Inexpensive But Quality. A New Look For GM

The Chevrolet Sonic for model-year 2014 is the best car for you if you need inexpensive transportation but don’t want a cheap car.

Who says an American company can’t build a subcompact every bit as good as a Nissan, Hyundai or Toyota? Okay, General Motors actually offers this car from Asia to Australia and its engineering roots are in South Korea. That makes it a global design. But the Sonics sold in America are, in fact, the only cars in this class built in-country.

Sonic arrived for model-year 2012, replacing the dreadful Aveo as Chevy’s entry-level car. It’s since been joined by the even smaller and less costly Spark, giving Chevy two entries in the subcompact class.

Key competitors include the Nissan Versa, Ford Fiesta, Hyundai Accent and Toyota Yaris. And like those offerings, Sonic comes as a four-door sedan and a four-door hatchback. The wild card in this class is the funky Kia Soul, a mini-wagon that, along with the Versa, is the only entry that outsells Sonic.

For model-year 2014, the car returns in four trim levels: stripper LS, volume-selling LT, fancy LTZ and sporty RS. The RS debuted as a hatchback for model-year 2013, and it’s joined by an RS sedan for model-year 2014.

RS models have a lowered suspension, 17-inch alloy wheels, a more aggressive nose, leather seats with microfiber inserts and a thicker, flat-bottomed steering wheel.

The particular LT hatchback that we test drove had some RS attitude thanks to $1,705 in dealer-installed accessories, including black-painted 16-inch alloys and the Black Flash package that blackens the grille, mirrors and rear spoiler.

Also new for model-year 2014 is the Dusk package that gives LTZ sedans ground-effects trim, 18-inch alloys and—like the RS—rear disc brakes. A rearview camera is now standard on LTZ and RS Sonics and is a $200 option on the LT. New as well is the Advanced Safety Package, a $395 addition that makes the car one of the few subcompacts available with forward-collision and lane-departure warning systems.

Safety is, in fact, a selling point for this brand. It’s the only subcompact car to earn the 5-Star overall rating in crash testing from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

And thanks to four-cylinder engines borrowed from Chevy’s larger, Cruze compact, it’s among the quicker cars in this class. The base engine has 138 horsepower and rates 30 mpg city/highway combined with the standard five-speed manual transmission, 28 mpg with the optional six-speed automatic. Those are good but not great numbers.

Sonic’s turbocharged engine is both more powerful and more fuel-efficient. It also has 138 horsepower, but more torque than the base engine—148 pound-feet to 125—for far better acceleration and throttle response.

The turbo is standard on the RS and is available on all but the LS for a tempting $700. With a six-speed manual transmission—one of the rare six speeds in this class—the turbo rates 33 mpg combined. With the six-speed automatic, it’s at 31 mpg combined.

On the outside, Sonic is actually among the smaller subcompacts, but there’s surprising space inside, with plenty of headroom thanks to the tall ceiling. Stem to stern, the hatchback’s more than a foot shorter than the sedan, but we like its stubby style and its hidden rear-door handles. The Fit, Versa and Soul have a bit more knee room, but sedan or hatchback rear passengers won’t feel squeezed in a Sonic. And that’s another selling point.

The dashboard has some flair. Controls are simple, and the central screen is easy to see. Motorcycle design inspired the asymmetrical instrument cluster. It combines a digital speedometer and analog tachometer. It’s original but not a real advance, and the tach needle stays bright enough to become a nighttime distraction.

At 14.9 cubic feet, the sedan has the roomiest trunk in the class. And among hatchbacks, only the Versa Note and Honda Fit have more cargo volume than this Chevy. Plus, both Sonic body styles have rear seatbacks that fold nearly flat—an advantage over a number of rivals.

Thirty percent of Sonic buyers are under age 35, and they tend to treat their cars like backpacks, so interior storage bonuses like dual glove compartments, handy dash bins and big door pockets are appreciated.

The turbo engine is a bargain upgrade, giving this little Chevy plenty of spunk. Still, with 197 horsepower, the Fiesta ST is faster, as are turbo versions of the Mini Cooper. But they cost more and feel less refined.

In fact, one of Sonic’s attractions is that it drives like a larger, heavier car. Noise levels are reasonable, and the ride quality is among the best in class. Fiestas, Minis, and the Mazda 2 have quicker reflexes, but this car is nimble enough to entertain, especially in RS form.

Chevy’s MyLink telematics is standard on theLTZ and RS and optional on the LT and LS. It consists of a seven-inch touchscreen, satellite radio and audio and phone streaming. And it now integrates Siri Eyes Free so users with compatible iPhones can do things like compose voice-to-text messages and converse with Apple’s virtual personal assistant.

Air conditioning, Bluetooth, remote keyless entry and a tilt/telescope steering wheel with audio and phone controls are standard on every model. And many of the most intriguing options are quite affordable. It’s just $200 to add MyLink to an LT or LS and another $60 or so to turn MyLink into an actual mapping navigation system.

But overall, the vehicle tends to be slightly more expensive than top rivals, especially since Chevy charges around $1,300 for automatic transmission. An LT sedan with automatic, for example, starts just under $18,000. You’ll spend a couple thousand more to move up to an LTZ or RS sedan, but you’ll get leather trimmed seats and heated front buckets in the bargain. Corresponding hatchbacks are $600 more, with the RS hatch topping out at $22,435.

For Sonic to make sense, you’ve got to believe it doesn’t look too much like a toy car and that it’s not worth spending just a little more to move into the compact-size class. But this is the age of quirky styling, a time when value doesn’t always equal size. This car fits right in.

About Chuck Giametta

This nationally recognized, award-winning writer brings to two decades of automotive testing and reporting for newspapers, books, magazines, and the Internet. The former Executive Auto Editor of Consumer Guide, Chuck has covered cars for, Collectible Automobile magazine, and the Publications International Ltd. automotive book series. This ex-newspaper reporter has also appeared as an automotive expert on network television and radio. He’s a charter member of the Midwest Automotive Media Association, the president of the Rocky Mountain Automotive Media association, and a juror for the annual Active Lifestyle Vehicle of the Year awards. Chuck writes from Colorado Springs, Colo. If you have a question for Chuck, write to him at [email protected]