By Christopher A. Sawyer
GM doesn’t have a stellar history when it comes to small cars. Most recently it foisted the Aveo onto the buying public; an uninspired, make-do “economy car” that was economical in everything, above all personality. No one bought an Aveo because they wanted to. They bought one because they could not afford anything better. If it had one redeeming quality, it was that parents could scare their slacker children into greater industry and study by threatening them with a future in which the Chevy Aveo was their only automotive option.
Parents no longer have that bludgeon available. During its darkest days, GM began working on global platforms and global vehicles that could be tuned to the needs of specific regions. This meant there would be no more shopping among its partner car companies for vehicles that would plug gaps in its global lineup. Korean automaker Daewoo, creator of the Aveo, was brought completely into the fold, and the team set about to combine this car with GM’s Opel-designed Gamma platform. The result took Daewoo’s intense dislike of excess weight and cost, combined it with the Gamma’s stiffer structure and better road manners, and mixed in what GM Europe had learned from its short-lived marriage with Fiat. The result could have been a dog’s dish, but has proven to be more capable than most onlookers would have imagined.
Sonic, oddly enough, is the name GM South Africa gave to the car we called the Aveo, so at least something of that vehicle remains. All else, shared as it is with the Chevy Cruze and Spark, is new. A good thing as the Sonic has to go head-to-head with cars like the Ford Fiesta, Honda Fit, Toyota Yaris and Hyundai Accent.
If you discount the “Angry Birds” face of the Sonic hatchback, its styling builds on that of the Aveo; not a bad thing when you consider that car was drawn by the folks at Ital Design. Where it differs the most is in the placement of the wheels at the outer edges of the body. This gives the Sonic a more substantial, powerful stance. You no longer feel like you could break it just by slamming the doors.
Unlike the Fiesta and Fit, the Sonic has a chopped tail, more upright C-pillar and a higher cowl height at the base of the windshield. The last item is to bring the bodywork above the height of the engine, making it easier to pass European pedestrian crash standards. However, it also has the benefits of a more substantial looking nose and a taller passenger compartment. Even though it’s nearly 60 inches tall, the Sonic doesn’t look tippy or like a miniature delivery truck, and it has an interior and cargo area that are roomy.
The strong wedge-shaped window and character lines help erase the visual bulk, minimize the height, and inject a bit of sportiness into the equation. And it does this without impinging on visibility. Though the C-pillars are thick and relatively upright, the view over your shoulder isn’t overly restricted, helped by generously sized outside mirrors that include a convex section for spotting obstacles in your blind spot. However, because it’s not a separate element segregated from the rest of the mirror surface, it ends up looking like a shaving mirror. All it needs is a light source around its perimeter and an extendable arm that mounts it to the bathroom wall.
The standard engine is a naturally aspirated 1.8-liter inline four with 138 hp and 125 lb-ft of torque, and it comes mated to either a five-speed manual or, for $1,335 more, the cost of the automatic and the remote starting system, a six-speed automatic transmission. Thankfully, our tester came with the 1.4-liter turbocharged mated to a six-speed manual. This added $700 to the sticker price, but bumped torque output to 148 lb-ft. It also significantly improved the EPA-rated fuel economy. The 1.8-liter manual returns 26 mpg city/35 mpg highway on the EPA’s dynamometer roller, while the turbo motor bumps this up to 29 city/40 highway.
