Okay, quick show of hands. How many people here remember the Chevy Aveo? ...Not too many, huh? OK, how many of you remember it FONDLY? ..Yeah, that's what I thought. The Aveo was GM's last attempt to build a competitive subcompact to slot below the Cobalt compact car and sell it for bargain-basement prices. What they wanted was a car that would be the best available for the price. What we got instead was a Korean engineered, slapped together piece of junk built with the cheapest materials possible with a boat anchor for an engine which made almost no power while getting the same gas mileage as the larger, better-built and more powerful Cobalt. So it came as no surprise when GM decided that for their new generation B-segment car, they've ditched the Aveo name for something a little more interesting.
Their new car is called the Sonic, and as soon as I started hearing about it it began to pique my interest.
It's a totally new car from the ground up, and Chevy was pretty adamant that they actually WANT people to buy this one. It's the cheapest Chevy available, coming in with a base price under $15,000USD. That base price gets you quite a bit of standard equipment, including alloy wheels and 10 airbags. The LT sedan (shown in link above) I drove was a bit better-equipped than that, and came in around 17 grand. It comes with a lot of kit--power windows and locks, AC, MP3-capable stereo (with AUX and USB-in for your iThing), stability control and cruise control among other options, so it's a good value for your money.
First impressions? It's a surprisingly sporty-looking little car. I personally think the sedan looks a little bit awkward, especially from the rear, it's still not an unattractive car. The front end is espeically boldly styled for a vehicle of this class, so it'll certainly stand out. Climbing into the driver's seat will give you a comfortable driving position. The Sonic's gauge cluster was modeled after a sportbike's compact instrument panel. You get a big tach with a huge red needle, a large digital speedo, a digital bar fuel gauge and idiot lights for everything else. It might look a little gimmicky but it's easy to read at a glance and functional.The seats are a little bit softer than I'd like but they feel reasonably supportive. There's no lack of room in the Sonic, as my six foot frame had plenty of leg, shoulder, hip and headroom all the way around. The rear seat was the real surprise--with the driver's seat positioned comfortably, I was still able to fit in the rear seat behind it with enough room to not feel cramped. It reminded me of those little Chinese takeout containers that look about the size of an iPod and contain enough food to feed your family, your next door neighbor's family and whatever stray cats happen to still be in your neighborhood. The little TARDIS that could continues to the vehicle's commodious trunk, which looks to be almost as large as the trunk on my midsize Ford Fusion. The rear seats also fold down to hold even larger items.
There are two engines and two transmissions available for the Sonic in the US. The base engine is a naturally-aspirated 1.8L four cylinder making around 136 HP and about 125 lb-ft of torque. The uplevel engine is a 1.4L turbo four rated at 138HP and 148lb-ft of torque. If these numbers sound familiar to you they should--they're the exact same engines found in the larger Chevy Cruze. You also get a selection of five-speed manual (base engine only) six-speed automatic or six-speed manual (turbo only)--the only car in this class aside from the Mini Cooper that offers a 6-speed stick. My test car had the base 1.8L motor mated to the six-speed auto--likely the most popular choice as it's cheap and easy to drive.
The 1.8L engine seemed to have enough power to move the Sonic down the road reasonably well, but it's not the powertrain of choice to have. While it's more powerful than most of the cars in its class the lack of low-end torque hurts the car's acceleration. The slushbox doesn't help either. This car would be much better with a manual, but one wasn't available for me. Still, this engine better suits the Sonic than it does the much heavier Cruze. The six-speed auto that came with it did the best it could with what it had, but it spent a lot of time hunting for the right gear on hills at part-throttle, and it takes a little while to kick down into the appropriate gear.
The car's ride was quite good for a car of this class, and it seemed to take corners well also--though with a fair bit of body roll. The suspension was tuned for comfort over handling, however I can tell this chassis would really shine with a little more power and a stiffer suspension setup. That said it is a comfortable car to drive, and I could see someone being quite comfortable over an extended highway trip.
The one area this particular powertrain combination falls short is in fuel economy. The big reason many buy cars this small is for the great gas mileage, and the 1.8L with the automatic is a little underwhelming. It's only rated at 25/35 city/highway, which is below average for a car this small. For reference, the 1.4 turbo gets an honest 40 MPG highway while generating a good 20+lb-ft more torque--that puts the Sonic near the top of the class.
So what's the verdict? Well it's good-looking, reasonably priced, stylish, roomy, handles acceptably well and rides comfortably. The base engine is a bit of a dog, though. Spend the extra few hundred bucks and spring for the turbo with a six-speed stick and you'll have a fun little pocket rocket on your hands.