Review: 2012 Chevrolet Sonic 5 Door 1LT 6MT

By Brendan Moore

Decades worth of passing judgment on new cars has left me with a distinct case of cognitive dissonance when it comes to driving General Motors iron in recent years. Brain and muscle memory scream out for me to thrash any GM automobile in my review, and it only gets worse as the cars get smaller.

GM made some really crappy cars in the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s. Craptastic cars – that is, fantastically crappy. Their small cars were just amazingly awful, as if someone tried to make them as crummy and as unappealing as possible. I bludgeoned those cars in print and in interviews. And they deserved every bit of scorn I heaped upon them.

But, GM makes good small cars now. When I first drove the now-deceased Saturn Aura and the very-healthy Chevrolet Malibu, I was shocked at how good the cars were. When I drove the then-new 2011 Chevrolet Cruze last year, I was shocked again at what a good car the Cruze was. In fact, I stated then that it was the best value in its segment.

And last week, the new 2012 Chevrolet Sonic sub-compact, the smallest car GM sells, was dropped off here at Autosavant. The Sonic is replacing the Aveo, GM’s former flag bearer in this segment; a car that was over-matched by its competition in almost every way. Frankly, I now expect at least a competitive player when I get a GM car these days, so it’s not as if I went into cardiac arrest when I got behind the wheel of the Sonic and it was actually fun to drive, but my expectations were exceeded.

Considerably.

The new Sonic is so much better than the Aveo that it almost seems as if it rolled off the assembly lines at a different company. The Sonic is a nice little car; frugal and useful while providing healthy doses of fun and pleasure to your central nervous system. It’s an honest car; it doesn’t pretend to be anything its not and it is earnest in its efforts to please you, the driver. I really like it.

The Sonic that I drove had the more expensive 1.4 liter four-cylinder turbo engine, which is only available with a six-speed manual transmission, at least until the spring of 2012. At that time, you will also be able to get the same engine with a six-speed automatic transmission. The engine was a willing performer with 138 HP and 148 pound/feet of torque, and was happy to spin up to the top of the dial, but it gets a little breathless up there, and also settles into somewhat of a moan. Still, few drivers are going to go there in the revs, and fewer still are going to stay there. The less expensive option, the 1.8 liter four-cylinder, has the same horsepower rating but less pound/feet torque at 125. I haven’t driven a Sonic with that engine, but the early verdict on it seems to be “adequate, if underwhelming”.

The six-speed is chunky, not clunky, and the clutch tip-in is nice and even, making shifting a breeze.

The handling is very good; and the braking is also very good, with good pedal feel. As I mentioned before, it’s a fun little car to drive, not an exercise in “settling” as so many small cars are. During the time I had the car, this area was beset by torrential rain and wet roads layered with a soggy blanket of fallen leaves (good for testing the handling, but really lousy for photos of the car) and the Sonic acquitted itself quite well in these bad road conditions.

The interior is inexpensive, but doesn’t look cheap or nasty; in fact, I very much like the way it is laid out, and I particularly like the gauges in front of the driver, with their motorcycle-themed appearance. General Motors says the gauge cluster is inspired by bike design, and I’m going along with that statement in this instance – it does resonate in that way.

The base equipment and options inside this subcompact economy car combined to make the interior decidedly not austere; the amount of electric-powered equipment alone was enough to make even a jaded 20-something content. I wouldn’t go so far as to say the interior is plush, but it is hardly Spartan.

The standard equipment that comes on the Sonic is really impressive; I don’t think there is a car in its segment that can touch it on “bang for the buck”. My test car had power windows, power door locks, AC, rear window wiper and washer, satellite radio, keyless entry, 10 airbags, ABS, aluminum wheels, etc.

The options included the afore-mentioned 1.4 turbo engine, the “Connectivity Plus Cruise Package”, which includes steering wheel controls, Bluetooth, a USB port, and of course, cruise control.

