Superr soniic

By Jim Gorzelany CTW Features

 Chevrolet’s new subcompact is affordable, economical and fun to drive. Chevrolet’s new subcompact is affordable, economical and fun to drive. Replacing the lackluster Korean-made Aveo in the automaker’s lineup, the new-for-2012 Chevrolet Sonic is the only subcompact car that’s built in the United States and it’s currently one of the top models in its class. Starting at under $14,000, the Sonic is no loss leader, but neither is it a cheap-feeling and under-performing “econobox.”

The Sonic is offered as either a sedan or marginally more practical hatchback. While it’s not as organic-looking as, say, a Honda Fit or Hyundai Accent, it remains an attractive ride. Chevrolet’s signature horizontal-split grille is flanked by motorcycle-inspired round headlamps, with a tall roofline and assorted darts and creases reaching front to rear.

The car’s interior is of particular note. Not only is it roomier than we expected, it’s nicely fashioned with high-quality materials. The only exception here is perhaps the Sonic’s motorcycle-like rectangular instrument “pod” that eschews conventional gauges for a large analog tachometer, digital speedometer and assorted readouts. It’s functional, but looks out of place tacked onto what is otherwise a visually striking dashboard design.

All controls are large and logically organized, with actual dials and buttons for the radio, climate control and other functions. This “back to basics” approach provides a welcome respite from the overly complex and cumbersome touch screens and multimedia systems that have been confounding us in way too many models we’ve tested lately. There’s not one, but two glove boxes in the dash, and lots of cubbies and storage space throughout the cabin to hold phones, change and whatever.

There’s plenty of room up front for a tall driver and passenger to stretch out in comfort, with sufficient legroom in the rear for two additional riders, provided the front seats aren’t pushed fully aftward. While the seats are supportive, they don’t provide enough comfort to prevent fatigue over a long drive. Cargo room is sufficient for modest shopping trips, with the hatchback offering the most versatility in this regard, especially with the split-fold rear seatbacks deployed. Nice as the Sonic is to look at, the real reward comes with a turn of the key. The car shares its engine choices with the larger and heavier Chevy Cruze, and they feel livelier here. Our LTZ hatchback tester came with the optional (at $700) 138-horsepower 1.4- liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine and slick-shifting six-speed manual transmission. The turbo-four provided ample acceleration, allowing us to dart our way through traffic like a roadrunner and reach highway speeds effortlessly. The EPA estimates this perky power train yields 29 mpg around town and 40 mpg on the highway.

The base 1.8-liter, four-cylinder engine, which can be mated to either a six-speed manual or automatic gearbox, should suffice for most buyers. While it produces the same 138-horsepower, it does so with less torque — so it feels a bit slower off the line — and gets just 26/35 mpg.

The Sonic’s steering is sufficiently tight and the suspension affords surprisingly playful cornering abilities. The ride runs the gamut from moderately harsh to bouncy, depending on pavement condition. As is required by federal regulation, stability control is standard to help prevent skidding out in abrupt handling maneuvers. Braking is adequate, though the antilock function tends to engage quicker and more abruptly than we’d like in sudden stopping maneuvers.

Unfortunately, the Sonic tends to get pricey in higher trim levels. The next-to-the-top-of-the-line LTZ hatchback, coming with amenities like the OnStar communications system, Bluetooth mobile phone adapter, XM satellite radio, sunroof and heated front seats, stickered at $19,055 including the mandatory $795 destination charge.

Still, those looking for a small car that’s not only fuel efficient but is fun to drive and feels more upscale than the typical subcompact will find the Sonic an engaging and amenable ride.

© CTW Features