Chevrolet Sonic — Deserving of a new name

By Jim Meachen and Ted Biederman

Some pundits had a good time mocking the name when Chevrolet announced last year that it was calling its all-new sub-compact car the Sonic. In with the Sonic, out with the Aveo; sort of. The Sonic name is exclusive to North America while other markets will still have the Aveo name attached to the vehicle.
Good name, bad name? GM says Sonic “is a youthful, energetic name that helps convey what this vehicle is about.” Sonic does seems to fit the car, but so many other products already wear the name including a fast food chain and one of the largest automotive dealership chains in the country.  
After spending some time and hundreds of miles behind the wheel in an LTZ hatchback version with the optional 1.4-liter turbocharged engine, it’s clear that the Sonic deserved a new name to adequately portray a new breed of car built to compete in a rapidly evolving segment loaded with top-rate products.
The Aveo — which entered the market in 2004 — is a decent, inexpensive subcompact with good fuel economy, but no longer competitive against small sedans and hatchbacks that have more amenities, better driving dynamics, improved gas mileage, more trendy styling, and superior build quality.
Offered in both sedan and hatchback, the Sonic is powered by two engines — a 1.8-liter naturally aspirated 4-cylinder and a 1.4-liter turbocharged four. Both make a healthy 138 horsepower.
And both are competitive with engines in the segment, but the Sonic appears to be the tale of two cars. There’s the standard engine mated to either a five-speed manual or a six-speed automatic transmission. It’s OK in the performance department, but nothing to get particularly excited about.
And then there’s the turbocharged version, a point-and-shoot little pocket rocket that proved as much fun to drive as any of the new breed of small cars we’ve encountered over the past year. For those who refuse to drive a manual-shift car, they’ll miss out on the fun. The turbocharged engine, rated at an impressive 40 mpg highway and 29 mpg city, comes with only a six-speed manual.
Rowing through the gears brought a smile, and when we hit our usual half dozen miles of winding, sweeping “test” road the smile became a big grin. Please don’t misinterpret, this is no high-dollar sports car, but we don’t think driving fast and hard can get any better in a loaded fuel sipper for less than 20 grand.
In a straight line, the Sonic turbo is leader of the pack with a measured 0-to-60 time of 8.2 seconds and a quarter mile time of 16.5 seconds at 86 mph.
One of our usual riders who is looking for new economical transportation for his daily 90-mile round-trip work commute, took a stint behind the wheel and mentally put the Sonic at the top of his wish list. No automatic transmission? “That doesn't bother me in this car; it’s so easy to manage with the six-speed.”
Not only is it fun, the look of the hatchback is contemporary and stylish; it’s one of the best looking small cars on the road. The Sonic also comes in a more conservative-looking sedan, and both body styles can be ordered with the 1.4-liter engine as a $700 option on the mid-level LT and top-level LTZ trims.
The difference between the two engines is torque. The turbocharged 1.4 generates 148 pound-feet while the 1.8-liter does its work with 125 pound-feet. This doesn’t mean the 1.8-liter is a slug. It performs very adequately with 0-60 time measured at competitive 9 seconds with the manual and a tick or two slower with the automatic That’s as good or better than the Nissan Versa, Kia Rio and Toyota Yaris. Gas mileage is not quite up to the segment standard, however, at 26 mpg city and 35 mpg highway.
The Sonic comes in three trim levels in both the sedan and hatchback starting at $14,435 for the sedan and $15,335 for the hatchback. The starting price is somewhat of a downside, pricier than such competitors as the Rio, Versa and Ford Fiesta. But when you reach the top trim level, the price becomes very competitive. For instance, our top-line LTZ hatchback test car with the turbocharged engine carried a base price of $17,235 with the only option — and the only option we needed — the 1.4-liter engine bringing the bottom line to $17,995.
That price brought such features that not long ago were not offered in a small car including heated front seats; leatherette upholstery; leather-wrapped steering wheel; a Connectivity Plus Cruise package that includes cruise control, Bluetooth phone and audio streaming; iPod/USB audio interface; satellite radio; and steering-wheel-mounted controls.
One downside — factory installed navigation is not offered. Many shoppers in this class will probably be just as happy avoiding the expensive option and plugging in their portable GPS.
Interior styling is interesting and to some maybe cute. Chevrolet has used the dual pod look to great effect in other vehicles, namely the Malibu, and it works with the Sonic as well. The center stack is kind of cartoonish with its robot look face outlined in aluminum-like trim as featured in our test car. Looks aside it flows down through to very intuitive audio and climate controls. The audio system has round knobs for volume and tuning, a rarity these days, but still the best way to operate a radio. 
We particularly like the layout of the round tachometer hooked on the right by a squared-off digital speedometer/gas gauge/trip odometer in a very compact package. While it may be kind of cluttered (we have heard criticism of the design) it’s still one of the neatest layouts of any car we’ve driven lately. 
Storage for the small things of driving life are ample and, again, we like the storage openings on either side of the center stack in an area many times reserved for the climate control vents. The storage bins slant downward to keep items from flying out.
There is ample room for two adults up front, and legroom is adequate in back, especially for the sub-compact segment. Storage behind the hatchback’s seats is 19 cubic feet. It expands to 30.7 cubic feet with the seatbacks folded. The sedan carries a healthy 14 cubic foot trunk.
When one thinks of Chevrolet’s misadventures in building a small car in North America, the Vega and Corvair come to mind, it appears the Sonic, even with its roots in Korea, but built in Michigan has the chance for success. B-segment shoppers should keep it in mind.
Base price: $15,335; as driven, $17,995
Engine: 1.4-liter turbocharged 4-cylinder
Horsepower: 138 @ 4,900 rpm
Torque: 148 pound-feet @ 1,850 rpm
Drive: front wheel
Transmission: 6-speed manual
Seating: 2/3
Wheelbase: 99.4 inches
Length: 159 inches
Curb weight: 2,684 pounds
Turning circle: 36.1 feet
Luggage capacity: 19 cubic feet
Cargo capacity: 30.7 cubic feet
Fuel capacity: 12.2 gallons (regular)
EPA rating: 40 mpg highway, 29 mpg city
0-60: 8.2 seconds (Car and Driver)
Also consider: Ford Fiesta, Kia Rio, Hyundai Accent, Nissan Versa
The Good:
• Segment-leading horsepower and torque
• Excellent fuel economy
• Stylish exterior, interior
The Bad:
• Gas mileage rating so-so with 1.8-liter engine
The Ugly:
• Hatchback cargo area one of smallest in segment