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Booming Sonic: GM's first good thing in a small package?

2012 Chevrolet Sonic


Overall Rating
The Sonic may be small, but it has plenty of features, and is a competent package mechanically. You'll like this car if your needs are small and practical.
Looks Rating
The stylists didn't have a lot of sheet metal to work with, but bent it into a cute and friendly form.
Interior Rating
Plenty of plastic, but moulded into interesting shapes and not cheap-looking.
Ride Rating
Tall tires and compliant suspension give it a surprisingly good ride for this class of vehicle.
Safety Rating
Traction and stability control and (with the optional extras) plenty of airbags make it as safe as anything this size.
Green Rating
Decent fuel economy numbers, but actually not as good as some compact-class offerings.

I didn't exactly have high expectations for Chevrolet's new 2012 Sonic LT five-door.

I've driven too many General Motors small cars over the years, starting with 1970s Vegas and Chevettes and working my way through a long and uninspiring list to the recent Cobalt compact and Aveo subcompact. But the Sonic actually proves the old adage that good things can come in small packages, even if put together in a GM plant.

I suppose I should have been forewarned that things have changed behind the Chevy bowtie badge by the Cobalt's replacement, the Cruze, the fifth best-selling compact in Canada last year, which is a clear indication the corporation is now taking small cars more seriously.

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This is partly in response to rising gasoline prices, but also due to the need to meet tough new corporate average fuel economy requirements that start in a couple of years. The latter is a challenge that selling a meaningful number of fuel-sipping subcompacts like the Sonic and the new micro-sized Spark (introduced at the recent Canadian International Auto Show in Toronto) will help it meet.

The subcompact marketplace, however, has filled up fast with feisty rivals such as the Ford Fiesta and the Mazda2, so fielding an also-ran in the class wasn't going to cut it. Enter the Sonic last fall, which has all it needs and a bit more to bang door handles with the best in the subcompact sales race.

Including, at least south of the border, its made-in-America status. The Sonic is the only current subcompact built in North America, a decision by GM that flies in the face of what the New York Times calls one of the oldest axioms in the auto industry: that no company can build a subcompact in the United States because they are priced too low to be profitable. GM's goal is to change that and, to do so, it has created a downsized but highly automated plant in a Detroit suburb staffed by fewer employees working to a curtailed wage scale.

Rolling off its mini-assembly line are small-scale sedans and hatchbacks, and we'll look at the hatchback here in LT trim. A base LS hatch starts at $15,495, the LT at $17,495 and the top-of-the-line LTZ $20,995. Sedans go for about a thousand less.

How small is small? In the Sonic hatch's case, a distance between the bumper covers of 4,039 mm, which is 360 mm shorter than the sedan version and 139 mm less than Toyota's Yaris hatchback.

It's tiny but not toy-like, as is the case with the Smart and Scion IQ silly little city cars, and doesn't give you the sense you are in something scarily insubstantial. I wouldn't want to run into anything big in one, mind you. Although the test car came with a $465 Peace of Mind package that added to the usual airbag roster knee bags up front and seat-mounted side impact bags in the rear.

And though it may not look like it, you can also actually seat two people on its rear seat, as long as they keep their elbows tucked in. With four up, there's 539 litres of cargo room behind the rear seatback and with it folded the space back there expands to 869 litres.

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The bright-red test Sonic came with a black and grey interior with patterned seats that provide an okay place to sit, a novel instrument pod that perches on the dash and visually interesting and functional centre stack. Equipment includes air conditioning, power windows and mirrors, remote keyless entry, Bluetooth, driver info centre and a tilt telescope wheel with audio controls. The cabin is commendably quiet at highway speed.

The 1.8-litre, twin-cam, four-cylinder is rated at 138 hp and 125 lb-ft of torque. The horsepower number is matched only by the Kia Rio5 and Hyundai Accent, with the rest of the cars in the class in the 100-to-122 hp range. You can also order a Sonic with a turbocharged 1.4-litre producing 138 hp/148 lb-ft. A five-speed manual or six-speed automatic is available.

The Sonic's fuel economy ratings (with automatic) are 8.3 litres/100 km city and 5.5 highway, compared to the Accent's 7.0 city/5.8 highway and the Fiesta's 6.9 city/5.1 highway. I averaged 8.6 L/100 km in a week of highway and semi-rural driving, but at 400-series highway speeds it was burning the stuff at a rate of 8.0 litres/100 km. A bit surprising as it was pulling quite low revs in sixth gear.

Driven around town, the Sonic feels perky stepping away from a stop and generally finding the right gear to tap into the useful amounts of torque available from about 2,500 rpm. But given the power available and its 1,217 kg weight, I'd have expected it to be considerably quicker than the 10 seconds or so it takes to get to 100 km/h, although this is within a few tenth of times for the Accent, Rio5, Versa and others in the class.

Its small size and firm-ish springing make it agile at city speeds despite its tall side-walled P195/65R15 tires (on alloy wheels). The steering has a quick-connect feel, it stays pretty flat though on ramps and tracks true at highway speeds. The around-town ride is actually very good, with the suspension proving supple and well damped. AJAC brake testing showed it to be a touch better than other entries in the small car category.

Small yes, but also fully functional, comfortable and capable as a commuter, or a sensible city car that you could go somewhere in on the weekend.

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Tech specs

2012 Chevrolet Sonic LT

Type: Subcompact hatchback

Base Price: $17,495; as tested, $21,970

Engine: 1.8-litre, DOHC, inline-four

Horsepower/torque: 138 hp/125 lb-ft

Transmission: Six-speed automatic

Drive: Front-wheel

Fuel economy (litres/100 km): 8.3 city/5.5 highway; regular gas

Alternatives: Ford Fiesta, Honda Fit, Hyundai Accent, Kia Rio5, Mazda2, Toyota Yaris, Nissan Versa

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