Fuel prices are volatile and unpredictable, but inevitably upward bound. As a result, consumers are finally learning the difference between “want” and “need”; most do not need an SUV averaging 13 MPG to run errands and commute to/from work. It comes down to being impractical and unjustifiable due to fuel costs and inefficiency.
American automakers have been rethinking their portfolio of small vehicles and are now developing, building, and offering us vehicles at a level that the rest of the globe has appreciated for quite some time.
That’s right, we’re talking about subcompacts. Once regarded as bland as tap water, this segment now leads in fuel economy, value, features, and serious fun to drive. The times of subcompacts being perceived as deplorable forms of basic transportation are gone, sublimated into a newfound era of high efficiency and excitement.
Chevrolet has been paying serious attention, and brings us the hot Sonic in both hatch and sedan body styles for 2012. Sonic is the only subcompact currently built in the USA, yet has been a global force from its very inception.
Our test car was a five-door 2012 Sonic LTZ in sparkling black metallic, checking out at the register for $18,695, inclusive of destination charges. Chevrolet offers Sonic in three trim levels: LS, LT, and LTZ, and in hatchback (five-door) or sedan body styles.
Reality in the development of today’s vehicles is that designers frequently generate and create new concepts based on observing and incorporating themes from existing products and slices of life. The collaborative team that designed the Sonic integrated motorcycle elements as a component of their inspiration, as manifest in Sonic's exposed round headlamps and interior gauges.
The wheels are pushed to the corners with minimal overhangs, creating a wide, planted look to the Sonic. Its progressive design makes it appear to be racing while idle, in part triggered by its downward sloping hood with a steeply raked windshield and roofline.
Chevrolet’s face is front and center, the classic bowtie flanked by the signature honeycomb grille above and below.
Sonic arrives in either sedan or five-door body styles; we believe the hatchback is better proportioned, with a side profile that looks more defined with large fender flares better suiting the extra sheet metal of the hatchback design.
Search all you want, but you will never find steel wheels on any 2012 Sonic! Chevrolet made aluminum alloy wheels standard, even for its base model. These add value, won’t rust like steel wheels, aesthetically are superior [as they expose the rotors and calipers], and reduce noise, vibration, and harshness (NVH) transmitted to the cabin. Sonic is the only vehicle in this segment to offer such a giant plus as standard equipment; we commend Chevy for making this smart decision.
Our LTZ tester had gorgeous 17” five-spoke alloys, with 15” wheels standard on LS and LT trim levels, and optional 16” wheels on LT.
Another of Sonic’s attention grabbing features is its rear door handles on the five-door model; mounted higher up on the C-pillar, they give Sonic the look of a 3-door hatch.
Driving the Sonic was an absolute blast. We had so much fun that one of our riders referred to loving the "Sonic boom". We later had an “aha” experience when we learned that the 2012 Sonic had its suspension tuned by the same engineers who work on the Corvette; suddenly everything started making sense.
The 2012 Chevy Sonic comes standard with a 1.8-liter engine producing 138 horsepower and 125 lb-ft of torque. We had the opportunity to sample the Sonic briefly in San Francisco for our First Drive (link) of the Sonic, and found it highly commendable.
However, good wasn’t good enough for the engineers at Chevrolet. Optional on LT and LTZ trim levels is a 1.4-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine, which when mated to a six-speed manual transmission or six-speed automatic, spins the front wheels with 138 horsepower and 148 lb-ft of torque.
Thanks to the Honeywell-sourced turbocharger and wide torque band of the 1.4-liter engine, extra oomph is there right from the get-go. Our car was equipped with the row-it-yourself transmission, increasing the excitement and connection to the Sonic.
This Chevy loves to carve corners, so we let ‘er rip, putting it through the ringer. Matched to a strong chassis made up of high and ultra-high-strength steels, along with a powertrain begging for more, this is the most fun to drive subcompact money can buy.
