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2012 Chevrolet Sonic 5-door. (Ted Laturnus for The Globe and Mail)
2012 Chevrolet Sonic 5-door. (Ted Laturnus for The Globe and Mail)

2012 Chevrolet Sonic

Chevy's super Sonic steps up Add to ...

As far as large automobiles are concerned, the writing is on the wall. Smaller cars are coming, in greater numbers. In fact, they’re here, with more on the way. And they’re getting better and better.

Case in point, the new Chevrolet Sonic. This is arguably the best subcompact put forward by Chevrolet and, although it’s not perfect, it shows what the brain trust at GM is thinking about and promises to be in the thick of the fight when it comes to attracting first-time buyers.

“The small-car segment is predicted to grow by 30 per cent by 2015,” Vincent Boillot, Chevrolet’s marketing manager, said at the Sonic launch in Montreal. “A small car is no longer a compromise car.”

Available as either a four-door hatchback or four-door sedan, the Sonic is also not an Aveo, a fact General Motors would like to impress on anyone who will listen. The Sonic’s predecessor was not the most, er, worthy of cars and, to quote Chevrolet product manager Harry Ng, his company “would prefer not to have any connection made between the Sonic and the Aveo. The Sonic is a totally new car, from the ground up.” It’s also assembled in Michigan, with minimal input from South Korea, according to Ng. Interestingly, the Aveo will continue to be sold under that name in Mexico.

The Sonic borrows some components from other GM products, including the Cruze, with which it shares engines. The ubiquitous Ecotec four-cylinder is found in the new Sonic – in 1.4-litre turbocharged and normally aspirated 1.8-litre form, developing 138 and 135 horsepower respectively. Transmission choices include a five- or six-speed manual and six-speed automatic. The autobox, however, is only available with the larger engine.

Three models – for both body styles – will be offered: LS, LT and LTZ. Standard equipment includes things like power door locks, Bluetooth compatibility, a traction control system, tilt/telescoping steering, ABS and, curiously, a hill holder. This latter feature will prevent the car from rolling backward, and holds it stationary for about three seconds. A nice feature.

As you climb up the trim levels, things like air conditioning, cruise control, power windows, heated seats and even leather interior become available. The top of the line LTZ has the turbocharged engine and it’s paired to a six-speed manual only.

Behind the wheel, the driver is faced with a “motorcycle-inspired” instrument cluster with a digital speedometer and analog tachometer. Connectivity, ever important in this market, includes an available USB port, Bluetooth wireless and GM’s OnStar technology. The Sonic does not have the same barrage of electronic gizmos as some other models in this category, but is directed at the same group of buyers. “It’s not aimed at the family guy,” says Boillot.

With the back seat folded, the hatchback version offers up some 869 litres of cargo capacity, which is somewhere in the middle of the pack. By way of comparison, the Honda Fit claims to have more than 1,600 litres, while the Ford Fiesta has 735 litres. These two are both direct competitors.

Although both engines deliver similar performance, the manual gearbox is the better transmission choice. GM has done a nice job with the shift linkage and gear ratios and, at 80 km/h in fourth gear, the six-speed/turbo model, in particular, is barely revving at 2,000 rpm.

On the highway, the Sonic is as quiet and stable as anything in this class. Reserve power is there if you need it and you can carry on a conversation without having to raise your voice. Definitely a step up from the Aveo in this department.

Now about those imperfections. In a nutshell, Chevrolet needs to readjust the Sonic’s pricing structure. The LS starts at just less than $14,500, which is more than the Accent, Fiesta, and even the base Fit (although by just a smidgeon in that case). The sedan version is less expensive than the hatchback, and all things considered, that’s the pick of the litter. The hatchback looks clunky and awkward, but that’s just me. If GM could drop the price by $1,000 or so, the Sonic would be in with a chance against well-entrenched rivals like the Fit, Fiesta, Accent and even the surprisingly popular Fiat 500.

The other question is: has GM come to the party too late? Honda, Ford, Hyundai, Mazda and others are already entrenched in this segment of the market, and the Sonic is going to have to elbow its way to the front of the line if it wants to get buyers’ attentions. With one or two exceptions, it’s as good as anything else out there, but does it offer enough bang for the buck?

Only time will tell.


Tech specs

2012 Chevrolet Sonic

Type: Subcompact, four-door hatchback/sedan

Price Range: $14,495-$20,995

Engine: 1.4-litre, turbocharged, four-cylinder/1.8-litre, normally aspirated, four-cylinder

Horsepower/torque: 138 hp/148 lb-ft for 1.4-litre; 135 hp/125 lb-ft for 1.8-litre

Transmission: Five- and six-speed manual/six-speed automatic

Drive: Front-wheel

Fuel economy (litres/100 km): 7.3 city/5.1 highway (1.4-litre with manual); regular gas

Alternatives: Honda Fit, Hyundai Veloster, Ford Fiesta, Mazda2, Fiat 500, Hyundai Accent, Nissan Versa, Kia Rio, Scion xD

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