About five years ago, an old friend got married. As a member of the wedding party, I was hoping I would have a cool car to drive to the ceremony. I ended up with a Chevrolet Aveo – a dismal subcompact that demonstrated everything wrong about America's subcompacts at the time: uninspired design, bad ride, and the inability to get out of its own way.
Fast forward to the Aveo’s replacement, the 2012 Chevrolet Sonic, which sat in my driveway for two weeks over the December holidays. Once again I was initially disappointed because I like to drive something a little bigger in December, especially (I shamelessly admit) to look good in the eyes of my relatives.
But then I get behind the wheel a couple days before Christmas and discover Santa Claus has delivered an early present. The Sonic hatchback with the turbocharged 1.4-liter engine is an absolute blast to drive in a small but comfortable package.
The standard engine for the Sonic is a 1.8-liter, four-cylinder. Both the turbo and standard engine are rated at 138 horsepower, but the difference comes in the turbo, which has 148 lb. ft. of torque (up 23 lb-ft.). Torque is the grunt that gets your engine gunning. After two weeks with the Sonic turbo, I discovered the most fun driving this car came by leaving it in fourth gear (it has a 6-speed manual) and keeping the revs around the 3,000 rpm mark. It gave the car zip on demand.
The turbo is available as a $700 option with a 6-speed manual, versus the standard car’s 5-speed. It's an investment worth making. For the first few years it is going to cost you an extra $4 a week in extra car payments because the turbo's fuel economy is 29 mpg city and 40 mpg highway (compared to 26/35 for the 1.8-liter engine). After three years, you start saving money. Trust me on this one. If you don't mind driving a standard, then the 1.4-liter turbo is the way to go. In my two weeks behind the wheel I averaged 30.8 mpg.
How's the rest of the car? It's comfortable but it could be a bit of a squeeze for taller families with its small wheelbase of 99.4 inches (same for both the sedan and the hatchback). I found at six-foot-one that I just had enough legroom. While it seems like a tight fit, the Sonic’s small size fades after a few minutes behind the wheel, even with bulky winter clothing.
Pricing on the Sonic seems fairly competitive. The base five-door hatchback starts at $14,765 and works it way up to $18,625. The LTZ trim level that I drove costs $17,935 before the $760 delivery charge. A sedan is also available at a lower starting price.
It comes standard with a connectivity package with a USB port, Bluetooth for phones and music, as well as steering wheel-mounted audio controls. It also has heated "leatherette" front seats (no cows were harmed in the making of the seating surface), cruise control, and fog lamps. Larger 17-inch wheels upgrade the standard 15-inch wheels.
One interesting design touch was making the rear door handles "disappear." Even after a week I sometimes forgot they were located in the upper part of the door as part of the C-pillar. Some manufacturers have taken this approach for smoother lines, as Hyundai has with its new Veloster. It works with the Sonic.
Like any subcompact, you have to be concerned with safety just on size alone because of the laws of physics. But that's worst-case scenario thinking. The Sonic has been named a 2011 Top Safety Pick by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. It also has a full host of airbags in the front and on the sides plus a knee airbag for the driver and curtain airbag for rollover protection.
That makes me wonder something. How hard would you have to work to rollover a Sonic? At least unintentionally? It sits low to the ground and has standard stability and traction control. One would have to do something fairly stupid to make those curtain airbags ignite.
Now is a good time to be in the market for a subcompact car. They've become a lot more fun to drive with good power and even better fuel economy. Make sure the Chevrolet Sonic gets some consideration, especially if you like the sportiness its turbo engine can deliver.
Keith Griffin is president of the New England Motor Press Association and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
2012 Chevrolet Sonic LTZ Turbo 5-door
Price, with destination (base/as-tested): $15,525 / $18,030
Fuel economy: 29 mpg city / 40 mpg highway
Fuel economy, Globe observed: 30.8 mpg
Drivetrain: 1.4-liter turbocharged four-cylinder, 6-speed manual, front-engine, front-wheel-drive.
Body: Five-door subcompact hatchback.
Horsepower: 138 @ 4,900 rpm.
Torque: 148 lb.-ft. @ 2,500 rpm.
Overall length: 159 in.
Wheelbase: 99.4 in.
Height: 59.7 in.
Width: 68.3 in.
Curb weight: 2,743 lbs.
THE GOOD: A long-needed design overhaul, zesty four-cylinder turbo engine, good fuel economy
THE BAD: Doesn't have much performance in sixth gear, hidden door handle takes getting used to; tight space in the rear
THE BOTTOM LINE: Chevrolet has shaken off the Aveo’s bad image and now has a winning sub-compact entry.
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About Boston Overdrive
|Clifford Atiyeh is an automotive writer and car enthusiast . He has spent his entire life driving cars he doesn't own.
In the garage: 1995 21-speed Iron Horse, 2002 Jeep Wrangler X (by association)
|Bill Griffith is a veteran Boston Globe reporter, having reviewed cars for more than 10 years and serving as assistant sports editor for 25 years. He was also the paper's sports media columnist.
In the garage: 2006 Subaru Baja
|John Paul is public affairs manager for AAA Southern New England, a certified mechanic, and a Globe columnist. He hosts a weekly radio show on WROL.
In the garage: Hyundai Sante Fe, Chrysler PT Cruiser convertible
|Craig Fitzgerald has been writing about cars, motorcycles, and the automotive industry since 1999. He is the former editor of Hemmings Sports & Exotic Car.
In the garage: 1968 Buick Riviera, 1996 Buick Roadmaster, 1974 Honda CB450
|Keith Griffin is president of the New England Motor Press Association and edits the used car section on About.com. He also writes for the Hartford Business Journal and various weekly newspapers in Connecticut.
In the garage: Mazda 5, Dodge Neon
|George Kennedy is a senior writer for WheelsTV in Acton, which produces video reviews for Yahoo, MSN, and other auto websites.
In the garage: Lifted 1999 Jeep Cherokee