The Sonic isn’t the quickest car in the world, 0-60 mph takes a little over 8 seconds, but the torque is available from just above idle to get the Sonic moving. Unfortunately, the engine torque peak comes at 2,500 rpm, which creates something of a torque “bubble” between 1,500 and 2,500 rpm. This makes it difficult to travel from a stop without rushing forward, which can make the Sonic a bit tough to drive in bumper-to-bumper traffic and exasperating in the snow. You must concentrate to not rush away from a stop, and then comprehend that this initial burst of acceleration is all of the grunt you’re going to get. You can wind the engine out to keep accelerating, but the biggest thrill comes right at the start. It almost makes you wonder how frenetic the car is with the 4.18:1 axle ratio that comes on the sporty RS model. It must jump off the line…
Another problem is the fact that the top three gears of the six-speed manual are overdrive gears. The ability to lower engine revs is great for fuel economy, but plays havoc with the Sonic’s ability to climb grades. On one long, but not overly steep, hill in town, I found it necessary to drop from sixth to fifth to fourth to third in order to keep the car traveling at the posted limit of 45 mph. Trying the same thing without dropping down through the gears saw the Sonic lose more than 10 mph, and required a sixth to third downshift to accelerate once the hill was crested.
Thankfully, the clutch and transmission help make up for this drivability silliness. Unlike the Aveo, the Sonic has a firm, but not heavy, clutch. It lets you know that you are engaging/disengaging a spinning disc that connects the engine to the transmission. This mechanical feel is highlighted by a clutch take-up that is linear and starts not far off the floor, and finishes just past the mid-point of pedal travel.
The six-speed manual also has a mechanical feel to it, possessing none of the overly light sensation you get from many Asian small cars; nor is it excessively notchy. Like Baby Bear’s porridge, it’s just right… or darn close. You won’t think you’re driving a sports car when you row through the gears, but neither will you feel as though you are driving a car that has been built down to a price. And, considering GM’s recent small car history, that’s a major improvement.
Economy was another surprise. The Sonic returned a solid 32 mpg in combined driving. That’s just shy of the 33 mpg rating the EPA gives for city/highway treks, and it was pretty apparent that the Sonic should be able to get right up to its 40 mpg highway rating in real world conditions.
Like most cars in its class, the Sonic has MacPherson struts up front, a beam axle in the back, and electric power steering. And while most electric power steering systems don’t have the feel and response of a hydraulically boosted unit, the Sonic’s steering is nicely weighted, if slightly devoid of feel.
The car turns into a corner crisply, but with none of the go-kart immediacy of the Mini Cooper or the quick turn-in/slow follow-through found on the Fiesta. Though there is understeer — this is a front-drive small car after all — the Sonic feels surprisingly linear, with an increased tendency to run wide the closer you get to the limit of the front tires’ adhesion. Step off the throttle mid-corner and the tail will come out as the rear wheels are unloaded, but the electronic stability control system keeps things from getting too far out of hand. It would be nice, however, if it allowed a driver to have a bit more fun using this technique to point it into a turn before clamping down. Maybe in the RS…
Every Sonic but the RS gets front disc and rear drum brakes, which makes a certain amount of sense since the rear brakes do very little work on a front-drive car. However, you have to wonder how much extra cost, time and effort having two different brake systems (disc/drum and all disc) brings to the assembly process. Drums are less expensive on a per-piece basis, and have the advantage of not needing a separate parking brake unit (often a small auxiliary drum brake), but if you are going to offer four-wheel discs on one model why not all? The cost difference can’t be that great. That said, the brakes worked well, pulling the Sonic up cleanly each time. However, the combination of discs and drums makes for a softer pedal feel, and it may take those coming from an all-disc setup to a while to adjust to.
I laughed when I first sat inside the Sonic, but not for the reason you might imagine. A few years back, in the midst of the GM bankruptcy/government bailout mess, a former colleague was peripherally involved with a group that sought to combine GM with Ducati to build a Ducati-branded line of cars from GM parts. There was much more to this story than I can recount here (or even remember, frankly), but I was asked to write the review of the proposed small hatchback as a way to introduce the players to a vehicle that didn’t yet exist. I had to create that car from publicly available information, and tell the reader what the Ducati small hatchback looked, felt, sounded and drove like. I really enjoyed doing that.
