2012 Chevrolet Sonic: First Drive

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New subcompacts like the 2012 Chevrolet Sonic are part of a trend that inexpensive doesn't have to mean cheap; the Ford Fiesta is a prime example.

As the entry-level offering in Chevrolet's lineup — replacing the Aveo — what stands out most about the Sonic's driving experience is how composed and solid it feels when it tackles bumps and rough roads given its small size and sporty aspirations. We attended a drive event for journalists in San Francisco where we drove through the downtown area as well as on curvy California back roads to test those lofty goals.

Chevrolet wants the Sonic to be the most fun-to-drive car rated at 40 mpg, so both the sedan and hatchback versions are tuned for a sporty character and responsive handling. The turbocharged engine found in the higher trim levels is rated at 40 mpg highway, but most Sonics are equipped with a traditional four-cylinder rated at a lackluster — at least by today’s subcompact standards — 35 mpg highway.

A Chevrolet representative said they expect 80 percent of buyers to choose the base engine with its 35-mpg figure. Both the base and turbocharged models I drove — an LT with an automatic transmission and an LTZ with a manual transmission, respectively — exuded a lively driving experience.

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The Sonic exhibits minimal body roll and a predictable, stable feeling when thrown into a corner. The sporty suspension tuning isn't jarring over bumps and doesn't thwack or make unwanted noises. It's similar to the Fiesta's ride quality, of which we're a fan, and more refined than the noisy Hyundai Accent suspension that made me cringe after hitting highway expansion joints. The chassis has been significantly stiffened compared to the previous Aveo to get that sense of solidity and composure. 

The Sonic is currently on sale and available with a base 1.8-liter four-cylinder and optional turbocharged 1.4-liter ($700) that’s borrowed from the larger Chevrolet Cruze. Each engine makes 138 horsepower, though the turbocharged 1.4-liter churns out 148 pounds-feet of torque while the base 1.8-liter makes 125 pounds-feet.

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Like the Cruze, the 1.4-liter's advantage is delivering power lower in the rev range so the engine doesn't have to rev as high to accelerate the car. The difference was most pronounced through tight corners. During spirited driving, the turbo model eagerly pulled out of a corner compared to the 1.8-liter. In more common straight-line acceleration, like merging onto the highway, the turbo doesn't accelerate much more briskly than the base engine, though it’s the smoother, quieter choice. For those who don't live on the picturesque winding canyon roads of our drive route, the 1.8-liter is still a solid, though a little noisy, choice.

One area where the Sonic is unique is its quirky gauge cluster where the digital speedometer and analog tachometer are housed. I liked the idea when I first saw it at the Detroit auto show, and I’m a huge fan after spending time with it on the road. Taking inspiration from a motorcycle's information pod, the vehicle speed, engine RPM, fuel level, gas mileage and compass are displayed tightly in one area. This made all the information easy to read without taking my eyes off the road for too long. The speedometer is especially easy to read with large numbers that were brightly illuminated in the daylight.

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After a day of driving the Sonic, the front seat comfort was exceptional. The driver's seat was supportive and felt like it was molded to my slender 6-foot frame. Plus, there's a standard armrest for the driver, a rare feature among subcompacts. The only problem I could foresee with longer drives is the limited legroom I had up front as both a driver and passenger.

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The Sonic is on the expensive side of the subcompact segment; it’s pricier than the Fiesta and Accent. The Sonic's $13,795 base price isn't unwarranted because of a long list of standard features, including alloy wheels instead of steel wheels with covers. What will make the Sonic a tough sell is that a Fiesta with an automatic transmission is rated at a city/highway combined 33 mpg compared to a combined 28 mpg for a similarly equipped Sonic.

Even with the Sonic's fun-to-drive aptitude, the mileage difference may prove too big for frugal shoppers in the subcompact segment.

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Comments 

Kelley

Great Article! Cant wait to test drive it in person!

sheth

Can anyone actually veriffy how epa calculates combined mileage? How can the sonic average 5mpg less than the fiesta in combined when it get 4mpg less on the epa cycle? It makes no sense, this should be a simple calculation. If the split is 60% city and 40% hwy the sonic would have a 29mpg combined figure, not 28. Something doesn't add up here. I thought epa combined came from a 55/45 split but that can be the case because that yields a 30mpg average for the sonic. I don't see anything on site that clearly explains how they got the combined figure.

