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Chevrolet Sonic hatchback. (GM/General Motors)
Chevrolet Sonic hatchback. (GM/General Motors)

2012 Chevrolet Sonic

Lovable Sonic full of surprises Add to ...

I was prepared to hate the 2012 Chevrolet Sonic long before I even sat in it. The Sonic, the replacement for the horrific Chevy Aveo subcompact, seemed to have not even the slightest chance of being lovable. As it turns out, I was ill-prepared.

The Sonic LTZ ($20,995) is – shockingly – a snappy looking four-door hatchback with plenty of turbocharged power (138 horsepower), planted handling, a slick six-speed automatic gearbox ($1,375 option), a long list of standard gear and a Top Safety Pick rating from the U.S. Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (all Sonics are equipped with six airbags, among many safety features).

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This car is sprightly, the cabin is roomy and modern, the seats are comfortable and supportive for an econobox, and even the so-called “motorcycle-inspired” headlamps look good. The rear seating area has room for six-foot grown-ups like me and the cargo area behind is a useful boxy shape capable of hauling home a Costco shopping spree worth hundreds. Chevy has even put the most modern connectivity features into the Sonic.

Yes, the Sonic emerged as something of a jaw-dropper. In a crowded segment filled with the likes of good little cars like the Ford Fiesta, Mazda2, Honda Fit, Hyundai Accent and Kia Rio, Chevy’s fuel-sipping city zipper is far more car than I expected. And while it’s early to be making pronouncements about long-term quality, there’s reason to think the reliability and durability story will prove to be a good one.

Indeed, the Chevrolet brand finished above average in the latest J.D. Power and Associates Initial Quality Study – and came in just a shade below average in the long-term J.D. Power Vehicle Dependability Study. True, there have been two Transport Canada recalls – one for a loose windshield washer hose, the other having to do with a handful of cars that might have been missing brake pads from the factory – but the Sonic surely seems at least as well built as its rivals.

Surprised as me? Well, the Sonic is probably a mystery for many. Chevy in Canada has unloaded plenty of marketing on the Cruze compact sedan. Not so much has been dumped into creating a Sonic buzz. Yet there’s plenty to say about the Sonic and its broad lineup.

Chevy offers it in two body styles, four-door sedan and four-door hatchback. Pricing begins at just less than $15,000 and ranges up to the $20,000-plus LTZ hatch. The line is offered with two engine choices, both rated at 138 horsepower. One is a 1.4-litre four-cylinder with a turbocharger, the other is a non-turbo 1.8-litre four. The transmission array: a five-speed manual, six-speed automatic and six-speed manual.

GM builds the Sonic not in Mexico or Brazil or South Korea or Poland or wherever, but instead at the company’s Orion Assembly Centre near Detroit. The plant, says GM, received $545-million (U.S.) in upgrades to do so. The obvious question is, why? Ford, for instance, assembles the Fiesta in Mexico, where costs are lower than the United States and Canada.

The politics and economics of car assembly aside, I was taken by the wide, planted look of the Sonic. The designers wisely pushed the wheels to the corners and it’s a look that works to make the car look solid and purposeful. An added design flourish: the hatchback’s rear door handles are located – no, almost hidden – in the C-pillar area. The effect is a camouflaged four-door, one that looks very coupe-like. My tester had big 17-inch aluminum wheels wearing relatively fat P205/50R17 rubber. What’s a word to sum it all up? Youthful?

Inside, well, the design has a “Transformers” look about it – almost mechanical, rather than soft or, for want of a better word, “feminine.” The instrument cluster is dominated by a fat, round analogue tachometer matched by an equally prominent digital speed readout. Chevy gives you two instrument panel colour choices, dark titanium or brick. Again, none of this is traditionally feminine. The tubular vents follow on that mechanical theme, too. The front bucket seats are better, more supportive than most of the competition and the rear seats fold almost flat.

My turbo tester proved quick and engaging. The 138 hp makes the Sonic a horsepower leader, too. The Fiesta, for instance, has just 120 hp, the Fit 117 and the Mazda2 is rated at 100 hp. Kia’s Rio and Hyundai’s Accent, however, both come in at 138 and feel very strong.

The Sonic churns up the power in a tidy way, with little evident lag before the turbo boost is in play in a serious way. I liked that. No complaints about the six-speed auto-shifter, either.

More surprising and in a good way are the Sonic’s road responses. I didn’t expect much from suspension and steering – MacPherson struts up front, a twist beam axle in the rear – yet the Sonic proved stable and responsive, and the electric power steering did not feel numb at all. GM equips the car with electronic stability control, which is good for an entry-level ride.

The Sonic is not a pure bargain in a segment loaded with discounted rides, but it’s a fine new entry. Be prepared to be surprised, as I was.

jcato@globeandmail.com

Tech specs

2012 Chevrolet Sonic LTZ

Type: Small four-door hatchback

Base price: $20,995 ($1,495 freight)

Engine: 1.4-litre four-cylinder, turbocharged

Horsepower/torque: 138 hp/148 lb-ft

Transmission: Six-speed automatic (1,375 option)

Drive: Front-wheel

Fuel economy (litres/100 km): 7.3 city/5.1 highway; regular gas

Alternatives: Honda Fit, Hyundai Accent, Toyota Yaris, Mazda2, Ford Fiesta, Kia Rio, Mazda2

Follow on Twitter: @catocarguy

Globe rating for the 2012 Chevrolet Sonic

Our ratings guide
7.5

Ride

The Sonic proved stable and responsive, and the electric power steering did not feel numb at all. GM equips the car with electronic stability control, which is good for an entry-level ride.

8

Looks

The designers wisely pushed the wheels to the corners and it’s a look that works to make the car look solid and purposeful.

7.5

Interior

This has a “Transformers” look about it – almost mechanical, rather than soft. The instrument cluster is dominated by a fat, round analogue tachometer matched by an equally prominent digital speed readout.

9

Safety

Six airbags, standard electronic stability control and an IIHS Top Safety Pick.

7.5

Green

The fuel economy is good, yet the performance is more than solid, too.

8

Overall

(out of 10 / Not an average)

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