2012 Chevrolet Sonic Road Test

General Motors zips into the subcompact market with a worthy contender

What It Is
The 2013 Chevrolet Sonic is one of GM's two entries in the growing U.S. subcompact market.
Best Thing
Quality interior
Worst Thing
Potential low resale value
Snap Judgment
The 2012 Chevrolet Sonic shows that GM can build quality products even in a market where it's historically been weak.


Historically, General Motors is not known for stellar compact and subcompact cars. Compared to the well-polished jewels offered by Japanese automakers, Chevrolet's Cavalier, Cobalt, Prizm, Aveo and the lowly Geo Metro were met with less than enthusiasm by the automotive press, not to mention lackluster sales from the buying public. Even GM has admitted the compact and subcompact segments are unknown territories, yet it knows they're important segments. Analysts predict the Gen Y segment is the next "big thing," and those future shoppers are looking for fuel-efficient, Internet-connected, low-cost, stylish vehicles.

Thus we looked on with some trepidation as the ketchup-red 2012 Chevrolet Sonic five-door hatchback rolled into the parking lot. At first glance it's a handsome vehicle, with the dual trapezoid grilles neatly split by the Chevy bowtie, a bulging hood, and blackened head and fog lamps. The Sonic's passenger door handles were cleverly hidden well enough in the window pillar that we initially mistook the Sonic as a three-door hatchback, not five.

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Fine, so it looks good, but questions remained about the Sonic's interior, comfort, engine, and build quality. Would our Sonic be trailing established stalwarts like the Honda Fit, Toyota Yaris, and Hyundai Accent? Or finally keep up with the pack? We spent a week in the 2012 Chevrolet Sonic to find out how GM's latest foray held up in this vital market segment.

What We Drove

Our 2012 Chevrolet Sonic LTZ hatch is the top-of-the line model, with standard niceties like heated rearview mirrors and heated faux leather seats. With a price tag of $19,420 (including the $795 destination charge), it was chockfull of standard equipment. Two options added to the cost: the 1.4-liter Ecoboost turbo engine, and the "Inferno Orange Metallic" paint job, which combined for a cool $895 total, bringing the price to $20,315. Note that you can get lower-priced Sonic models for significantly less money, in case 20-large is tough to accept for a subcompact.

Safety is a huge part of the diminutive subcompact, which comes equipped with ten airbags to protect the front, side front, rear, head, and knees of driver and passengers, the highest in this segment. All models of the Chevrolet Sonic received an overall five stars rating from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, with five stars in frontal and side crash tests, and four stars for rollover. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety named the 2012 Chevrolet Sonic a Top Safety Pick, which means it received a Good rating on front, side, rear crash tests as well as roof strength. That rating carries over to the 2013 model.

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The Commute

One thing you immediately notice as you clunk the Sonic's door shut is that the interior is quiet. We're talking premium level car quiet here, where a luxury car owner, blindfolded, could sit in the Sonic and not notice the difference, whether the engine is running or not.

The Sonic's turbocharged four-cylinder offered surprising power for a vehicle in this segment. Want to quickly merge into traffic? Done. Need to slip into that lane opening between the eighteen-wheeler and lumbering SUV? No problem, though you have to give it a little forethought; "surprising power" or not, the Sonic is no sports car. But want to travel up that long stretch of mountain without strain? That little four-banger offers amazing stretches of low end power, or torque. At these times, you could hear it thrum with power before fading into non-existence. Road and wind noise around the Sonic were also well controlled at highway speeds. And speaking of the road, you also find traveling the Sonic to be a smooth ride for such a small car.

No, the Sonic's not planted to the road like more expensive cars, but you won't find yourself jostling about at every bump or crack on the street or freeway. The Chevrolet Sonic simply thunks over such road imperfections. Steering's on the lighter side for the Sonic, which made it easy navigating the subcompact in tight parking lots. Yet there's just enough response from the hatchback that, combined with that powertrain, makes you want to take the Sonic on a long, twisty road to see if there's a sporty side just waiting to break the surface. Trying to discover that side of the Sonic could explain its real-world fuel economy, which averaged 27 mpg. That's spot on for heavy city driving, but we drove the Sonic in a mixture of both city and highway, and expected around the low-to-mid thirties. Maybe an extended run in the Sonic would improve the figures. That, and driving it like a regular car instead of a hot hatch.

Nothing, though, could improve the Sonic's propensity to rubbing its lower front end on virtually any driveway. The hatch's nose is very short and the hatchback is very low to the ground, and you had to drive very slow not to scrape the lower grille. There's a plastic skirt under the front to reduce the wear and tear, but it's a mark against an overall fun driving experience.

