Quebec City, QC – The subcompact segment continues to heat up as consumers look for more fuel-efficient vehicles to counter rising gas prices. Experts predict this chunk of the marketplace will grow by 30% during the next four years and Chevrolet has its sights set on carving out a bigger piece of that action with an all-new entry, the 2012 Sonic.
The Sonic is being offered as a four-door sedan and five-door hatchback, replacing the current Aveo in Chevy’s lineup, although this latest iteration will continue to be marketed in Europe and Asia with that nameplate. Elsewhere among the 60 countries where it will be sold, including Canada, the Sonic badge will be used.
Regardless of the label, this is an all-new car, designed by GM-DAT in Korea and built in a newly retooled assembly plant in Orion Township, Michigan.
While the previous-generation Aveo was left in the dust of other small cars, such as the Hyundai Accent, Kia Rio and Honda Fit, General Motors has now caught up with the competition with this new entry. The pillars of its pitch to consumers are frugal fuel consumption and fun-to-drive dynamics – both factors that matter a lot to the Sonic’s target audience of 25-to-35-year-old first-time buyers.
Pricing starts at a competitive level – $14,495 for the base LS sedan, with a list of standard features that includes tilt/telescoping steering wheel, power locks with remote keyless entry, Bluetooth connectivity, a six-month OnStar subscription featuring turn-by-turn navigation, electronic stability control, traction control, anti-lock brakes and six airbags.
Two other trim levels are offered: the midrange LT ($16,495) and top-of-the-line LTZ ($20,495.) Added features on the LT include air conditioning (available on the LS as a $1,150 option), cruise control, audio system upgrade and power windows. Opting for the LTZ adds such amenities as heated leather seats and leather-wrapped steering wheel, 17-inch alloy wheels, more audio upgrades and enhanced connectivity features.
All three trim levels are also available on the hatchback, though the price is higher: The LT hatch starts at $15, 495; the LS hatch is $17,495 and the five-door LTZ starts at $20,995.
The standard powertrain is a 1.8-litre Ecotec four-cylinder coupled to a five-speed manual gearbox. A six-speed automatic is available ($1,300). The LTZ gets a 1.4-litre turbocharged and intercooled four and a six-speed manual gearbox. A six-speed autobox will be available for the LTZ early in 2012.
All Sonics equipped with a manual gearbox get a hill-hold assist system as standard equipment. This feature was much appreciated at several hill-side stops during a day of driving rural routes from Montreal to Quebec City. If the car is stopped on a grade of 5% or more, the system holds the brake on for three seconds after the clutch pedal is released, allowing for a smooth launch without slipping the clutch.
While the option list is limited, one added item worth considering is the ‘Peace of Mind Package’, which supplements the standard six airbags (dual-stage front airbags, two front seat side airbags and dual head curtain units with rollover protection) with dual outboard rear-seat side airbags and dual knee units, including one for the passenger – a segment exclusive. This package adds $465 to the list price, although all 10 bags are standard in the U.S., where the Sonic has earned a top rating from the IIHS based on the full complement of airbags.
GM engineers have stiffened the Sonic’s chassis by using high-strength steel to form more than 60% of the body structure. In addition, ultra-high-strength steel has been used in such strategically important areas as the forward portion of the rocker panels and the centre crossbar. The result is a vehicle that handles well, thanks to the stiffer platform, while delivering a quieter ride.
During my day of driving in both the sedan and the hatchback, the quietness in the cabin was impressive, with little road noise intruding inside and an almost total absence of wind noise.
Whether simply cruising, or giving in to some playful moments, the Sonic’s handling dynamics were excellent. The suspension was compliant on rough surfaces, even absorbing a couple of stiff hits from road irregularities, yet the car stayed well planted through corners, as well.
Engine response was good, as long as one picked the appropriate gear. The 16-valve, dual-overhead-cam, 1.4-litre turbo, with 138 hp and 148 lb-ft of torque on tap, needed a downshift from sixth to third gear to generate the acceleration necessary for passing on the highway.
The standard 1.8-litre engine, also rated at 138 hp, but with just 125 lb-ft. of torque, kicked down a few gears as well when booted into passing mode. Once in the right gear, however, there was no lack of giddy-up to make a safe pass. With the low gearing in both the automatic and the manual, accelerating from scratch was more than adequate with either engine.
Both transmissions also had high top gearing, which combined with special engine tuning features, helped boost the Sonic’s fuel consumption ratings. The 1.4-litre turbo (with the six-speed manual gearbox) gets top billing with a city rating of 7.3 litres/100 km and 5.1 on the highway. The standard 1.8-litre four with the five-cog manual is rated at 7.7 litres/100 km in city driving, 5.6 on the highway, while the automatic transmission is listed at 8.3 city, 5.5 highway.
The Sonic’s exterior styling is attractive and its cabin is quite roomy, with lots of headroom even for a six-footer. Lanky types will also appreciate the generous legroom up front, although it comes at a price – with the front seat pushed back on its tracks, rear-seat legroom becomes quite limited. The rear cargo area is generous, too.
The only real disappointment was the interior décor, which seemed rather bland – lots of hard, dark plastic in an era when soft-touch materials and sharp styling are becoming the norm.
The Sonic is now available in Chevy dealerships across Canada.