Sonic’s suspension exhibited little to no body roll, absorbed bumps and potholes with nonchalance and a solid “kerchunk” - never flinching along miles of corkscrew lakefront Seaway Trail roads. Sonic saw the pavement as rails that it effortlessly hugged like a roller coaster car.
The Sonic’s electric power steering system provides steering responsiveness perfectly matched to its capabilities, while also eliminating the extra maintenance associated with hydraulic steering fluid and a traditional pump. Smarter still, engineers at Chevrolet designed a wear compensation feature into the system which continually adjusts its interaction with the steering gear.
What does this mean for the typical car buyer? Sonic’s steering system will always feel tight and spot on for its full life with none of that wiggle room that typically develops as a traditional steering system wears.
All good things must come to an end, and our fun would be ruined if we couldn’t stop as and when needed. The 2012 Sonic was built with a strong braking system using discs up front and drums in the back. This provides for linear and strong braking force - each and every time.
Throughout our week with the Sonic, we filled up three times and calculated our average fuel economy using both the on-board computer and our own math. As we had hoped, both were within a few tenths of each other, which validated that the on-board system was accurate.
During mostly urban driving, the Sonic averaged 31.6 MPG. On our highway stint to the Southern Tier of NYS, mileage soared as we racked up miles, earning an incredible 43.8 MPG average. During our last few days, numerous errands with trips to the grocery store as well as some highway cruising brought our average miles per gallon to an astonishing 36.4. The only downside to driving a small gas miser is the smaller fuel tank; Sonic holds 12.2 gallons.
The interior of the 2012 Chevy Sonic is where much of the fun happens, so it’s only fitting that the designers intelligently mapped out plenty of storage nooks in an ergonomic, still stylish layout.
The cabin of the 2012 Chevy Sonic complements the sporty, motorcycle-inspired body with a blend of analog and digital gauges. A large needle tachometer sits to the left of a large LCD readout showing velocity and fuel economy info. All of the warning lights encircle the digital display, glowing like a rectangular Christmas tree upon ignition.
We loved how clearly, logically, and simply the entire instrument cluster was compactly designed. This made us realize how most automakers have been avoiding making needed improvements in gauge cluster design; Sonic's cockpit serves as a model for others to emulate and build from.
HVAC and radio controls were also simple to operate, with well-sized knobs and buttons that are clearly understood & ergonomic. Chevrolet includes a replaceable cabin air filter to prevent dust, pollen, and airborne particulate matter from entering the breathing air of the passenger cabin from the external potentially polluted environment.
The designers definitely got the nighttime blue illumination just right, creating clever devices like the volume and tuning knobs that are trimmed in chrome by day, but transition to blue glowing rings at night.
One small area of disappointment is the non-illuminated lower glovebox; if Sonic weren't so amazing, then maybe we would have been less annoyed. For 2012, we find this an unbelievable oversight. How a miniscule bulb (or LED), wire, and basic switch could add excess cost is beyond us; this couldn't possibly have been intentional - somebody must have just goofed.
The dash looks premium thanks to a contrasting color used in the mid-instrument panel, which flows as one sweep from door to door. All of the material finishes have a durable matte texture, important for preventing reflections into the windshield.
We had no trouble finding the perfect driving position with the tilting and telescoping steering column, and enjoyed gripping the leather wrapped wheel with audio and phone controls, which are standard on LTZ and available on LT.
Seat upholstery comes in fabric on LS and LT (deluxe fabric), and single-level heated leather is standard on LTZ. The dimple pattern and contrast stitching on the leather definitely added a tasteful touch, showing that the design team went beyond the extra mile.
Seat comfort in the up front was perfect for around town driving or a two hour trip, and comfort in the back is superb with 34.6-inches of legroom. A six-foot driver can easily sit in the driver’s seat while a passenger behind them can be comfortable as well, albeit without the room to lounge out with legs crossed.
Cargo room is where the Sonic five-door outshines the sedan, offering 19 cubic feet with the rear seat up, and over 47 cubic feet with the 60/40-split seat lowered.
