Detroit 2011: 2012 Chevrolet Sonic
By Charles Krome
There was a lot of hub-bub when Chevrolet originally announced it was changing the name of its Aveo subcompact to the Sonic, but after seeing the latter introduced at the North American International Auto Show, it’s starting to make a bit more sense.
The 2012 Sonic takes a notably more aggressive approach to the subcompact segment, with a relatively dynamic powertrain/suspension setup and, in the hatch, a notable nod to the look of the VW Golf/GTI. I’ll get to the design details in a moment, but first, here are some of the Sonic features that Chevy is counting on to help make people forget about the Aveo.
First off, the Sonic is going to offer a pair of powerplants under its hood. The standard mill will be GM’s naturally aspirated 1.8-liter Ecotec I4, capable of 135 hp and 123 lb.-fit. of torque, while a turbocharged 1.4-liter Ecotec that can go 138/148 will be the optional mill. If those engines sound familiar, it’s because they’re the same ones offered in the Chevrolet Cruze. Spreading those engines around is a good idea from a cost-savings standpoint, and the overall concept behind using the Cruze’s engines in a much lighter car sounds like a good one to me. Transmission choices will include either a six-speed automatic or a similarly cogged manual for the bigger engine, while the forced-induction Ecotec, as the enthusiast’s engine, will only offer a six-speed manual.
It’s also important to point out that both engines will provide double-digit power advantages over the ones holstered by the Ford Fiesta, Toyota Yaris and Honda Fit, the cars that Chevrolet explicitly calls out as the Sonic’s competition. On the other hand, unless the Chevy can match the Fiesta’s 40-mpg highway mark, it’s going to lose some customers who make fuel efficiency their top priority. (Even if the Sonic ends up at 39 mpg, the psychological difference between that and the Ford’s mark is going to have an impact bigger than you might expect when dealing with a 1-mpg disparity.)
Yet it’s clear these really aren’t the customers Chevrolet is aiming for anyway, or it wouldn’t have fitted the Sonic with a Corvette-tuned suspension. In Chevy-speak, “Engineers who also work on the Corvette tuned the Sonic’s confident ride and handling, giving it a more direct and athletic feel,” but that’s certainly another (psychological) differentiator that the Honda, Toyota and Ford can’t match. The nuts and bolts of the Sonic’s suspension include MacPherson struts with coil springs and a stabilizer up front, while the rear gets “a semi-independent, torsion beam axle-mount compound link-type rear suspension—featuring a robust, tubular V-shape beam—with gas-charged shocks.”
The bottom line: The Sonic turbo could actually be the hottest of the mainstream hot hatches until the Fiesta ST goes on sale here.
Let’s now turn to the Sonic’s sheet metal, where I think Chevy’s efforts to remake the Aveo were a bit less successful. The Sonic hatch still shows basically the same silhouette as the Aveo’s, but Chevrolet attempts to disguise this by throwing a few wrinkles into the sheet metal. For me, in fact, too many. The double-wheel-arch look doesn’t work for me at all, and the parallel character lines on the Sonic’s sides have been done to death at this stage. Although the first vehicle I can recall really showcasing this cue was GM’s Saturn S series coupe from the early 2000’s, I can think of a wide variety of new cars at the Detroit show working this business, including the BMW 6 Series convertible and Honda Civic concepts, and it’s on the Sonic’s direct competitor, the Fiesta, as well.
That being said, I do have to say the Sonic sedan is one of the best-looking subcompact four-doors I’ve seen in ages. Most times when an automaker tries to wedge a trunk onto a car this small, the outcome is unsurprisingly stubby and awkward. But Chevy makes it work here, subtly adjusting the Sonic’s profile to split the difference between a liftback and a trunk proper.
With Chevrolet able to tout the Sonic as being built in the U.S., and rivals like the Fit and Yaris nearing the end of their life cycles, Chevy’s subcompact is now in an excellent position to make some noise—and find more customers—in what should be an expanding segment.