As a card carrying member of Generation X, by the time I was glued to car magazines in the 1980′s, I always had the impression that Chevy loathed subcompact cars. Sure, Chevy sold them, but they could never be bothered to actually design one themselves-no, it was always a rebadged Suzuki or Daewoo that were barely competitive. The thinking seemed to be ‘why should we waste our time on thin profits on small cars while we’re making a fortune selling Suburbans?’ Well, that mentality landed General Motors on their knees in front of the US Congress begging for a government bailout or face bankruptcy.
It is now 2012, and we’re living in a post-bailout GM world. Wisely, GM decided it would serve them well to design, for the first time, a subcompact car for North America. Not an afterthought. Not a lousy import with a Chevy bowtie slapped on it. For the first time, Chevy is actually being sincere about the subcompact car. Enter the Sonic. Designed in, and made in America.
The Sonic is available as a four door sedan or five door hatchback. Our test car was a four door sedan, finished in Summit White. Which was a shame, I thought, since our Sonic looked more like a kitchen appliance than an interesting car. While the sedan is a handsome car, the white literally washed out all design detail and character lines. The five door hatchback is more cutting edge, and is a real stand out with some real spicy colors available that make the Sonic stand out from the rest. I’ve seen other Sonics, and it was just unfortunate our test car looked so…average, because I know the car looks fantastic in other colors.
Thankfully, our bland wrapper revealed an interior full of character. Starting with the gauge cluster, Chevy uses an analog tachometer flanked by a digital speedometer, containing other vital information. Honda does the same thing with the Civic, but in an awkward two-tier dash. Chevy took the same concept and perfected it by going side-by-side. It’s cool, different from anything out there, and it looks far better than Honda’s application. The Sonic’s cabin is roomy, comfortable, and feels of very high quality given the price. The attention to detail here is unlike any Chevy I’ve been in. Our test car’s black and brick interior was comfortable and contemporary, even striking in appearance. I loved the contrast between the black and brick hues, along with the matching brick piped floor mats, chromed door handles and silver plastic accents all added up to a surprisingly hospitable interior, the best in its class I’ve seen yet.
In the engine room, the Sonic comes standard with a 1.8L four cylinder rated at 138hp, with a choice of a five-speed manual or six-speed automatic. There is an optional 1.4L turbocharged four cylinder, also rated at 138hp, but offers more torque and better fuel economy than the larger, normally aspirated standard engine. The turbo is available only with a six-speed manual. Our test car had the 1.8L four with a five-speed manual. For a subcompact, the Sonic is at the top of its class for power, and its light weight makes the car feel quick and nimble around town. The Sonic’s handling was perfectly competent, steering inputs positive, and the clutch and gearshift were easy to modulate. All in all, the Sonic is both an easy and fun to drive car.
The Sonic is offered in three trim levels, LS, LT, and LTZ. Our test car was the middle of the line LT. Our LT sedan has an MSRP of $15,695USD, and includes a six speaker premium audio system with CD and XM satellite radio, power windows, and power heated exterior mirrors. All Sonics come standard with ten airbags, OnStar, remote keyless entry and 15″ alloy wheels.
With the Sonic, Chevy has made a serious attitude adjustment in its approach to the subcompact car. In the past, Chevy was like the guy who showed up to your party carrying the cheapest six-pack of beer he could find. The message was ‘Well, I’m here, but I really don’t care’. Chevy has finally wised up, and instead of passing over another carmaker’s design, took ownership and delivered what is an excellent subcompact car, one I would easily recommend over the Honda Fit and Toyota Yaris. Welcome to the party, Chevy-and thanks for not going on the cheap this time!