Chevy’s $15,000 Sonic Subcompact Make Raucous Noise, Sips Gas

Chevrolet Sonic
The 2012 Chevrolet Sonic hatchback starts at $15,395. Source: GM via Bloomberg

An automaker’s cheapest, smallest car will tell you how serious the company really is about quality. Sure the expensive sedans look great, but how about lower down the line? Are they sweating the details on a sub- $20,000 compact?

General Motors Co.’s products have come a long way since the dark days which brought them to bankruptcy. The company realized the maxim “build it and they’ll buy it” doesn’t work. I didn’t want a Chevy Aveo, did you?

The new Chevrolet Sonic is the riposte to the Aveo. The 2012 Sonic pushes it aside as Chevy’s smallest, least-expensive car sold in the U.S.

The Sonic comes as both a sedan and hatchback, starting at around $15,000. I tested the $17,995, top-of-the-line LTZ hatchback. It was $18,695 as driven.

You get a lot more for your buck. Even the name is better. (What’s with small cars with shortened names? There’s the Kia Rio, Honda Fit and European-model Ford Ka -- so small apparently its tiny frame couldn’t accommodate the addition of an “r.”)

The Sonic has a nice nose, handsome wheels and bright accents such as the rear Chevy emblem, details which actually do glitter in the sunshine. There’s pride there.

Not to say it’s not a bit of an ugly duckling. Small cars are especially hard to design, since there’s literally not a lot to work with.

The Sonic hatchback is the comelier of the two models. Yet the side profile is blunt and the rear looks chopped off. Customers are not likely to lust after its looks.

Small and Tall

At almost five feet tall, the hatchback has plenty of front and rear head room. Since it has four doors, passengers easily slide into rear seats. Not bad for a car that’s only 13.25 feet long. (The sedan is just under 14.5 feet.)

The rear seats fold down, though the headrests catch on the front seats, an irritant. Rear seats up, there’s scant storage room in the back hatch (19 cubic feet).

The Sonic is driven by either a 1.8-liter four-cylinder engine with 103 horsepower or a 1.4-liter, turbocharged four with 138. Torque is far better with the turbo -- 148 pound feet -- and it gets the best gas mileage, too (40 mpg highway).

Still, power is not going to blow anybody’s socks off, or even tug at them. Zero to 60 mph seems to come about in the same running time as a sitcom.

My test car had the turbo engine with a six-speed manual transmission. The 1.8-liter engine comes with a six-speed automatic or a five-speed manual.

I like my cheap cars with a stick: It means you’ll get the best of the tiny engines, revving them to redline when needed, rather than being at the mercy of a sleepy automatic.

Run Hard

I certainly treated the Sonic that way, wringing out every jot of energy. Run hard and it’s genuine fun.

Yet the action on the clutch is unnecessarily long, as is the throw on the stick. Usually third gear is where all the magic happens, with enough torque on windy roads to provide a pop of power when needed.

Not so with the Sonic. Around town you’ll find that it’s better to stick in second, even though it is loud and uncomfortable. Because in third, the turbo takes a cigarette break, leaving the car spongy and lackluster.

Peak torque occurs at 1,850 rpm; which is almost exactly the rpms you’ll find yourself at 55 mph in sixth gear. The car feels wheezy at that point; you’ll need to shift down to fifth to pass.

For safety, the engineers have managed to cram 10 standard air bags inside, always a concern in a car this small. I ping-ponged through fast-moving traffic with no fear.

Nice Touch

The real revelation is the interior. “Soft touch” plastic sounds like marketing speak, but the textured coating on the dash is a big improvement over the unyielding stuff on older cars. The finish throughout is welcome. Seams line up with one another and the cloth seems like it will wear well.

Then there’s the absurdly compact instrument cluster, about the same size as the dials on a motorcycle. Gauges are arranged together in a way that they peek out from behind the steering wheel and are never obscured. It gives all necessary info: Speed, tachometer, direction of travel, fuel gauge and range.

This is perhaps my favorite interior detail on any car I’ve driven this year. It’s an understatement that makes a big statement: You don’t have to be big to be clever.

The 2012 Chevrolet Sonic LTZ Hatchback at a Glance

Engine: 1.4-liter turbocharged four-cylinder with 138

horsepower and 148 pound-feet of torque.

Transmission: Six-speed manual.

Speed: 0 to 60 mph in 8.2 seconds.

Gas mileage per gallon: 29 city; 40 highway.

Price as tested: $18,695.

Best features: Interior quality, gas mileage.

Worst features: Torque steer, wimpy third gear.

Target buyer: Detail-oriented buyer in market for an

inexpensive ride.

(Jason H. Harper writes about autos for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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