Thumbs Up: Solid build quality, surprising handling.
Thumbs Down: Seats aren’t as good as others in segment.
Buy This Car If: You want a U.S.-built subcompact with some entertainment value.
Perhaps the clearest way to define the difference between the old Chevy Aveo (built by GM Daewoo in South Korea) and the new Chevy Sonic (built in Lake Orion, Michigan) is in terms of ground beef. If the old Aveo is the equivalent of the pink-slime laced “mystery meat” served to convicts and college students, think of the Sonic as USDA Prime ground sirloin. Sure, it costs a little more money, but the overall product is vastly improved and well worth the upgrade in price. It’s not ground Kobe beef, made from hand selected cuts of Wagyu cattle, but it’s affordable for the common man and still wholly satisfying.
As we said about the Chevy Cruze sedan in our initial review, this is the type of car that Detroit should have been building all along. It looks good, it’s surprisingly roomy on the inside, It delivers impressive fuel economy, it’s not boring to drive and it even handles a lot better than you expect it to. At a well-equipped price just north of $20k, you really can’t ask for more than that.
The outgoing Aveo featured styling that could best be summed up with the words “bland“ and “uninspired,” but the new Sonic can be described with words like “bold” and “intriguing.” If the Aveo blended into the background, the Sonic stands out from it, thanks in part to its scowling front-end styling. The retro round headlights are a brilliant touch, and the rest of the front is styled as if the Sonic had anger management issues to contend with. We say that’s a good thing, since it breaks up the car’s otherwise conventional box-on-box styling.
The external proportions haven’t changed much from the Aveo, and the hatchback still sports short overhangs up front and in the rear. On the Aveo, this looked utilitarian; on the Sonic, it adds to the car’s character. Even the blacked-out B-pillars and hidden rear door handles work, giving the car a bit of a custom feel. The sides sport some meaty fender flares and bold character lines, both working to convey a sense of speed, even when the car is parked.
Even the rear of the Sonic stands out, thanks to its blacked-out, pseudo-Altezza taillights, roof spoiler and large rear fascia. To our eyes, the Sonic is one of the best designs in the class, something we never would have said about the old Aveo.
Yes, the dash uses hard plastic instead of the now-seemingly-required soft-touch vinyl, but the plastic used varies in color and texture. There’s plenty of storage room and even the “turbine style” dash vents add a bit of interest to the interior. The steering wheel, which is often pulled from the bargain parts bin at this price point, comes leather-wrapped and has thumb slots to remind you of proper hand positioning. Given the Sonic’s entry-level, non-luxury mission, we say that Chevy has done a superb job with the interior, which was tighter and more rattle-free than some luxury sedans we’ve driven in recent months.
In the subcompact class, manufacturers like to use instrumentation to set their cars apart. Mini has its center-mounted speedometer and Fiat uses a single round gauge to display speedometer, tachometer and driver information. The Sonic goes its own direction here, too, using a motorcycle-inspired blend of round, analog tachometer and a digital speedometer and information display. Not only does this work, but we like it better than the display used by Fiat and much, much better than the display used by MINI.
If there’s a let-down with the Sonic, its the front seats. As you’d expect, they’re adjustable for height, position and seat back angle only, which means they either work for you or they don’t. No matter how we repositioned the driver’s seat, we just couldn’t seem to get comfortable, odd given that we rarely complain about front seats in modern cars. A test drive is all you’ll need to determine if the Sonic will work for you without the addition of a lumbar pillow.
Rear seats, like the front seats, come wrapped in ventilated leatherette (i.e., vinyl) on LTZ models, but we’d rather Chevy stuck with cloth seats in the Sonic. There’s enough room for two adults in the rear, as long as they’re not long of leg. Head room isn’t a problem in the back, thanks to the Sonic’s gently sloping roof design. Leg room, while not generous, is on par with others in the segment.
Under the hood of our press fleet tester was an optional turbocharged 1.4-liter engine (the same as used in higher-trim Chevy Cruze models), good for 138 horsepower and 148 pound-feet of torque. That’s not a lot to work with, but it is enough, especially if you opt for the six-speed manual transmission over the optional six-speed automatic. Neither gearbox makes the Sonic fast (or even quick), but the manual does make the car more engaging. With the six-speed automatic, expect a 0-60 mph time in the low nine second range, while the manual can deliver a sub-nine-second run.
What the Sonic lacks in thrust, it makes up for in fuel economy, which is really the primary focus of any car in this segment. The EPA says to expect 27 mpg around town, and 37 mpg on the highway, but we saw an indicated 28.5 mpg in mostly-city driving. Pay more attention to your driving habits, and we’d bet you could improve on that number by quite a bit.
On the road, the Sonic delivers a surprising amount of entertainment value, especially since it’s not billed as anything other than basic transportation. As with the under-powered Fiat 500, going fast is all a matter of preserving momentum, and the Sonic can carry a surprising amount of speed into a corner, especially in light of its basic tires and non-sport-tuned suspension. Front brake rotors may look tiny, but they’re up to the task of slowing the Sonic down from any velocity you can achieve. The same goes for the rear drum brakes, although we honestly can’t remember the last time we drove a car without four-wheel disc brakes. Even the Sonic’s steering feel wasn’t half bad, and it’s curb weight of around 2,800 pounds made for quick directional changes and a very nimble feel.
We’ll even admit to wondering what the car would do with better rubber, a lower stance and stiffer dampers and springs. If Chevy delivers on its promise of performance packages for the 2013 Sonic, we won’t have to wonder for very long.
Chevrolet supplied the 2012 Sonic LTZ for our evaluation. Base price on our press fleet tester was $19,420, including a destination charge of $795, and options included the $700 Ecotec 1.4-liter turbo engine and the $325 Crystal Red Metallic paint, for a total sticker price of $20,445.
For comparison, a similarly equipped Ford Fiesta SES would sticker at $20,975, and the closest Honda Fit Sport would list at $18,700.