Driven: 2012 Chevrolet Sonic

By Brandon Turkus

October 26, 2011

—Ypsilanti, Michigan
If you asked us what the main difference between the 2011 Chevrolet Aveo and the 2012 Chevrolet Sonic was, we wouldn’t tell you about the new 1.8-liter four-pot or the new 1.4-liter turbo. We also wouldn’t mention the optional six-speed automatic transmission. Likewise, we wouldn’t be talking about the revised looks either. No, if asked what the biggest difference between these cars was, we’d be telling you that while the Aveo’s biggest selling point was its bargain-basement pricing, the Sonic sells it self thanks to its fun-to-drive and well-mannered driving character. You should only need one guess to figure out which approach we prefer.
So yes, the Sonic is an absolute hoot to drive. But it isn’t just fun compared to its predecessor—it’s actually fun even when compared to the best in the small car segment. From a driver’s standpoint, it’s arguably more enjoyable than a Ford Fiesta, and we think it’s even better than the Hyundai Accent. It falls a bit short of the Honda Fit/Mazda2, but considering we’re even discussing these cars in the same sentence is a testament to the amount of improvement found in the Sonic. All that improvement starts with the suspension.
Much ado has been made about Corvette engineers helping tune the suspension of this small Chevy, and with good reason. It’s darn good. The Sonic manages to be firm and involving without coming across as uncomfortable. Communication through the suspension is more noticeable than the steering (we’ll discuss that in a moment), yet the Sonic is still able to soak up bumps quite easily. Roll control could have been better, as the Sonic did tend to pitch a bit too much from side to side, especially during more complex cornering situations. The body roll did come on progressively, though, and never really caused the car to feel unstable. Considering the lack of outright grip and speed, that extra body movement actually presents an extra variable to play around with at speed, increasing the overall sense of involvement. Overall, the outright handling capability of the Sonic was higher than the small-car norm, while still maintaining a level of comfort.
The steering, as seems to be the trend nowadays, is an electronic power setup (ostensibly equipped in the name of saving fuel). If you’ve read any of our reviews of EPS, then you’ll know that it’s hardly the formula for intuitive steering feel and tactile feedback. In fact, it’s usually the opposite, as electronic units tend to feel artificial and video-game-like. We wouldn’t go that far in describing the steering of the Sonic, though, as it actually feels quite good. Effort is linear, although it avoids feeling artificially heavy, which is nice. Feedback isn’t the best, but it does communicate better than a comparable Ford Fiesta and its EPAS system.
It should be noted that the suspension and steering are going to be the same across the Sonic range, so let’s move to talking about the trim-specific parts of our Sonic 1LS.
If you are familiar with Chevy nomenclature, “LS” is analogous to “base trim,” with a numeral “1” before the “LS” identifying our car as the most basic of the basic. We’re talking roll-up windows, manual mirrors, a four-speaker stereo, no CD player (although there was an auxiliary jack), no cruise control, or really any of the features you might identify as standard in today’s market. And to be frank, we never really missed them, as Chevrolet got the pieces that were important to the driving experience just right.
We’re talking first and foremost about the 1.8-liter, naturally aspirated four-cylinder. With 138 horsepower and 125 pound-feet of torque on tap, the Sonic really doesn’t give you much to work with. In fact, you have even less shove when you look at horsepower and torque peaks for the 1.8. All 125 pound-feet of torque isn’t available until 3800 rpm, and you’ll be waiting for the engine to spin to 6300 rpm (200 rpm short of redline) for peak horsepower. So if you really want speed out of the 1.8, the Sonic is going to force you to work for it.
Thankfully, you’ll have a nice five-speed manual transmission to help you along. The throws on the five-speed are longer than we’d like, but the gearbox itself is quite smooth, and allows quick shifts without much hassle. The clutch is an easy item to learn, offering a decent amount of travel and a very progressive uptake. The thing that really makes the Sonic work, though, is the gearing of this transmission. It’s quite short, which when combined with the high engine speeds that are needed to exploit the engine, make for a lot of shifting to get the kind of speed you want. It’s a good thing this transmission is so competent, as you are forced to use it a lot.
Thankfully, Chevy encourages this by the placement of controls around the cabin. The brake and gas pedal are close enough together that you can execute heel-toe downshifts without the footwell feeling cramped during regular driving. The shift lever falls naturally in your right hand, and you won’t find yourself reaching to get over to fifth gear. The steering wheel is the right size, and while it isn’t leather-wrapped (at least not on our 1LS), the urethane still felt grippy enough during aggressive driving. Finally, the seats round out the driving environment, delivering plenty of comfort for an economy car. What’s really surprising about the seats is how cosseting they feel during hard maneuvers. These aren’t Recaros or Sparcos by any stretch, but they do a fine job of holding the driver (even one with a bit extra around the middle) in place.
While the various driver touch points come together neatly, the rest of the cabin is, well, a mess. Seriously, the amount of hard, scratchy, unpleasant-feeling plastics in the Sonic is unacceptable. We aren’t getting Audi level interiors in a Fit, or Mazda2, or Ford Fiesta, or even a Nissan Versa, but at least all those cabins look and feel somewhat good. Short of the primary driver interfaces, the rest of the Sonic’s cabin is a disappointing wash of hard plastics that takes the sheen off an otherwise very good vehicle. Hopefully this will only be an issue on the very base car, and the higher trim levels will see some nicer interior options, as the Sonic is too good of a car to be lost to a crappy interior.
As poor as the interior is, the fact that it’s the only mark we have against the car that used to be the Aveo is impressive. What Chevrolet has done is take a vehicle that lacked any sense of dynamicism, style, or fun, and transformed it into something that is able to stand toe-to-toe with the better cars in a very competitive segment. If you are looking for an American small car that is as fun to drive and as full of character as the best from Japan, then look no further than the Chevrolet Sonic. Now Chevy, when can we test that turbo?
VS: Nissan Versa
The Versa seems to take the approach of the old Aveo, in offering transportation for five at a reasonable price. With a starting price of under $11,000, it’s considerably cheaper than the Sonic, and with a wheelbase three inches longer, it’s also roomier for backseat passengers. Unfortunately, that’s where the plusses end.
The Sonic outdrives the Versa in nearly every category. The Chevy is more powerful, handles better, and most importantly, feels more engaging to drive on a regular basis. It also doesn’t make use of a continuously variable transmission, like the Versa, which scores it some big points in our book.
VS: Ford Fiesta
The Fiesta’s interior feels downright luxurious compared to the Sonic, and the exterior is arguably the better fashion statement. You’ll also be losing out on power in the Fiesta, as its smaller 1.6-liter only delivers 120 horsepower and 112 pound-feet of torque, compared to 138 and 125 in the Sonic.
The way these two cars drive is also noticeably different. The Chevrolet’s tendency to move around and roll through turns is more noticeable than the Ford’s, but due to the overall nature of the Sonic’s suspension tuning, that roll comes across in a much more progressive and communicative way. The Fiesta, on the other hand, feels more disconnected, and it’s body movements don’t convey the same sense of engagement as the Sonic.
As close as these two cars are in price (the Ford is about $500 cheaper for the most basic model), we’ll have to lean towards the Chevy, as it does a better job of tugging our enthusiast heartstrings.
2012 Chevrolet Sonic Sedan
Engine: Inline-4, 1.8 liters, 16v
Output: 138 hp/125 lb-ft
Fuel Economy, City/Hwy: 26/35 mpg
Cargo Capacity: 14.0 cu ft
Base Price: $13,735
On Sale: Now