The Grocery Run

Hatchbacks like our 2012 Chevrolet Sonic are inherently more space efficient than sedans and coupes. Thus, we're constantly perplexed by Americans' insistence of sedans as their cars but love for SUVs and crossovers, which are basically tall hatchbacks. We did a weekend tour of some of our favorite shops over the weekend as part of our "daily living" with the Sonic, hitting our favorite bookstores, a mineral shop, and jewelry mart. The owners and friends welcomed us with open arms, and we were able to stuff into the Sonic the equivalent of roughly 5-6 medium-sized, tall shopping bags full of goodies. We calculated that's enough for a week's worth of groceries for a childless couple, or an overnight trip with a couple of large duffle bags. It's easy enough to expand the Sonic's cargo space: simply drop the rear row down, and the cargo area expands from its EPA-estimated 19 cubic square feet to nearly 48 square feet.

Parents and caretakers of children will appreciate that expanded cargo space. There's a caveat, though. Like all subcompacts, room's limited in the rear passenger row. Our rear-facing baby seat pushed the front passenger seat so far forward it was beyond livability; you'd have to be an anorexic contortionist to sit there for any length of time. On the other hand, we had no problem latching in our forward-facing child seat. There is, though, just enough legroom for the child's legs to press against the seat in front of them. Cargo space was tight when we put in our folded Britax B-Agile stroller. We had to remove the trunk shelf to accommodate the stroller, and then place it on its side. That left just room for a tall bag of groceries. Speaking of groceries (and shopping), you won't have any issues directing the Chevrolet Sonic in the parking lot of your local chain supermarket or strip mall. The Sonic's small size and light steering makes it easy to slip in and out between those full-sized SUVs and crossovers burgeoning in their too small stalls.

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The Weekend Fun

Southern California, with its sprawling metropolises, offers a silver lining to car journalists and reporters. You have to travel a lot and for long distances. You don't have to plan a long trip. Instead, evaluating the Chevrolet Sonic as a cruiser is just a part of one's regular life. In our case, that was visiting one bookstore nearly an hour away:

"Is that leather?" one of our passengers asked, admiring the Sonic's seats. "No, it's leatherette. Looks good, doesn't it?" "Yeah." "Here. Check out the heated seats." "Really? At this price?"

The exchange continued throughout the trip as passengers voiced their opinions of the Chevy Sonic's numerous features as a highway cruiser: The two glove compartment boxes, where you can plug in your smartphone or iPod in the top box while storing objects in the lower one; cupholders big enough to hold a 32 oz Gatorade; climate control powerful enough to chill the Sonic's interior quickly and without affecting engine performance noticeably; the excellent audio system and XM radio; the smooth ride, and so on. All these conversations occurred at normal tones; again, another testimony to the remarkable quietness of the Sonic's interior.

Summary

General Motors alleviated all our fears with its latest foray into the subcompact world. We found the Sonic's interior to be class competitive, matching the all-new Ford Fiesta and Korean offerings Hyundai Accent and the Kia Rio. The Sonic was even ahead of traditionally segment leaders Honda Fit and Toyota Yaris, though admittedly both are older models desperately in need of a redesign or at least a massive refresh. The Sonic's 1.4-liter turbo engine actually made driving it fun. And the Sonic offered plenty of features, including ten airbags.

That segues into a possible concern about the Sonic: its price. The Sonic hatchback starts in the low $15,000-range and tops out in the low $20,000 for our top-of-the-line LTZ. That pricing puts it on par with established competitors such as the Ford Fiesta and the Honda Fit. Kia, on the other hand, offers more features including genuine leather, rear camera, and navigation while costing several thousands of dollars less. Should Chevrolet have priced the Sonic less to attract market share? In a word, no. We don't know the ins and outs of vehicle pricing, but we know a good vehicle when we drive one. And the Sonic's a good vehicle and worthy of Gen Y's attention...once you turn off their iDevices. Resale value is another possible area of concern, with Intellichoice ranking its cost of ownership "Below Average." Part of that is rapid depreciation, and based on Chevy's history with the Aveo, it makes a certain amount of sense.

But if you're hesitant, it's important to remember this simple thing: The Chevrolet Sonic is not the Chevy Aveo. Not at all.

Spec Box

Price-as-tested: $20,315
Fuel Economy
EPA City: 27 mpg
EPA Highway: 37 mpg
EPA Combined: 31 mpg
Estimated Combined Range: 378.2
Intellichoice Cost of Ownership: Below Average

Notebook Quotes "28 mpg mixed in this class is a bit subpar. I know we're not gentle with these things, but we saw over 30 mpg in both the Rio and Accent. We saw over 30 mpg in the Yaris and Fit, too." -Jacob Brown, Assistant Editor
"Don't call the Sonic an Aveo. You sound stupid and uninformed and you need to go drive it. The last Aveo I drove limped around and you had more road noise than a motorcycle. The Sonic is the exact opposite." -Trevor Dorchies, Assistant Editor
"Even after a brief lunchtime drive, I was impressed. Not only did the Sonic look cool inside -- dig the motorcycle-inspired gauges -- it was remarkably quiet on the freeway. Nicely done, Chevy." -Keith Buglewicz, News Director

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