2012 Chevrolet Sonic: First Drive

New subcompacts like the 2012 Chevrolet Sonic are part of a trend that inexpensive doesn't have to mean cheap; the Ford Fiesta is a prime example.

As the entry-level offering in Chevrolet's lineup — replacing the Aveo — what stands out most about the Sonic's driving experience is how composed and solid it feels when it tackles bumps and rough roads given its small size and sporty aspirations. We attended a drive event for journalists in San Francisco where we drove through the downtown area as well as on curvy California back roads to test those lofty goals.

Chevrolet wants the Sonic to be the most fun-to-drive car rated at 40 mpg, so both the sedan and hatchback versions are tuned for a sporty character and responsive handling. The turbocharged engine found in the higher trim levels is rated at 40 mpg highway, but most Sonics are equipped with a traditional four-cylinder rated at a lackluster — at least by today’s subcompact standards — 35 mpg highway.

A Chevrolet representative said they expect 80 percent of buyers to choose the base engine with its 35-mpg figure. Both the base and turbocharged models I drove — an LT with an automatic transmission and an LTZ with a manual transmission, respectively — exuded a lively driving experience.

The Sonic exhibits minimal body roll and a predictable, stable feeling when thrown into a corner. The sporty suspension tuning isn't jarring over bumps and doesn't thwack or make unwanted noises. It's similar to the Fiesta's ride quality, of which we're a fan, and more refined than the noisy Hyundai Accent suspension that made me cringe after hitting highway expansion joints. The chassis has been significantly stiffened compared to the previous Aveo to get that sense of solidity and composure. 

The Sonic is currently on sale and available with a base 1.8-liter four-cylinder and optional turbocharged 1.4-liter ($700) that’s borrowed from the larger Chevrolet Cruze. Each engine makes 138 horsepower, though the turbocharged 1.4-liter churns out 148 pounds-feet of torque while the base 1.8-liter makes 125 pounds-feet.

Like the Cruze, the 1.4-liter's advantage is delivering power lower in the rev range so the engine doesn't have to rev as high to accelerate the car. The difference was most pronounced through tight corners. During spirited driving, the turbo model eagerly pulled out of a corner compared to the 1.8-liter. In more common straight-line acceleration, like merging onto the highway, the turbo doesn't accelerate much more briskly than the base engine, though it’s the smoother, quieter choice. For those who don't live on the picturesque winding canyon roads of our drive route, the 1.8-liter is still a solid, though a little noisy, choice.

One area where the Sonic is unique is its quirky gauge cluster where the digital speedometer and analog tachometer are housed. I liked the idea when I first saw it at the Detroit auto show, and I’m a huge fan after spending time with it on the road. Taking inspiration from a motorcycle's information pod, the vehicle speed, engine RPM, fuel level, gas mileage and compass are displayed tightly in one area. This made all the information easy to read without taking my eyes off the road for too long. The speedometer is especially easy to read with large numbers that were brightly illuminated in the daylight.

After a day of driving the Sonic, the front seat comfort was exceptional. The driver's seat was supportive and felt like it was molded to my slender 6-foot frame. Plus, there's a standard armrest for the driver, a rare feature among subcompacts. The only problem I could foresee with longer drives is the limited legroom I had up front as both a driver and passenger.

The Sonic is on the expensive side of the subcompact segment; it’s pricier than the Fiesta and Accent. The Sonic's $13,795 base price isn't unwarranted because of a long list of standard features, including alloy wheels instead of steel wheels with covers. What will make the Sonic a tough sell is that a Fiesta with an automatic transmission is rated at a city/highway combined 33 mpg compared to a combined 28 mpg for a similarly equipped Sonic.

Even with the Sonic's fun-to-drive aptitude, the mileage difference may prove too big for frugal shoppers in the subcompact segment.

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