Derrick G

Again, I'd point out the the published figures are rounded AFTER all calculations are made. So it's very possible for that to happen, because the overall is calculated from the UN-rounded city and highway numbers and THEN rounded.

sheth

Ok, saw something on epa site saying combined is indeed 55/45 which 29.5 and fiesta would be 33.5. Assuming the don't round up that would be 29 for the chevy. Fit auto comes in at 31mpg. I do not understand the inconsistency on the fuel economy site.

Tim

@Joe Bruzek

Besides the gauge cluster and seats, how was the fit and finish?

I know this class isn't known for luggsury appointments, but from the pictures it looks pretty decent especially the steering wheel.

Also, how'd the shifter feel during spirited driving?

Amuro Ray

@ JB,

Did u take the 1st pic @ an Enterpise parking lot (or Avis/Budget/Hertz/etc.)?

Price (high), fuel economy (low), plus rental fleet (many) are the 3 punches that nail this vehicle to the coffin.

WTF

Rear seat room and cargo room in the hatchback? Limited legroom in the front as in you wish the seat could go back another couple of inches?

@ sheth,
Agreed, the EPA figures can be perplexing. The math for calculating a 55/45 percent city/highway mix isn't want you think -- i.e., a car rated 30/40 wouldn't rate 34.5 mpg combined. Here's the EPA formula:

Combined mileage = 1/((0.55/city mileage)+(0.45/highway mileage))

Bear in mind the city and highway figures are rounded, so a 30/40 car may actually be 29.6/40.2, for example. That's why you see some cars with identical city/highway ratings get different combined numbers.

Hope that helps.

Kelsey

Mike

Looks like an Aveo reskin

Thanks for the feedback. I have a full-length review addressing interior quality and roominess on the way. But for now ...

Tim -- The fit and finish looked pretty good on the LT and LTZ models I drove. Like you said, it's not a luxury car. I didn't see anything too appalling given the price, though I'd still rank the Fiesta a notch above as far as quality of materials. The manual transmission's shifter is smooth and found gears easily.

WTF -- The hatchback's rear has more headroom than the sedan. The top of my head touched the headliner in the sedan while it was a good inch or so from the top in the hatch. With the steering wheel in a comfortable position (standard tilt/telescoping, BTW) my foot was resting against the floorboard while my left knee was bent up. I could have slid back but the wheel would have been at an uncomfortable reach.

sheth

I don't undestan why we at home can't duplicate the epa mileage calcs. If they use the 55/45 split then there should be a 4mpg gap between sonic and fiesta. There is only a 4rmpg gap in the city and highway figures so that makes sense. I did the calc and got 29mpg, if that is wrong than something in the epa rating isn't right. Even if they use rounding the sticker numbers should rep the rounded figure.

Sonic has more power than anything except the accent and it rides better and quieter than the hyundai. That is the trade off for less mpgs. The fiesta is very small and slow. It handles well though.

WTF

So there is plenty of legroom but not enough travel on the telescoping wheel is what I'm hearing from you. Thanks.

meh

I understand that manyof these articles are based only on press releases from the car companiies but how about some decent pictures if you're actually driving the vehicle?

Close ups and low angles and using fish eye lens really doesn't give me any idea what this vehicle looks like.

Basic, front, back, side and 45 degree rear and front view, without the fish eye lens would be appreciated.

Rockaby

Using 25/35 mpg, my combined calculations came out to be 28.688.

Using something like 24.6/34.6, you get 28.277, which rounded would give you 25/35/28.

Chris

Looking forward to a head to head comparison with the fiesta. I saw this at the Chicago auto show and it appeared to be way roomier than a Fiesta. We'll see if memory serves.

C

To those who is thinking about this vehicle.

Better wait til the 2013 model year. It will have a much better stereo system than this one.

JJ

Sheth, Rockaby has the right idea, the EPA would use the original unrounded values. That is to say to be within 1 mpg using their rounded (publicized) values is actually very close! Its a matter that using their rounded values introduces large systematic errors.

Rich

I like the camper in the back of the photo.

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