At last, a small Chevy that makes waves

The new 2012 Chevrolet Sonic hatchback in an undated handout photo. The Sonic is offered in two forms: a four-door  hatchback or four-door sedan, both assembled in Lake Orion, Michigan. NYT

But specifics aren’t important here; chiefly, the name of the new, smallest Chevy seems to promise something. This is important, because the car that came before it, the indifferently named Chevrolet Aveo, promised nothing. It delivered only slightly more.

The Aveo, assembled by GM’s South Korean division and sold in 2002-11, was one of General Motors’ unfortunate mistakes. Viewed on its own, it was an acceptable small car, without stunning talent or glaring fault. Viewed in the context of its competition – distinctive, successful cars like the first-generation Honda Fit and Toyota Yaris – the Aveo was simply anodyne, the kind of flavourless meal you bought if you couldn’t afford anything better.

Excited about it

The Aveo neatly captured the attitude of the old General Motors before its government rescue and reorganisation: Here, have a car. Just don’t get too excited about it. For 2012, the Sonic replaces the Aveo, albeit at a base price ($14,495) some $1,800 higher. The Sonic is sold in other markets as an Aveo, but it is far from anodyne.

Like its predecessor, the Sonic is offered in two forms: a four-door hatchback or four-door sedan, both assembled in Lake Orion, Michigan Oddly, the base Sonic hatch costs $700 to $900 more, depending on trim level, than the larger sedan. The two Sonics are styled similarly and seemingly with the intent of making you forget their bland predecessors.

The hatchback looks like a small, angry dog, maybe a Yorkie that mainlined a can of Red Bull. The sedan is similar but slightly chunkier and less attractive, as if it had developed a glandular problem or spent a year renting an apartment over a cupcake shop. Both are interesting without being cute or obnoxious – a tall order for a diminutive car. The achievement is even more notable for a brand like Chevrolet, which has spent the past 40 years acting as if small cars were the sole province of Hello Kitty.

Competent sedan

Still, the real progress is under the skin. The Sonic’s engine choices are borrowed from the Chevrolet Cruze, a competent small sedan that is 400 pounds heavier. Gone is the Aveo’s 1.6-liter 108-horsepower 4-cylinder, a coarse blenderlike implement that seemed lifted from the Ronco catalog. (New, folks! The Engine-O-Matic!) In its place are two impressive and compact 4-cylinder power plants: a 1.8-liter that makes 138 horsepower and 125 pound-feet of torque, and a turbocharged 1.4-liter rated at 138 horsepower and 148 pound-feet.  

The turbo 1.4 comes, until spring, only with a 6-speed manual gearbox. The 1.8 is mated to a smooth-shifting 6-speed automatic or a 5-speed manual. As with most small cars, standalone options are limited; juicy features are available only by stepping up from the base trim.

Thankfully, you get a decent amount from the start: standard equipment includes antilock brakes, electronic stability control, automatic headlights, keyless locking, air-conditioning, power locks, alloy wheels, a four-speaker audio system with an auxiliary jack and 10 air bags. (The similar-size Fit has eight, the Ford Fiesta seven.)

Before you get too excited, remember that such features are no longer unusual even in economy cars. Ten years ago, you were lucky if your sub-$15,000 car came with seats and a steering wheel.

Now, almost everything on the market is better equipped than a Mercedes from the Reagan years. Call it trickle-down tech.

If your budget can swing it, you can buy packages that include power windows, a power sunroof, a six-speaker CD stereo and heated leatherette front seats. GM even offers Scion-like accessories, including a splashy half-tone graphics package that makes the Sonic look like a drunken engineer’s doodle or a printing mistake at Staples. In the grand tradition of unnecessary add-ons, most of these offerings only tart up a clean design. So here is a good-looking economy car that seems a decent value. On the whole, this is evolution, not news. But the impressive thing about the Sonic is that it’s actually fun to drive.

Though hardly perfect, it’s so much better than the Aveo as to banish that car from memory. First, there’s the chassis. You get a torsion-beam axle and cost-containing drum brakes in back, both normal for the class. But everything works together nicely: The steering is surprisingly responsive and accurate, and the Sonic seems to relish being chucked into a freeway ramp as much as a Fit or a Fiesta. Contrast that with the Aveo, which meandered through corners with the composure of a wet sock.

Next, the drivetrain. I tested both a Sonic hatchback with the 1.8-liter and the 6-speed automatic, and the sedan with the turbo 1.4 and 6-speed manual. Both wore 17-inch alloy wheels, but only the hatchback had pedestrians poking their heads in at stoplights to ask about the car and its engine.

The 1.4 is charming and quick to rev; it pulls strongly, with little turbo lag, but tends to drone above 5,000 rpm. The 1.8, by contrast, is nice but lacking in grunt and personality. Blame the reduced torque (23 pound-feet less) and its less rev-happy nature. The 6-speed manual offers an easy, if somewhat mushy, clutch and a chunky throw; the 6-speed automatic can be too eager to upshift, but it goes about its tasks with nary a whisper or a jolt. Mileage is respectable from each: 29 mpg in town and 40 on the highway for the turbo 1.4 and 25/35 from the 1.8 with the automatic. The brakes work well enough, though the pedal feel is a bit vague.

As for the interior, GM says it recalls motorcycle design, and it does, in a way. The instrument cluster is little more than a large tachometer and an enormous digital speedometer hung off the dash. It could live on a modern Yamaha. (Why would you want a car that looks like a motorcycle? No one wants a motorcycle that looks like a car.)

Nice equipment

Regardless, this is nice equipment, the kind of furniture you focus on at stoplights. Even the neat eyeball vents at each end of the dash – a touch common to older European cars – feel substantial and look upscale, with a protruding knurled control knob. Everything feels more expensive than it is. Still, I have one odd niggle. The more expensive hatchback is noisier inside and delivers a slightly more uncomfortable ride than the larger, less attractive sedan.

The stark differences between the two drivetrains and body styles appeared deliberate, as if Chevrolet was convinced that totally different people would buy the two models. I’m not sure of that, but at least they’re thinking.

Let’s be clear: This is a very important car for GM, whose future depends on offering Americans a desirable, compromise-free small car – one that measures up to the machines from Europe and Japan, not to mention the crosstown rivals in Detroit.

For ordinary customers who weren’t buying in bulk for fleets, the Aveo’s main draw was its low price. In a nice contrast, the Sonic is something you might actually want, and not simply settle for.

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