Our test vehicle was an $18,690, five-door LTZ. This is the top-of-the-line Sonic, which is why its MSRP was so much more expensive than the $14,635 (plus $760 destination) starting price Chevy is advertising. While nearly $20,000 for a subcompact that in a previous life was the cheapest car sold in America seems high, the Sonic hatchback looks and feels like a quality product from the start.
Its design is aggressive, leaning purposefully forward thanks to two character lines running from the front wheel well towards the rear of the car. The Sonic has the best looking front fascia we’ve seen on a Chevy in years, with oversize fog lamps complimenting the projector-style headlights, which are wrapped in a black bezel to make them appear even more recessed. They will no doubt prove hard to keep clean, but fashion exacts a price. So too does the clever rear door handle, hidden in the black C-pillar, Chevy Beretta-style. While it does an excellent job of making the Sonic seem like a sportier three-door, little kids will find it hard to reach.
But Chevy isn’t building the Sonic just for economically strapped families anymore. This is a car meant to be taken seriously by people who enjoy driving. So slipping behind the wheel you’re presented with an instrument panel that looks like it was plucked straight from a sport bike. (That’s a motorcycle, mom, not a Schwinn.) A large, hooded tachometer is flanked by a digital display for the speedometer and odometer, which also takes up fuel gauge duty, and communicates other relevant stuff like a compass and fuel economy. There’s no temperature gauge, however, not even a little light that goes off when the engine reaches operating temperature. At any rate, the instrument panel looks cool floating above the steering wheel, though after a week of squinting at the cramped display, it still seemed like a bit too much form over function.
That’s not entirely a criticism, as in this class of cars some style is needed, if for no other reason than to distract you from some of the corners that get cut in the interest of affordability. Indeed, the Sonic has a few interior shortcomings, most notably the coarse headliner, which seems less like a finished product than the substrate for one. While the dash is a broad expanse of grey plastics, just as you’d expect, that didn’t bother us at all. The “leatherette” seating did, as it’s got a rubbery taxicab texture that should either be upgraded to real hide, or just be banished altogether. The cloth seats we’ve enjoyed in other Chevys are much preferred.
Speaking of which, under the hood of our Sonic was the same 1.8-liter, four-cylinder that serves as the budget engine option in the Cruze, making the same 138 horsepower and 125 lb-ft of torque as in its bigger brother. The 1.8-liter Ecotec provides ample motivation, but we’d be lying if we didn’t say we were disappointed our Sonic was not equipped with the available 1.4-liter turbo, also shared with the Cruze. Doubling down on that disappointment was the transmission, as our Sonic was saddled with a six-speed automatic. Sonics with the 1.8-liter can be had with a five-speed manual transmission, while the tranny in the 1.4-liter has an extra gear. The automatic will probably serve the interests of the commuter crowd well enough, but we found it annoying – and not just because we would have preferred to do the shifting ourselves. The automatic transmission in our Sonic shifted rather slowly and wasn’t particularly smooth either. Even the Sonic auto-box’s manual shift mode is GM’s standard button-on-the-shifter design that requires moving the shifter to the manual detent before using the shift buttons, and the whole thing is too much of a pain to bother with.
We would be more willing to issue a pass on the automatic transmission if we felt like it were set up for maximum fuel economy, but here is where insult piled atop injury. We only saw 29 miles per gallon overall during our week in the Sonic, in which we traveled some 600 miles, the majority on the highway. Yet this wasn’t unusually low, as it’s right in line with the EPA combined estimate of 28. It’s the 1.4-liter Sonic manual that posts the impressive fuel economy numbers, hitting 40 mpg on the highway and still returning 29 in town. Our 1.8-liter Sonic’s official numbers are just 25 city and 35 highway, which just doesn’t seem good enough when the plain-Jane Ford Fiesta automatic is rated at 29/39 and the three-year-old Honda Fit even gets an EPA combined rating of 31.
But if the Sonic’s not really a threat to the Fit at the pump, we imagine the tables might be turned on an autocross course. The Sonic has a stiff chassis and a well-tuned suspension, and even the steering is fairly responsive. While it pushes like any front-driver sold more for transportation than sport, there’s no wallow around corners. The five-door weighs in at 2,684 pounds, which helps immensely in the handling department – although trimming a few more pounds would be greeted with approval. GM deserves commendation for equipping all versions of the Sonic with alloy wheels. The 17-inchers on our test car were shod with low-profile 205/50R17 all-season tires, which rode comfortably and quietly, while providing levels of grip commensurate with the amount of power on hand.
In fact, the biggest compliment we can pay to the engineering team behind the Sonic is that it’s well balanced, not just in driving dynamics, but everywhere. The styling is attractive and the interior, despite a few little grumbles, is good. Could it use a big LCD touch screen with a navigation system instead of the tiny two-line display of the stock radio? Maybe, but what’s there works well enough. The powertrain might not be perfect, but it’s solid and doesn’t get in the way of the chassis’ fun-to-drive character. Would the Sonic handle better with 18-inch summer tires? Absolutely, but that’s beside the point.
What GM has done here is to banish all the cheapness and disappointment that used to be part of the small car experience, and it’s done it smartly, making the right calls on all the compromises that need to be made to sell a car for fifteen grand. Given how bad the Aveo was, the Sonic’s ascendancy to competitiveness is all that more impressive.