The reason for my laughter was that I envisioned this car as having a motorcycle-style instrument pack located in front of the steering wheel. With a prominent tachometer, digital secondary gauges (including the speedometer), shift light and warning lights, it would replace the bulky gauge cluster found in most small cars, and front a much more open and expressive instrument panel. Unfortunately, GM took that same idea and tacked the motorcycle cluster onto a typical modern GM dash. It also dumbed down the look and feel of the gauge cluster. Still, it was a hoot to see the idea in the flesh, in a car that costs less than that Italo-American special would have.
Beyond the gauge cluster, which worked quite well, the Sonic’s interior is roomy, if a bit dull. The perforated leatherette front seats proved to be capable of holding both driver and passenger in place without compromising comfort. Passengers in the split-fold rear seats sit slightly higher in order to give rear seat passengers a chance to see forward and clear the gas tank below. A higher perch also reduces the likelihood of these riders getting motion sickness, and reduces the leg room necessary for their comfort. That’s a good thing, particularly when tall folks are sitting up front. It’s easy to go from having adequate rear leg room to feeling like Forrest Gump’s Lieutenant Dan when those who are long of leg move in up front.
Unfortunately, the first word that comes to mind when describing this interior is “utility” and not “style”. The instrument panel has dual gloveboxes, the upper one containing a USB port and Aux jack for your electronics. There’s a power outlet between the front seats, a storage cubby in front of the shifter, and two more on either side of the center stack’s audio head unit and central air registers. The Sonic comes with Chevy’s MyLink system that includes voice activation for your phone, and Bluetooth streaming audio with Pandora and Stitcher. That is in addition to the Bluetooth link for your phone and three free months of XM Radio.
Where the Sonic shines is in its ability to swallow cargo and provide a nearly flat load surface. Chevy, unlike Ford and others, provides a sturdy, removable cargo shelf that spans the distance between hatch and front seats, and raises the cargo floor to the level of the rear seatbacks. Take this piece out, and you add about three inches to the depth of the cargo well.
TVD Rating: 4 out of 5.
After the Aveo and the many half-hearted attempts at competitive small cars that came before it, the Sonic had a very low barrier to overcome in order to eclipse those cars. Then again, building a better Aveo never would have cut it in today’s cutthroat market. GM had to reach farther, and it did. In many ways it has created a globally competitive small hatchback, but one that falls short of greatness. The optional 1.4-liter turbo motor has the energy and fuel economy buyers in this segment appreciate, but its overly energetic initial acceleration makes composed acceleration from a stop difficult. Similarly, it is a well-packaged vehicle well-suited to everyday life, but lacking that touch of personality that makes a vehicle truly memorable. Stretch a little more next time, GM. In the Sonic, you have a great base from which to work.
2013 Chevrolet Sonic LTZ 5DR
Options: 1.4-liter Ecotec Turbo engine ($700)
Destination charge: $810
Price as tested: $19,360
Engine: Transverse 1.4-liter inline turbocharged four-cylinder. Cast iron block and cast aluminum heads. Dual over head cams with continuously variable valve timing, and four valves per cylinder. Sequential multiport fuel injection.
Horsepower: 138 @ 4900
Torque: 148 @ 2500
Transmission: Six-speed manual.
EPA mileage rating: 29 city/40 highway/33 combined.
Steering, Suspension and Brakes
Steering: Electrically assisted power rack and pinion.
Suspension F/R: MacPherson struts, anti-roll bar/Torsion-beam axle with coil springs.
Brakes F/R: 10.8-in vented discs/9.0-in drums. 4-channel ABS with electronic brake-force distribution.
Dimensions (in inches)
Fuel capacity (gallons): 12.2
Cargo capacity (cu. ft.): 19.0 (seats up) 47.7 (seats down)
Anti-corrosion: 3 years/36,000 miles
Powertrain: 5 years/100,000 miles
Vehicle: 3 years/36,000 miles
Roadside Assistance: 24-hour roadside assistance for 5 years/100,000 miles.