The Chevy Aveo is dead. But don't shed any tears. The subcompact perhaps best known by frequenters of rental-car lots has been supplanted by the sharper, nimbler Chevrolet Sonic sedan and hatchback. Built on a new General Motors global platform, the new Sonic wields universal underpinnings wrapped in a package that's decidedly American. We found the Sonic a nicely designed subcompact with spritely driving dynamics.
The 2012 Chevrolet Sonic, particularly the five-door hatch, has an urban vibe, which Chevy PR folks were eager to point out by unveiling the Sonic in an underground garage in San Francisco amidst a background of pseudo-slummy graffiti, spray-painted by an artist flown in (we won't say “imported”) from Detroit. Sharp creases, exposed headlamps and motorcycle-inspired design cues set the Sonic apart from others in the segment, while good fit and finish and standard forged alloy wheels, even on the base model, keep it from looking cheap.
Powering the 2012 Chevrolet Sonic sedan and hatch is either a 1.8-liter naturally aspirated engine or a 1.4-liter turbocharged engine, both which make 138 horsepower. Transmission choices for the standard 1.8-liter engine are a 6-speed automatic or a 5-speed manual; the 1.4-liter turbo is available with a 6-speed manual or an automatic, the latter on late-production 2012 models.
Those who drive hilly terrain need not fear, as Sonic comes standard with a hill-hold feature on both transmissions (especially welcome on the manual gearbox). When the driver is stopped and releases the brake pedal, the brakes electronically hold the car in place for two seconds, thanks to a sensor that detects the tilt of the body when the car is stopped on a slope.
The 2012 Chevrolet Sonic comes standard with 10 airbags, including seat-mounted thorax side-impact, head curtain and knee airbags. Other nice touches not often found standard on a sub-$15K car include a tilt-and-telescoping steering wheel and 60/40 folding rear seats. The Sonic tops out at about $19,500, which will get you extras like a sunroof, heated seats and a leather-wrapped steering wheel.
We found the handling of the 2012 Chevrolet Sonic vastly improved over the Aveo, thanks to increased body stiffness and strength. Corvette engineers helped to tune the MacPherson strut front and torsion beam rear suspension for the U.S. market to strike a balance between fun and comfortable. The Sonic is also quieter than its predecessor. Surprisingly, Chevy engineers say the Sonic's rigidity and cabin quietness are aided by its alloy wheels (which come standard), as opposed to the steel wheels most often found on base subcompacts. However, the Sonic uses front disc brakes and rear drums, the latter the norm for the class because they are less expensive than rear discs.
We think the Chevrolet Sonic has an edge over the Toyota Yaris and the Honda Fit when it comes to sporty driving, although we think the Ford Fiesta and Mazda2 offer good driving dynamics and respectable quality at similar prices. Although it was penned in Korea, the Sonic is built at GM's Lake Orion, Michigan, plant, which we think makes the Sonic the only subcompact built in the U.S.
Although it's made in America, the 2012 Chevrolet Sonic was sketched and modeled in Korea by designers who are avid motorcycle enthusiasts. As such, the Sonic contains many design cues borrowed from two wheelers.
The five-door hatchback model has a younger, more aggressive, boxy shape with hidden rear door handles and exposed rear tail lights. The four-door sedan's profile, meanwhile, is sleeker and more refined.
On both body styles, the Sonic uses round, exposed headlamps, chrome trim around Chevy's trademark dual-port grille and honeycomb-shaped grille inserts. Alloy wheels, available in 15, 16 or 17-inch, look far more sophisticated than the plastic wheel covers or steel wheels found on some cars in this segment.
Large gaps between body panels were one tell-tale sign of cheap cars of the past. But the Chevrolet Sonic manages to pare down body gaps to 3.5 millimeters or less. Also, a special welding technique was used to make for a cleaner, more flush fit.
The cabin of the Chevrolet Sonic carries over the motorcycle-inspired design with a large, round tachometer front and center. A large LCD speedometer to the right of the tach glows a pleasant blue color and is easy to read.
Audio and climate controls are simple, logical and easy to read and reach. The tall, narrow slots on either side of the center stack add extra storage, but they look out of place.
The cloth seats are comfortable and are easily adjustable. We especially like the tilt-and-telescoping steering wheel, which is often tough to get as standard equipment on more luxurious cars. Dash and trim materials (mostly plastics) are attractive and the colors and textures are well-executed.
In the rear, there is enough headroom and legroom, even for taller passengers.
Cargo space tops out at an average 14 cubic-feet for the sedan and a decent 19 cubic feet for the hatchback. A shelf in the rear of the hatch stows away for tall items and is completely removable for more space when the 60/40 folding rear seats are down, for a total of 30.7 cubic feet.
The audio system is average for the segment. We'd order the iPod and USB port, which allows music streaming via Bluetooth with Pandora or music files stored locally on a mobile phone.
The Chevrolet Sonic delivers spritely acceleration performance with the standard 1.8-liter engine. Power from the 1.8-liter engine is sufficient off the line, but we found throttle tip-in to be overly sensitive and that made for jumpy standing starts until we got used to it.
We sometimes had trouble choosing the right gear over hills and through windy roads. With the automatic, we needed to manually shift to get the optimum power. With the manual, we felt like a driving Goldilocks: second gear was too short, yet third was much too tall. This suggests torque from the 1.8-liter engine might not be sufficiently broad and robust for the gear ratios. In layman's terms, more power would be useful for motoring around town.
We found the 1.4-liter turbo models a tad zippier.
Steering was surprisingly responsive. While the Sonic lacks the go-kart handling of a Mini Cooper Clubman, it offers enough sportiness to feel engaged on the road. The suspension was compliant enough to handle bumps and railroad tracks, yet still firm enough to let us round corners with minimal body roll.
Braking is responsive; the pedal bites down quickly enough for those who like instant feedback, but is perhaps a little too bitey for those who like a more progressive pedal feel.
Fuel economy for the Chevrolet Sonic regardless of body style is an EPA estimated 26/35 mpg City/Highway with the 1.8-liter engine and 5-speed manual transmission, 25/35 mpg with the automatic. Official government figures for the 1.4-liter turbo were not available at press time.
The 2012 Chevrolet Sonic is a peppy, well-executed subcompact car with lots of standard features and surprisingly good performance at a reasonable price.
Laura Burstein filed this NewCarTestDrive.com report after her test drive of the Chevrolet Sonic.