Chevrolet Sonic, 2012: Supple ride in automaker's best-ever economy car

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The new 2012 Chevrolet Sonic is the best subcompact car the manufacturer has produced. But, looking at Chevy history, that may not be saying a lot. Its tinny, troublesome 1970s Vega is still remembered by many as being one of the worst small cars from Detroit.

However, it’s a different auto world now. The Sonic is derived from General Motor’s German Opel Corsa and provides larger-car refinement and driving kicks.

The front-drive Sonic replaces the lackluster Aveo and is Chevrolet's newest small car, although it feels larger inside than it looks from the outside. The Sonic is among the new crop of small, upscale U.S. cars. American automakers have finally learned how to make money with small family cars. 

Formidable rivals include the Ford Fiesta, Honda Fit, Hyundai Accent, Kia Rio and Nissan Versa.  

The Sonic ranges in price from $13,735 to $18,495. It comes as a four-door sedan or as a four-door hatchback. I tested both Sonic models and each had different engine and transmission combinations.

There are LS, LT and LTZ trim levels. The LS features include power door locks, remote keyless enty, anti-lock brakes—besides 10 air bags, rollover mitigation and hill-hold features. The LT adds a premium sound system, power windows and larger (17-inch) wheels. The LTZ has heated leatherette front seats and cruise control.

Options include a sunroof and remote start.

Steering is quick, the ride is impressively supple for a small, short-wheelbase car and handling is good. So are the brakes, although their pedal is touchy when the brakes are  cold. 

Both the sedan and hatchback have a wild-looking front end, but the 14.1-inch-longer  sedan looks more elegant. Both versions ride on a 99.4-inch wheelbase.  The chopped –off rear of the hatchback makes it resemble a European rally competition car, which might make it a hit with the car-hip younger crowd.

Both versions have supportive seats and good room up front in the attractive, nicely designed, quiet interior, although there’s a fair amount of hard plastic. The dual front console cupholders are set back too far.

Other faults: The adjustable steering wheel needs more up/down movement, and legroom is tight for 6-footers behind the driver. The center of the rear seat is stiff, making the Sonic essentially a comfortable car for four.

Both sedan and hatchback have good cargo room, with low, wide cargo sills. And split  rear seatbacks sit flat after being easily folded forward for more cargo space.

The sedan has a 1.8-liter four-cylinder with a rather agricultural quality and is noisy during hard acceleration. But the Sonic also offers a quieter, more refined 1.4-liter turbocharged four-cylinder. I tested the sedan with the 1.8 and an automatic transmission and the turbo 1.4 with a manual gearbox.

Despite its smaller size the turbo engine has the same 138-horsepower rating as the 1.8. And the turbo four produces significantly more torque (200 lb.-ft. vs. 168 lb.-ft.) than the 1.8 over a wide rev band. It makes the Sonic more responsive and thus more fun to drive..

The 1.8 comes with a five-speed manual or a responsive six-speed automatic. The turbo 1.4 comes only with a six-speed manual. The manual generally shifts crisply, but can get balky when rushed. It works with a light, long-throw clutch.

Lots of shifting is needed with the manual and turbo 1.4.  That manual might well be called a four-speed unit because its fifth and sixth gears are virtually useless for anything but open-road cruising.

Downshifts to third gear are needed with the turbo model for the best 65 -75 mph passing on highways or freeways. Second gear is best in town with this transmission for the quickest moves in traffic, with third a  lazier gear for such driving. Don’t even think of using fifth or sixth gears in town.

The best estimated fuel economy is with the turbo 1.4 and six-speed manual transmission — an estimated 29 mpg in the city and 40 on highways. The figures are 25 and 35 with the 1.8 and six-speed automatic.

The well-equipped Sonic could get better fuel economy, especially in the city, but is rather heavy at 2,684 to 2,721 pounds.

The heavy hood is held up with a prop rod, instead of hydraulic struts. But, after all, Chevy had to cut costs here and there to  keep the Sonic’s price down.

Not that the Sonic feels like a”cost-cutter” car. Generally, it’s a success. Maybe we can now all finally forget about the Vega.

Pros: Quick with turbo engine. Supple ride. Sure handling. Two distinct versions.

Cons: Lots of shifting with turbo model. Offbeat hatchback model styling.

Bottom Line: Best sub-compact car Chevy has bulitl

Dan Jedlicka has been an automotive journalist for more than 40 years. To read more of his new and vintage car reviews, visit: www.danjedlicka.com

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