Hands-on first impressions of the 2012 Chevy Sonic

Sonic-hatchback

This week, we were invited to Detroit to get a look at the just-officially announced Chevy Sonic and put the compact car through its first paces. Before we offer initial impressions, here’s the technical lowdown on the vehicle.

The Sonic lines up against the likes of the Honda Fit, Ford Fiesta, and size- and feel-wise the Yaris, although it’s a higher quality car than the latter. The Sonic gives Chevy bragging rights, as it’s the only American-made small vehicle, and comes in sedan or hatchback (four-door and five-door, respectively) versions. Like its predecessors, it comes equipped with built-in OnStar (we got a chance to test the new OnStar app with remote key lock and engine startup – more on that later) as well as the more athletic, sporty look of the Cruze or Volt. Other tech-friendly features include XM Satellite radio, USB and SD card ports in the center console, and Bluetooth capability.

Chevy told us the Sonic’s concept came out of its Korean design center roughly five years ago, with production beginning in 2011 in Michigan. It features an Ecotec 1.4- or 1.8-liter turbo engine (depending on the model) with an estimated 138 horsepower that Chevy says has the “competitive” fuel economy its latest consumer autos are becoming associated with (generally post-2008). This is the same engine used in the Cruze, which has become one of the best-selling compacts. And of course, the Sonic comes in five-speed manual or six speed-automatic.

Look

The Sonic is a good-looking, modular car that Chevy is definitely building for a younger demographic. At the same time, it’s much more athletic and mature-looking than the Spark, but likely appeals to a wider user-base than the Volt (which we’d largely attribute to the electric car’s high cost and the fact that it’s yet to quite convince a variety of consumers).

The hatchback and sedan have a few distinct differences, the largest of which is obviously the rear-facing fifth door on the hatchback. Overall, the sedan is less boxy and sleeker, while the hatchback is sportier, boxier, and a little more rugged looking. But don’t confuse that rough-and-tumble look too much: As we were warned with the Volt, that athletic look doesn’t mean these are off-roading vehicles in the slightest. The front of the car rides low to the ground and you’d find yourself scraping up against (or stuck in) something relatively quickly.

Without looking cheesy or gimmicky, the Sonic is a sleek compact that engineers tell us is tailored for fuel efficiency, down to the aerodynamics of its build.

Its insides aren’t bad either, although the more expensive LTZ has higher quality materials than the base model. Still, it’s comfortable thanks to a load of head and leg room, as well as a relatively spacious back seat. The paneling and finish come in a variety of combinations, and the customization and design possibilities are something Chevy is really emphasizing. And while not everyone (including us) wants graphic prints on their seats, the option makes sense for a younger generation of drivers who are used to changing their smartphone skins more often than they change their socks. That said, some of the more standard combinations were really attractive, and gave even the base model a custom look.

interior

The Sonic has the divided-down-the-middle feel of the Volt (obviously not as pronounced, given there’s no battery down its center) that puts the focus on its center dash console. It has an ambient-backlit display, and we liked how your MPG, speed, and tripometer were clearly listed right in front of the driver’s eyes. Controls were conveniently located, and there was ample room for storage. There’s something of a cheap feel to some of the plastic parts in the car, but that doesn’t detract from its generally pleasing look and easy-use. The center console storage is really limited, however, so we understand why there’s more on the doors and either side of the center dash. Still, covered storage is a little difficult to come by aside from the trunk. The trade-off: USB and SC card ports. So we’ll take it.

In our tour of the Chevy design studio, design manager Todd Parker alluded to how future Chevys will likely have customization options for the displays. Changing these (by style, or arrangement of information, etc.) could be as convenient as seeing your Chevy dealer and popping in a flash drive to import updates.

Feel and handling

We were perfectly comfortable in the Sonic, and even with drivers ranging between approximately 5-foot and 6-foot-5, we didn’t hear any complaints about the car’s roominess. Finding controls without any real education on the car was fairly intuitive, and we’ll admit we dove in head first and tried to manage them while driving – baptism by fire. We were comfortable driving and using the car fairly quickly, which is important: Chevy says they see this as a buyer’s first new car, or a car parents outfit their young drivers with.

Sonic-sedanThe Sonic handled well on the road, and at one point we rode in one taking sharp turns at 90 mph. The car gripped the road securely without swinging passengers around too much. The track had rough roads, bumps, and railroad tracks, all of which it handled well.

We weren’t thrilled with the car’s acceleration, however. After driving the Cruze, we felt the Sonic didn’t quite have the get-up-and-go of the other car. Whenever we would decelerate significantly to take a corner or approach a stop sign, it seemed like getting the car back up to anything over 55 mph was a bit of a struggle. Of course, the Cruze is a higher quality, more expensive car, so this comparison is to be expected.

Safety

We can tell you first hand the Sonic can take a head on crash. During our time at GM’s Milford Proving Grounds, we witnessed a test crash featuring the Sonic colliding with a wall at 40 mph, hitting it directly on the driver side of the car. The car may have been totaled, but the Sonic’s frame held up well enough to protect the crash dummy better than we would have expected.

crash one

The Sonic is built on a body-frame-integral structure, meaning its structure is one welded unit with frame rails and a safety cage. This is reinforced by sections framing door openings and steel pieces holding the doors. The car has 10 airbags, included airbags to protect the driver’s knees, as well as side-mounted airbags.

It’s to be expected with every consumer vehicle, but the rigorous testing Chevy engineers go through to assure its cars are safe and that airbags deploy at the right time is exhausting. The Cruze was the first vehicle to receive five stars in every safety category with the NHTSA’s latest standards, and hopefully the Sonic will follow in its footsteps.

Chevy recently instituted a rollover testing center after finding that while these types of accidents are rare, they have an incredibly high fatality rate. The Sonic features a Rollover Sensing System which includes restraints and roof-mounted air bags, which stay inflated longer than the average airbag and to try and keep passengers from being ejected from the vehicle.

The Sonic of course, also features built-in OnStar for emergency situations. We had a chance to look at the app, and while remote key locking, unlocking and engine startup were slow going, it never fails to be impressive. An OnStar rep also mentioned that the company is looking into features like navigation (telling you where your car is via the app, for those times when you lose it in a parking lot) and theft alert (you could get a text if someone has broken your window).

All manual Sonic’s will feature hill-hold technology, which gives stick-shift drivers a little more security. A sensor detects when a car is on a hill and uses a stability control system to electronically hold the brake for you for up to two seconds after you’ve taken your foot off the pedal, giving you a little more time to hit the gas and let out the clutch. Being in Michigan where hills are far and few between, we didn’t have a chance to test the feature.

The Sonic sedan will start at $13, 745 and the hatchback at $14, 635. It will be at Chevy dealerships in October.

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