the dawn of recorded history. No touch screen doesn’t mean isolation; Bluetooth phone is standard with controls mounted on the steering wheel.

The premium, eight-speaker sound system includes an AM/FM radio and single-disk CD player with a USB port and Bluetooth audio streaming. The sound quality is quite good.

Starting up reveals the one weak point in the drivetrain: the clutch. It’s almost impossible to feel when the clutch engages so smooth starts can be a problem. Experimenting with the pedal travel didn’t really help.

Once in gear, the Sonic amazes. The 1.4-liter engine pulls strongly; on a level road, it’s even possible to get the car moving in second gear. The engine sings happily as the car accelerates and the speedometer rolls through the numbers. It’s important to watch those numbers carefully, especially on city streets; the Sonic is perfectly capable of having the unwary driver chatting with uniformed government officials in no time at all.

Chevy Sonic stereoOur standard road test route has a section of Interstate with a 75 mph speed limit, which means the traffic generally runs about 80. The Sonic kept up with no problem, even with the air-conditioner running on high. At 75 in sixth gear, the 83-cubic-inch engine was turning about 2200 rpm.

The Sonic’s transmission has fairly tall gearing for better fuel economy and if you need quick acceleration from sixth, it means a downshift to fourth.

The Sonic’s electronic display signals the driver when to shift. Basically, any time the engine is turning more than 1500-2000 rpm, the car wants an upshift. Fortunately the display is not intrusive; it could get annoying in city traffic.

Using the cruise control is simple: depress a switch on the left-hand side of the steering wheel to engage cruise control and toggle the switch up to increase speed or down to reduce it. A tap on the brakes disengages the system.

Despite what one might expect from a tall-and-narrow car, the Sonic handles corners quite well. The GSV platform has been strengthened and body lean is mild. Perhaps it's the Sonic's extra weight or the changes GM made to the platform, but the car remains sure-footed even when cornering on bumpy roads. The car never lost its composure in cornering in construction zones.

The Sonic proved to be a good highway cruiser. The firm seating was comfortable and supportive during a hundred-mile run made during the evaluation and, though there’s some noticeable road noise, there wasn’t any wind noise detected, even at high speeds. It was easy to carry on a conversation and the stereo sounded great.

The Sonic LTZ has discs on the front, drums on the rear. It would have been nice to see disc brakes all around. But when it comes time to stop, the brakes do their job well. Anti-lock brakes are standard, as is GM’s Stabilitrak system.

Added up, the Sonic is a treat to drive. It’s a small car that one can really enjoy, stirring the gears and flexing the engine’s muscle.

Other than the few complaints already mentioned, there are a couple of other minor points it would be nice to see corrected the next time the Sonic is refreshed.

Chevy Sonic review

A small annoyance when driving at night is the lighting, or lack thereof, for the driver’s master power window controls. Only the lock button is illuminated in any fashion, which frequently resulted in hitting the wrong window’s switch. This is something that would most likely be resolved as the owner gets used to the controls, but the cost of illuminating the switches can’t be that much, especially in the Sonic’s worldwide production volumes.

Then there’s the lack of a trunk release inside the passenger compartment. There’s one the key fob, to be sure, and an exterior release on the rear deck lid, so this may seem trivial, but it’s a convenience.

These are minor items but, like the passenger armrest, they’re omissions that detract from the overall very positive impression of the car.

The Sonic LTZ is a car well worth consideration, especially by young singles and young families with small children.  On top of its other qualities, the Sonic is an Insurance Institute of Highway Safety Top Safety Pick and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration gave it five stars. The EPA rated the Sonic LTZ with the 1.4-liter and six-speed at 29 mpg City, 40 mpg highway and 33 mpg combined. To top it off, the Sonic LTZ’s sticker price, including destination charge and all the options on our test car, is $18,485 (the base price, including destination, is $17,460; the red paint was another $325).

The new Sonic may not be quite a game-changer, but it's definitely a mind-changer: it sure changed our minds about small cars from GM.

Chevy Sonic review / test drive

Specs:

Horsepower: 138 hp @ 4900 rpm
Torque: 148 lb-ft @ 2500 rpm
Weight: 2862 lb
Space: Cargo: 14.0 cu ft; Legroom (front/rear): 41.8/34.6 in; Headroom (front/rear): 38.7/37.8 in; Towing: N/A
Standard: 1.8-liter DOHC I-4 engine w/5-speed manual transmission; Hill hold clutch; Cruise control; OnStar w/6-month subscription; Tire pressure monitoring system; Stability and traction control; Keyless entry; Front disc brakes, rear drum brakes; Intermittent wipers; Heated front seats; Power windows and locks; Split folding rear seat; Air conditioning; Driver seat armrest; Tilt-and-telescopic steering column; XM Sirius satellite radio w/3-month subscription; USB port; Bluetooth; 6-speaker audio system and heated exterior mirrors