Suddenly it’s hip to be small. After decades as an afterthought here, sub-compact cars are all the rage. Manufacturers are suddenly flooding the market with a raft of fresh new offerings, boasting style, engineering and technology previously reserved for much more expensive cars.
Consumers benefit from this extensive choice of quality pieces competing for the same dollar. For this we can thank the American government which has put in place regulations that call for HUGE gains in CAFE (Corporate Average Fuel Economy) numbers by 2016.
We won’t get into an in-depth explanation of CAFE here; suffice it to say the key word is "average". For every gas-guzzling full-size pickup or large, luxury SUV they sell, car makers have to find a way to move enough fuel-sipping small cars to bring the average down.
Nothing like a little incentive to encourage engineering and innovation. This new CAFE standard is an easier ride for companies that don't sell big pickups and XXXL SUVs. Honda, Hyundai and Volkswagen product planners aren't losing much sleep over the new regs. They're within reach with existing product s and technologies.
But in North America, trucks account for more than half of all new vehicle sales. And GM, Ford and Chrysler have come to rely on these sales.
The threat to that profit center has brought, and will mean more technical innovation for pickups. But it has also placed extensive emphasis on selling small cars to help bring that average down.
New focus on small
Up to now, these manufacturers have given small cars little thought or effort. Their offerings at his end of the market, if any, were quite frankly pretty poor.
They were cheap and reliable but that is not good enough when the competition is more reliable, more exciting, higher tech and often less expensive. You can’t fool consumers, at least not for long.
For the 2012 model year you will find a Fiesta at the local Ford store, Fiat at the Chrysler location across the road and a Sonic in the GM showroom. All brand new, all designed in other countries and most are based on proven platforms that sell well in many countries.
Like the other Detroit-based manufacturers, General Motors turned to its overseas affiliate for the replacement for the late and unlamented Aveo. In this case its South Korean arm, GM DAT and a new global "gamma" platform.
The 2012 Chevrolet Sonic is the first vehicle built on this platform. It will be sold in more than 60 countries and built in several.
Sonics sold in North America – from San Diego to St. John’s and South Beach to Squamish – come from a GM plant in Michigan. This North-American market newcomer will still be called the Aveo in most other regions but GM wisely decided to avoid using that name here.
More style and presence
The Sonic has more style and presence than any small GM offering since the sixties. While those earlier products were aimed at loyal GM buyers, this new one had to attract a savvy generation with no loyalty to any make, the majority of whom are expected to be female.
Thankfully,the looks, equipment levels and driving dynamics indicate product planners spent some time communicating with the intended market.
The styling is fresh and contemporary. The hood has a Camaro-like "power bulge" and the rear door handles on the five-door are cleverly hidden in the C-pillars.
Wide doors ease entry and exit. Visibility to the rear quarters is somewhat restricted in the hatchback but that design means more utility and flexibility. On the good-news/bad-news front is excellent interior fit and finish but a high level of hard plastic surfaces. Fortunately, some of those surfaces are at least textured.
The motorcycle-inspired instrument panel is glowing evidence of an intended market that includes the video-game generation. The ultra-modern design has a big analog tach to the left and a digital speedometer to the right, bracketed by other information displays.
There is a reasonable amount of room for such a small car. One six-footer can sit behind another. The cargo floor has a removable false floor that allows creation of a level floor when the rear seats are folded down.
Plenty of choice
The Sonic is available in a choice of five-door hatch and four-door sedan in three trim levels with a choice of two engines and three transmissions. Prices start south of $15,000 but can climb pretty quickly. The bottom-line tag on my tester topped $23,000!
And that was not even the top trim level. It was a mid-level five-door LT with a starting sticker of $17,495. That price included power windows and locks, remote keyless entry, cruise control, air conditioning, wireless connectivity, power heated mirrors, height adjustable driver seat and a tilt & telescope steering wheel. Good enough.
But to this base, add $1,500 for an automatic transmission, $195 for premium paint; $1,550 for an "appearance package", $400 for a "peace of mind" (extra airbags) package; $500 for a sound package; and $405 for heated seats.
OK let’s look at that. The automatic transmission is acceptable, even if a couple of hundred more than the competition. The premium paint is a stretch and peace of mind should be standard on any new car as should be heated seats.
Many will probably also be able to get by without the other upgrades, especially the most expensive one – the $1550 appearance package which includes 17-inch aluminum wheels, fog lamps and a tilt and sliding glass sunroof.
There are two engines, both shared with the larger Chevrolet Cruze. The base unit, mated to a five-speed manual transmission on the LS and LT trim levels is a 1.8-litre four-cylinder that puts out 138 horsepower and 125 lb-ft of torque. You can upgrade to a turbocharged 1.4-litre four, producing the same 138-horsepower, but an extra 23 lb-ft of torque.
My test vehicle came with a six-speed automatic.
Compared to many other new sub-compacts this engine/transmission combination lags slightly behind in terms of fuel economy. It is rated at 5.5 litres per 100-km on the highway with the automatic transmission while some others have dropped below the 5.0 mark.
Some of this gap may be attributable to weight. The Sonic tips the scale at a rather hefty 1270 kg (2800 lb) – considerably more than the competition.
But the engine is smooth, quiet and offers a reasonable level of power to compensate for the extra weight.
One of the Sonic’s more attractive attributes is a very pleasant ride, much more comfortable than you would expect from a vehicle this size with a torsion beam rear axle. This experience is made even more pleasant by the almost complete lack of road and wind noise.
With the Sonic, General Motors has caught up to the sub-compact pack – but it is a moving target and it's moving fast.