Storage spaces were aplenty, with large front door pockets featuring bottle holders, cubbies dug out of the dashboard on either side of the radio, an upper and lower glovebox, and even a ticket holder for frequent urban parkers who now have a place to put those easily lost, annoying parking stubs.
Here’s where the Sonic can offer entertainment while standing still. Our LTZ model was loaded with equipment that has often been excluded from this segment.
Tunes came from a six-speaker audio system with AM/FM/CD, SiriusXM satellite radio, USB input and auxiliary input. Music from the various sources sounded great, and we especially liked the simple operation of satellite radio and iPod function integration. The blue illumination of the display at night is truly awesome, adding to the sex appeal of the Sonic.
A well appreciated effort was the addition of the USB and additional auxiliary port in the upper glovebox, with a notched out door so that the door can close without pinching the cord.
If you’re not up for music browsing, there’s the Driver Information Center which features various pieces of information including fuel range, average fuel economy, and oil life remaining, helping the driver stay informed of how the Sonic is operating.
Remote starting is also standard on LTZ and optional on LT to warm up or cool down the cabin so that it’s ready to roll when you are.
Lastly, one of our favorite reasons to travel with the Chevrolet Sonic: the standard OnStar system - which helped us find a gym when we spent the day away from home, the nearest Wegmans grocery store, and more with the touch of the miraculous blue button. Sonic's radio integrates magnificently with the OnStar system, displaying the next turn-by-turn direction visually with a distance measurement, arrow, and street/highway name. No color touch-screen to be covered in fingerprints or soon-to-become obsolete software needed here! This is the best set up we have seen, to date.
The amount of safety equipment and engineering that goes into the 2012 Sonic is evidence of how far the segment has come. Up through the late 2000s, the most that a subcompact offered was ABS and sometimes traction control. Front airbags were standard, and seat-mounted airbags were available on some, but rarely actually manufactured.
The Sonic now has accident prevention technologies such as stability control, brake assist, and electronic brake force distribution in addition to anti-lock brakes and traction control. It gets even better; now standard on the 2012 Sonic is a hill hold feature for steeply inclined areas which holds the brakes momentarily while the driver transitions from brake to clutch to accelerator.
Occupants within the Sonic are covered with airbags from head to toe if there were ever a collision. Dual front, seat-mounted side airbags for the front and rear occupants, side curtain airbags for outboard positions, and knee airbags for the driver and passenger work with seatbelts to restrain the occupants while the chassis does its thing.
Sonic earned the 2012 IIHS Top Safety Pick award as well as five stars from NHTSA’s new crash test standard.
As with every other General Motors vehicle, OnStar is standard to assist not only after a crash but for any other question, issue, or need that may arise during driving life.
From navigation directions to the making of crystal clear landline quality calls, OnStar is THE best system we’ve used, thanks to their highly trained advisors who work under the leadership of a superbly enlightened and visionary management team, who theCD met when touring GM headquarters.
If you used an iPhone and then met the folks at Apple, everything would then become crystal clear.
Likewise, with OnStar, the superior quality of the services provided suddenly make sense when you see their vast operations in Detroit and the extreme professionalism and competence of OnStar's executive leadership. OnStar is a gleaming jewel in the GM crown; it is all ours for the asking and taking - for a nominal fee - when the value of the services and the time, energies, and stresses drivers are spared and saved, is computed. Being without OnStar is like heading out without AAA and a smartphone.
The 2012 Chevy Sonic raises the bar on fun and style, while retaining a price in the reach of most buyers. Not only does it have the design cues and handling of a motorcycle, but Sonic offers a level of safety equipment that goes unmatched by any of its competitors in the segment.
The 2012 Sonic sedan starts at $14,495, while the five-door begins at $15,395, both including destination.
The definition of the word “sonic”, aside from the traditional use referring to audible sounds, is “exciting and fast paced". Chevy Sonic, indeed. We not only gives Chevy Sonic an A+, but we proclaim Sonic as valedictorian of its class.