All of this brings the MSRP to $17,570.

The exterior. Ah, yes, the exterior. Let me offer this disclosure: I am an unabashed fan of hatchbacks. Unapologetic and unreconstructed. I like the way this car looks.

People in the suburb of Washington, DC where I was driving the car during the week I had it also liked the way it looked, and several of them stopped me during my exit from the car or entrance into the car to ask what sort of car it was, to compliment the looks, to ask questions about the price, options, and so forth. These people were mostly 20-somethings and early 30-somethings, but I did have one elderly man that was keenly interested in the car. “Not that I can’t afford something more expensive”, he assured me, “I just don’t waste my money on a big car”. I nodded, trying to signify that I believed him (which I did, but I think he wanted to really impress that point upon me).

Yes, it’s a good-looking car. It looks compact, tidy and purposeful, sort of like a lightweight boxer. Not overly muscled, but more than enough sinew to get the job done.

Here we are, at the end of this review. It is obvious that I came away impressed by the Sonic; once again, General Motors has been able to capture lightning in a bottle and replicate the formula they used for the Cruze, that is, they’ve made yet another small car that is attractive to look at, fun to drive, and has more content and features than the competition. Even as little as five years ago, I would have thought General Motors having a car considered one of the best in this segment could have happened only in Bizarro World (Htrae to you true afficianados), and here I am, singing its praises.

Cognitive dissonance, indeed.

Chervrolet provided the vehicle, insurance and one tank of gas for this review.

Brendan Moore is a Principal Consultant with Cedar Point Consulting, a management consulting practice based in the Washington, DC area, where he advises businesses connected to the auto industry. Cedar Point Consulting can be found at http://www.cedarpointconsulting.com.

Author: Brendan Moore

Brendan Moore is a Principal Consultant with Cedar Point Consulting , a management consulting practice based in the Washington, DC area. He also manages Autosavant Consulting, a separate practice within Cedar Point Consulting. where he advises businesses connected to the auto industry. Cedar Point Consulting can be found at http://www.cedarpointconsulting.com.

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9 Comments

  1. The real name of Bizarro World: that’s funny. But concerning the car, this is a very positive review. I hope the long term experience matches your experience.

  2. This car would do well in Europe so I wonder why Chevrolet does not sell it there.

  3. As much as you love a hatchback, I hate them. No way I would ever be seen in one because everything about it shouts out that I can’t afford a proper sedan.

    No thanks!

  4. That interior is great! It’s got style.

    And yeah, for those of you that were NOT huge Superman comic book fans, Bizarro World was where everything was the opposite, so it’s real name was Htrae.

    Earth spelled backwards

  5. Got to chuckle at the “proper sedan” comment – every thing I look at in this class charges more for the hatchback ( from the Nissan versa to ford fiesta).

  6. I’m an older guy, and I would be very interested in a car like this too. Enough space for my dog and my photography gear and I don’t need a car to impress clients anymore. I say well done on GM’s part and I’m glad to see they’re putting out cars for people that want to watch their money but don’t want to look like they shop at KMart every day.

  7. Yeah, I’m not a believer yet. I think you’re going to be eating your words when this car is a worthless pile of junk at 50,000 miles, just like all GM cars. If GM’s cars got twice as good in quality and Toyota’s quality went down by half, then, and only then, would I consider a GM car. And maybe not even then. I will never trust GM again until they have years and years of great quality behind them. They burned me a couple of times and I’m not forgetting or forgiving.

  8. @Floyd:

    That’s a lot of hatin’ you got going on there. This is not the only good review I’ve read on the Sonic, there are lots of others and I’m thinking real hard about replacing my old, old Nissan Sentra with one of these. I wouldn’t have bought a car from GM either before, but they have some nice cars now, and I swear, it’s probably going to be this or the Cruze for my next car.

  9. Liking this a lot, good to see the American car makers finally get it together on a fuel efficient car that doesn’t cost a fortune!

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