The cars we loved.
Everyone seems to be taking subcompact cars seriously these days. For one, selling them goes a long way toward fulfilling the strict federal EPA mandates. Until lately, owning a subcompact was a sort of punishment for being poor or cheap (in America at least). As they say, you’re only as strong as your weakest link. For GM, that weak link had been small cars. One of the historic offenders with its rear wheel drive Chevette. A subcompact
being driven by the rear wheels sounds like a performance enthusiasts dream, but the Chevette was anything but. It soldiered along for about 15 years until it was canned in 1987. That was the last GM US built subcompact until 2011 when production started on the Chevrolet Sonic. Other small cars wearing the Bowtie were sourced from Asian partners and did little to make amends. The last of those unfortunate cars the Aveo was retired in 2011 to be replaced by the Sonic.
The Sonic comes in sedan or hatchback form and a variety of trim levels from LT to LTZ. Top models come with larger wheels, leather seats and Chevrolet’s MyTouch infotainment system. Two engines are available, both with DOHC, variable valve technology and direct injection. A 1.8L ECOTEC four is standard in lower models while the LTZ and new RS models share the 1.4L ECOTEC turbo (also in the larger Cruze). Both engines produce about 138 hp, but the turbo engine’s boosted torque makes for more spirited driving. A rare in the subcompact class six-speed auto and manual transmission make the Sonic both fun and frugal.
The Sonic and Chevy’s other small car the Spark had a big mission ahead of them: make small cars from GM respectable. While the Spark was sourced from GM’s global partner Daewoo in Korea, the Sonic is home-grown for the American market. The Michigan built Sonic remains the only subcompact built-in America. Factories in Europe and Australia also build variations for Holden, Opel and Vauxhall using the Gamma II global platform.
So far the Sonic has made a favorable impression on the media. Right out of the box, Motor Trend magazine named it one of their top ten contenders for car of the Year for 2011. In recent performance tests the Sonic in LTZ trim stacked up well against more powerful cars like the Mini Cooper and Fiat 500. The LTZ and RS models feature upgraded interiors that look more expensive than they are. A more fitting name for the LTZ might be GT, because it’s interior is quite and comfortable at highway speeds. The RS adds aero enhancements and has a very sporting interior more fitting of the RS badge than some Chevys of late.
Although the RS rides on larger 17 in wheels, it has the same all-season tires as the LTZ model making for some squirm around the curves. Speaking of curves, the Sonic handles well in any of it’s trim levels. Some body lean is evident, but handling is predictable and tossible thanks to the lower weight (around 2,800 lb.) The light weight also aids in fuel economy. 40 mpg is easily achieved with the 1.8L, while the more feature and performance laden 1.4 still manages to place in the high 30’s on the highway.
The low environmental impact of the Sonic did not come at the cost of safety. With 10 airbags, the 2013 Sonic was the only car in its class with a 5 star safety rating. A loaded RS model is expected to cost around $18,000, making the Sonic competitive with more expensive segment leaders like the Honda Fit.
The subcompact market has heated up with good cars coming from nearly everyone. Performance versions of subcompacts are becoming more common; thanks to cars like the Fiat 500 Abarath and upcoming Ford Fiesta ST. Small car no longer equals big punishment. The Sonic is likely to make older people forget about the Chevette and remind younger that Honda is no longer the only maker of quality small cars. Either way, the first small Chevy in a long time that did not come from Korea is worth looking at.