Auto News: Mr. Green Car: Chevy Sonic: Proof GM can build a competitive small car

EPA mileage estimates for the 2012 Chevy Sonic give the top ratings to the 1.4 turbo version with 29 city/40 highway mpg, while the 1.8 with automatic transmission is 25 city/35 highway mpg. (Photo by Allen Penticoff)

By Allen Penticoff
Free-lance Writer

On a recent trip, I rented a Chevy Avio. It was an OK small car. I found it to be a bit cheap and had an issue with my leg being in conflict with the center console, but in general, it got us where we needed to go on the cheap. Fortunately, the Avio has been retired from the Chevy lineup and replaced by the new Sonic.

Chuck Hays, sales manager at Bocker Chevrolet, Buick, Cadillac and GMC in Freeport, Ill., was quick to send me out in a white Sonic when I requested one for a test drive. The test car would turn out to have the 1LT option package — which is the 1.8-liter engine with a five-speed manual transmission (price as tested $17,231). This was a fun car to test — as a drive around the area would soon prove.

While an automatic transmission certainly makes life simpler in day-to-day driving, there is something about a manually shifted transmission that adds an element of sport to driving. Driving a manual transmission causes you to be more aware of the road and conditions as well — as you must do the thinking, not a computer. It would be interesting to compare what sort of accidents manual transmission cars get into versus automatic transmissions. I did not use the hill-holding feature that’s included (most manufacturers are providing this with manual transmissions now).

I found this four-cylinder engine had plenty of pep, ran smoothly and fit well with the smooth-shifting transmission. There was nothing I needed to get used to. Handling was excellent, as were the brakes. Someone at the Chevrolet design group must have actually driven an Avio in the past — as that annoying center console interference with my knee was gone.

The instrument pod of the Chevy Sonic has a large, easy-to-read digital display, while the tachometer has an analog display. (Photo by Allen Penticoff)

In fact, neither interior nor body retained anything of the Avio, except the overall size and weight. The interior is much better in style and function, with the very noticeable difference in the motorcycle-inspired instrument pod. The instrument pod has a large, easy-to-read digital display, while the tachometer has an analog display (which I personally thought looked a bit tacky/cheap). The rest was very stylish and fitted with comfortable seats.

The doors of the hatchback body open very wide for easy access to the roomy split-back rear seats that have two sets of anchors for child seats. The power door locks engage as soon as you are under way and feature a switch the driver can engage the child safety locks with.

I particularly liked that they made the interior door latches chrome so they are easy to find. I have cars with black plastic handles on black upholstered doors and find them very hard to find, particularly at night. I think this is a safety issue that more manufacturers need to look at. Kudos to Chevy for this inexpensive upgrade to their little car.

Speaking of safety, all the Sonics have 10 air bags, which earn it a Top Safety Pick of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. Other standard safety features are electronic stability control/traction control/rollover sensor. Visibility out of the hatchback version was quite good.

The Sonic is also available with a smooth-shifting six-speed automatic transmission. I briefly tested a red Sonic with this option and noted that it also has manual select-shift capability, which is nice. There are ostensibly six trim packages, but really only three, as there is a split in the options to have a manual transmission or automatic transmission. There is yet another powertrain option for those who really want to sport up the Sonic — it is available with a 1.4-liter turbo-charged engine connected to a six-speed manual or the six-speed automatic. It is also available in a popular four-door sedan body style.

The sedan has a base MSRP of $13,865, while the five-door hatchback base MSRP is $14,765. Air conditioning is standard in all trim levels. I believe the base cars will meet most drivers’ needs if you are looking for a practical, fun, efficient car that doesn’t cost an arm and a leg. Officially, EPA mileage estimates give the top ratings to the 1.4 turbo version with 29 city/40 highway mpg, while the 1.8 with automatic transmission is 25 city/35 highway mpg. Still, most versions should see 40 mpg highway.

The Sonic is 47 percent domestically sourced parts, 20 percent Korean (engine) and is assembled in the U.S. at Lake Orion, Mich. Proof the great domestic giant, General Motors, can build a small car here that can be competitive in today’s automotive market.

From the May 2-8, 2012, issue

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