By Mark Kleis
Friday, Sep 23rd, 2011 @ 11:45 am
 
The winds of change are upon us. In the case of General Motors, and more specifically with core brand Chevrolet's latest small car efforts, it might even be more accurate to say that gale-force winds of change are upon us.

Here's why: Chevrolet's all-new Cruze has taken the U.S. market by storm, selling more than 20,000 units in some months and handily taking the title for the best-selling compact car on the market.

So what do you get when you take the exact same powertrains pushing the Cruze in record numbers and drop them into a smaller, more "fun" package? The 2012 Chevy Aveo Sonic.

The latest small car from Chevy is now known as the Sonic (at least here in the U.S., but it retains the Aveo name in other markets), and it was designed from the ground up by a crack team of artists and engineers out of GM's successful Korean design studio.

You might be thinking, "That's the same studio that made the first Aveo!" True. But, the rules, budgets, targets - and most importantly - the results were quite different this time around.

For starters, the car is decidedly more attractive, whether in hatchback or sedan form, although we would hesitate to call it best-in-class or even sexy. Still, the "rent me" first impression given by the exterior of the original Aveo is certainly gone. In its place, a more grown-up, Cruze-inspired injection of maturity has been worked into the equation.

It's big on the inside
Speaking of growing up, the Sonic has done that as well - physically speaking, of course. Interior space is ample and on the better end of the segment, both in the front and rear seats. Speaking of the seats, they come in many designs as part of the Sonic's aim to offer different textures and colors to suit virtually any taste in the segment. The seats are also quite comfortable, front or rear, offering a very suitable level of support for spirited driving given the car's aspirations.

Chevy says that, when designing the Sonic, they looked heavily to motorcycles for design cues, which you will find apparent in the unique gauge cluster. The gauges are digital, with some information a bit on the small side, but overall clear and relatively easy to read. Looking to the right, the attractive center stack with a neatly arranged array of controls for the radio and heating and air is surrounded by an attractively painted metallic bezel.

But depart further from the gauges, center stack or seats and the Sonic shows that it still has some room to improve in terms of door panel plastic quality. While thte B-segment in America is leaps and bounds better than it was even half a decade ago, there is still room for improvement.

While we don't expect luxury-style comfort at this price point, the Sonic - regardless of trim level - lacks even a single piece soft or even softer than rock-hard plastic. Where Ford Fiesta and Hyundai Accent offer soft-touch materials to comfort the occupants' arms and elbows, Sonic delivers hard plastic in spades.

The excessive use of hard plastics really was the only complaint that came to mind when evaluating the interior. The seats were comfortable and supportive. The leatherette - if chosen - offered a remarkable realism to cow hide that we haven't often seen.

Interior noise levels were also impressive - something that will surely catch most buyers by surprise given the historically loud nature of small cars.

Two-prong power
When it comes to small cars, buyers are traditionally after one of (or a combination of) two basic things: cheap to own and operate or fun to drive. With the optional 1.4-liter turbocharged four-cyilnder and six-speed manual obtaining a tie for best-in-class fuel economy the Sonic is an economical choice in the bag - but what about the fun factor?

This might be the most surprising part of the car for most people who experience the Sonic because it simply delivers the goods when it comes to a fun and confident driving experience. Whether traveling on the highway or carving up the back roads at speed, the Sonic takes everything you dish at it and eats it up - begging for more.

This truly is a no-compromise car that could become the subcompact that changes the way Americans view GM's small-car offerings for the better. Leftlane had the opportunity to drive the Sonic back-to-back-to-back-to-back against the Honda Fit, Hyundai Accent sedan and Ford Fiesta hatchback, each in automatic transmission from.

While the competition is certainly not comprised any slouches, Sonic offered a planted and confident feel through the most demanding curves. Sonic felt about par with Fiesta in terms of its fun-to-drive factor.

The engine room story
As we've said, two four-cylinder engines are on offer. On paper, they both put out 138 horsepower, but the smaller ($700 more) 1.4-liter turbocharged unit puts out a superior 148 lb-ft. of torque across a relatively broad range, while the base 1.8-liter cranks out just 125 lb-ft.

We rarely found power delivery to be any sort of an issue, although the automatic transmission seemed to hang in gear too long when decelerating to make the most of the turbocharger's power band. The need to be in the perfectly matched gear seemed to be the only way to remind oneself that the engine was just a 1.4-liter unit.

We first sampled the manual turbo on a variety of roads, so we expected to feel that the 1.8-liter model was a downgrade - but, for the most part, it didn't feel like a big step down.

While the 1.4-liter turbo is an excellent match for the Sonic, it is arguably overkill for what most driving conditions require. The 1.8-liter engine arrives with more power than some of the competition and aside from sounding a bit more strained when really called upon, it manages to move the Sonic just fine.

Where the 1.8-liter falls short, however, is in its comparatively weak fuel economy: 25/26 mpg for the automatic (26 in the city for the manual). By contrast, the 1.4-liter Turbo delivers 29 city, 40 highway mpg.

Leftlane's bottom line:
The 2012 Chevrolet Sonic is a strong offering that will likely share more than its powertrains with its big brother Cruze. If a small car with spunk and thrift is what you're after, you would be remiss not to put the Sonic on your short list of cars to test drive.

We're looking forward to a more thorough road test in the near future.

2012 Chevrolet Sonic base price $14,495.

Words and photos by Mark Kleis.