Chevrolet has finally gotten the subcompact receipt right. With the intent of creating a world car to be sold in different countries across the globe, GM needed to prove that they could build a competitive product.
Fast forward to the fall of 2011 and watch as Chevrolet begins rolling out an all-new B-segment vehicle, the 2012 Sonic. Starting with a global architecture and the goal of designing and engineering a global vehicle, designers and engineers across the globe helped create a winning subcompact formula. We were blown away by how competent, competitive, comfortable, and most importantly, fun, the Sonic was.
The team behind the Chevy Sonic wanted to focus on what younger buyers would want. The current automotive market is chock-full of subcompacts that have standout features or achievements, but they all seem to have an identity crisis. There are so many options, packages, trim levels, editions, and suspension setups that trying to pick one can actually be more challenging than ever could have been imaginable.
Chevrolet made it clear that the millenials were their target, and they hit it better than anyone else with an eye-catching deisgn, unique features, top safety equipment, and a vehicle that not only looks sporty, but acts it in each of their three trim levels, LS, LT, and LTZ.
Kathy Sirvio, GM Design Manager, worked with a young dynamic team of designers in Korea that focused on staying with the Chevrolet design cues of the brand. The aggressive front end features the Chevy bow-tie cutting through the front grille, which is outlined in flashy chrome trim.
Designers took it to the next level with exposed headlights, where each lamp has its own lens rather than one large polycarbonate lens covering the entire fixture. Instead, the surrounding area is finished in a metallic black paint, which adds to the unusual amount of detail and attention paid to a single component of the Sonic's exterior.
The side of the Sonic is reminiscent of the Cruze, but designers kicked it up a notch and added another cut in the lower quarter of the side body. The body color mirrors add a premium look, while the integrated rear door handles on the hatchback models make the Sonic look like a sporty coupe.
The tailights on the hatchback get a similar treatment as the headlights, but in sedan form the Sonic sticks with a traditional polycarbonate look.
And what would a stylish body be with cheap looking plastic covers on steel wheels? Exactly that, and that's one reason why the Sonic is the first vehicle in this segment to get standard 15" alloy wheels. Besides enhancing the look of the Sonic, engineers stated this helped reduce road noise and increase the solid feel of the Sonic on bumpy roads.
FtD (Fun to Drive)
On the topic of trim levels, three models of the Sonic are available; LS, LT, and LTZ. Propelling them is a 1.8-liter four-cylinder producing 138 horsepower and 125 lb-ft of torque; available on LT and LTZ is a 1.4-liter turbocharged engine producing the same horsepower but 148 lb-ft of torque at early RPM. A 5-speed manual is standard on 1.8L engines and a 6-speed automatic is available.The automatic combination is rated at 25 city, 35 highway mpg, with the manual doing 1 mpg better in the city cycle.
The sporty 1.4 turbo will only be available with a six-speed manual until later next year, and brings the Sonic to that golden 40 mpg highway number. The city cycle still benefits though and earns an impressive 29 mpg, and as you'd expect, both engines require 87-octane gasoline.
We found the 1.4 turbo engine to be quite a bit zippier around city driving, and especially at higher speeds when passing had to be done. The engine breathes quietly with the turbo barely noticeable; GM engineers did an excellent job controlling NVH for the passenger compartment. Part of this can be attributed to a well-tuned engine and the rest of the credit can be taken from extra sound deadening material used in the upcoming Buick Verano.
Sonic engineers including John Buttermore worked tirelessly in the tuning of the suspension and steering to ensure it responded in a manner that young drivers with an eagerness to push the limits expect. Coming from a history of passion for racing, Buttermore recently won the SCCA Touring 1 Class gold medal, and drove a lot of that passion into the development of the Sonic.
"The Sonic has excellent handling, steering, and allows the driver to get the most enjoyment and performance from their vehicle," Buttermore said.
We found the Sonic's precise steering and lack of body roll a welcome change in this segment. The suspension setup isn't anything unique, MacPherson front struts with a torsion beam in the back, but with a 99.4-inch wheelbase, it handled apex turns admirably and felt hunkered down in the corners.
The stick provides short throws, but the clutch pedal was a tad on the light side, with the friction point barely perceptible when it engages early on. We found the six-speed automatic to work well, quickly downshifting when more "oomph" was needed, but we noticed it sometimes hunted for the right gear during hilly city driving.
The Sonic comes to a stop with assurance, with good pedal resistance and little fade during our spirited driving runs. Chevrolet had to cut some costs somewhere, and we don't mind the front disc, rear drum setup. It worked well in our various driving routes, and we especially enjoyed the Hill Start Assist feature that comes standard on the Sonic so that gas-clutch modulation is no longer needed on inclines.
Interior and Tech
Inside, Chevrolet continues with the "dual-cockpit" design seen in the Cruze and Malibu. The interior of the Sonic is a place we enjoyed spending time in; it felt comfortable, roomy in the front and back, and the number of storage areas was unbelievable.
The first cool factor about the Sonic's interior is the gauge cluster. GM's Kathy Servio talked about the inspiration coming from motorcycles, an analog tachometer and digital speedometer. Though we weren't too fond of this setup in other vehicles where it is typically an afterthought, the Sonic's speedometer was crystal clear, large, and simply put, it works.
The rest of the Sonic's interior is a mix of nicely finished plastics and fabrics. All switchgear felt solid and we especially liked the contrast stitching on LTZ trim levels.
Standard equipment includes a tilt/telescoping steering wheel, remote keyless entry, air conditioning, power locks, a driver information center, and a stereo with auxillary input. Moving up to the LT adds a six-speaker system with satellite radio, rear floormats, better cloth seat material, and power heated mirrors.
Those aiming for the top of the line LTZ get leatherette heated seats, USB input, Bluetooth streaming audio and phone connectivity, cruise control, remote start, and 17" wheels.
Sonic interiors are available in jet black and dark titanium trim with light stitching, jet black with brick trim and stitching, and a dark pewter with dark titanium trim and stylish blue stitching.
Gone are the days of "optional ABS on upper trim levels" as the Sonic offers all safety equipment standard. Most competitive vehicles meet today's safety standards, but the Sonic surpasses them.
The usual six airbags are in place, but the Sonic offers two additional airbags in the front for the driver and front passenger's knees, as well as side thorax airbags for each of the rear outboard occupants.
Active safety systems in place include Anti-lock Brakes (ABS), Brake Assist (BAS), Electronic Brake Distribution (EBD), and the aforementioned Hill-Hold Assist which continues applying brake pressure while on a hill, even after the driver releases his foot, for two seconds or until the throttle is applied.
In addition to offering an abundance of safety features, Sonic was named an IIHS 2011 Top Safety Pick. The renowned OnStar system is also standard for six months.
theCD's Take: With driving dynamics superior to its competitors, a useful and spacious interior, competitive fuel economy, and top safety and tech features, the 2012 Chevy Sonic is a clear winner in our book. The Sonic continues GM's momentum of creating compelling vehicles that are one step ahead of the competition. Best of all, it's the only subcompact built here, in GM's Orion Township, Michigan facility and starts at a low $14,995.
Check out the full review in our Reviews and Info section.