Of all the cars to have recently attracted the scorn of the motoring press, the hapless Chevy Aveo was right up there with the Pontiac Aztek, if not quite in the same stratosphere of opprobrium as the peerless Yugo. I rented an Aveo once, and have completely forgotten what the driving experience was like, although I believe it extended over several days and across three or four Midwestern states, sufficient indication in itself of automotive insignificance. Well, the Aveo is history, unless you’re desperate for some really cheap wheels fresh off the used-rental lot, which is where you’re likely to find your average pre-owned model. But I’d skip it, because there’s good news in the affordable-car realm, and its name is Chevrolet Sonic.
The Sonic is, quite simply—let me not mince words–a fine little car. First, it looks good, in a kind of Asian-American way, with a hint of crazy-Kabuki in its scowling visage, in homage to its Asian antecedents—it was designed by GM’s Korean branch—but its visage is tame enough to be appealing; even, dare I say it, cute (but in a manly way). The quad headlamps are exposed, like those on an old BMW or Jaguar, and in my 2LT tester the lower fascia accommodated foglights that blended in well. Chrome trim adorns the trademark dual-port Chevy grille, but not so much as to qualify as bling. Overall, the Sonic sedan looks elegant, and its rising beltline gives it a nimble, dynamic stance, enhanced by the aluminum wheels it comes with–even at the base LS trim level. That’s right: No crappy plastic wheel covers, even for an economy car. Hats off, Chevrolet. Are you listening, Toyota?
Second, speaking of base levels, damage to the old bank account is a mere $14,495 for the starter LS sedan, which comes with a lot of stuff like air conditioning with idiot-proof HVAC controls, tilt/telescoping steering wheel, 60/40 folding rear seat, OnStar telematics service, 4-speaker stereo system with auxiliary jack, a roof spoiler, front floor mats, remote keyless entry, power door locks, and 15-inch forged alloy wheels. Raise your sights to the 2LT version that I drove, and you might actually pocket some change from $17K, even if you go wild and check the “connectivity package with USB, Bluetooth connectivity and cruise control” and “16-in. alloy wheels” boxes. Pretty cheap, eh? By which I mean inexpensive, not shoddy, because this little car is among the most comfortable and well-put-together vehicles I’ve driven recently, and I include in that bold statement my own Jaguar S-Type and such eminent middle-class cruisers as the Chevrolet Malibu and Toyota Camry. I’d go further: The Sonic, smaller than all of them, was as comfortable as any. In fact, it was so quiet and comfortable on I-35, on the way back from a short road trip to New Braunfels (bratwurst capital of Texas), that it was all I could do not to pull over and have a long restorative siesta. Fortunately, caffeine was at hand. My passenger, however, succumbed and slept all the way home, lulled by gentle winds and the muted humming of the engine. Road noise was nonexistent.
Mind you, one thing that might jolt you awake at first sight is the borderline-hideous dashboard, all orangey-gray, with pimpled plastic surfaces and an odd little digital speedometer/analog tach combo reminiscent of a motorbike’s–a deliberate visual allusion, apparently, as the car was designed by “avid motorcycle enthusiasts,”according to the company. Happily, the motorcycle effect stops there, and the dashboard ceases to be an eyesore after a couple of days, when the “get used to anything” effect kicks in. It even starts to look kind of funky, as was no doubt the designers’ original intent.
Otherwise, I thoroughly approved of the interior decoration, and have to confess that the absence of a big flashy touchscreen was no offence to my peace of mind. I got along just fine with the tiny audio screen whose sole mission in life was to tell me what station I was tuned to. Not that the Sonic ignores modern tech needs completely: that would be suicide in today’s marketplace. My LT boasted the optional package with USB port and Bluetooth phone and music connectivity, and a brief iPod test showed the setup worked fine. The sound system was good, and ambient comfort and convenience included plenty of storage cubbies and ample leg-stretch room up front, and an adequate amount of headroom in back for those six feet tall and less. In another unusual feature for this price point, the Sonic’s rear seats are split 60/40 and fold flat, yielding a reasonably capacious cargo area that effortlessly swallowed up the D-I-Y tools of my weekend trade.
On the road the little car shines. Mine had the base, non-turbo 1.8-liter mill under the hood, good for 138 horses and 125 lb.-ft. of torque. (Another available engine, tested here, is a 1.4-liter turbo, also rated at 138 horses but with a more stout 148 lb.-ft.of torque.) I clocked 0 to 60 in just under 8.5 seconds, impressive for the segment. The 6-speed automatic shifted competently and crisply most of the time, but occasionally stumbled into second, as if precise shift points hadn’t yet been calibrated at the low-rev end of things. But it was a minor drawback, and happened only a couple of times. I found the Sonic to be otherwise a fine road car, tight, fast and responsive, with good steering feedback, excellent brakes, and almost no road noise at all. In terms of drivability, I was reminded of some of the better small European cars I grew up with; in terms of build quality, we’re light years away from even the best road warriors of that bygone age.
Fuel economy in the Sonic is very good without being outstanding. EPA estimates are 25 mpg city and 35 highway with the automatic. Perhaps it was my ruthlessness with the gas pedal, but I got slightly less than that, necessitating one top-off in a week’s driving. The 1.4 engine, according to reports, is slightly more economical, despite the turbocharger. Safety, on the other hand, is outstanding across the board, at least according to the Insurance Institute of Highway Safety, which has just designated the Sonic a “Top Safety Pick.” With that kind of accolade, a litany of the car’s safety features is hardly necessary; we can, I think, reasonably assume that it’s got the right stuff. (Oh, all right: Antilock brakes, electronic brake force distribution and panic brake assist; electronic stability and traction control, hill-hold feature, and 10 airbags.)
Driving a Chevy Sonic sedan for a week has cleared up one thing for me: The golden age of automobiles is now. If Americans can make a subcompact as thoroughly satisfying as this, for prices like these, and if the car proves to be reliable in the long run—and there’s every chance it will, given its solid build quality and G.M.’s renewed sense of mission–your next trip to a dealership in search of good, frugal wheels will be more of a pleasure than a hardship.
Chevrolet provided the vehicle, insurance, and one tank of gas for this review.