Earlier this year we brought you our preview of the upcoming 2012 Chevrolet Sonic, a new subcompact that's set to replace the Aveo duo this fall. Last week, we took our first quick spin in the Sonic, and even before we've spent seat time in a production-series car, we're sure Chevy's made a smart move sharing the Cruze's powertrains with its smaller, lighter sibling.
In case you're not adequately caffeinated enough to click one more link, the Sonic is a size class smaller than the Cruze, and a step up from the 2013 Spark minicar. The Spark completes the first lineup in Chevy history to cover every size segment, from mini to large sedans, and we'll bring you more on it once we score some seat time.
Size matters in the Sonic, because the subcompact class is dividing into two camps. There are cars sold as subcompacts that actually fit the EPA's definition of compact cars; the Nissan Versa, the Honda Fit and the new 2012 Hyundai Accent are the titans in this corner of Lilliput. At the other end of the scale, you'll find the Fiat 500 and Ford Fiesta, the upcoming Toyota Yaris, and the Sonic.
By the numbers, the Sonic is two inches narrower, six inches shorter and 500 pounds lighter than the Cruze, but carries the same choices of four-cylinder engines, either a 1.8-liter four with about 135 horsepower, or a turbocharged 1.4-liter four with 138 horsepower. The Sonic also has a choice of gearboxes in its tech portfolio, with five-speed manual and automatic transmissions paired with the less powerful four, and a six-speed manual on tap for turbo versions.
The turbocharged Sonic is the car Chevy made available to us, for a few loops around its Milford proving grounds--not on the track itself, but on the fractured, frost-heaved pavement that gives engineers a good idea of how the Sonic can handle the kind of road conditions that can kill the good road feel of any short-wheelbase small car. Without giving the final ribbons and trophies out just yet--everyone gets a ribbon or a trophy these days, right?--the Sonic materializes out of nowhere, and cuts short the cool-kid boasting the Fiesta and 500 have been doling out for most of this year.The Fiesta's been a big target for the Sonic development team, says engineer John Buttermore, since the European versions have built such a reputation for pert handling. With a little smack-talking set aside, Buttermore says his team feels the Sonic's ride and handling beat the Fiesta, at least the Americanized version, for steering response and ride quality, all from a mechanically simple strut and torsion-beam setup.
Without a back-to-back comparison, it's still clear the Sonic has the Fiesta in its sights. Those stretches of public roads show the Sonic hasn't solved the great mystery of small-car handling over road splits as long, or longer, than the car's wheelbase itself. What overcomes the bump jumps is the Sonic's turbo thrust and the steering's deft response. Road feel filters in as well as any Chevy with electric power steering, and the suspension climbs back into the fight quickly, after each punch thrown at it by jags and dips in the pavement. On smooth stretches, it's composed, even with 17-inch wheels and tires--and the six-speed manual carves out sweet little pockets of boost in its lower ratios. If you're old enough to remember the last Suzuki Swift GT seen in North America, you'll be happy to hear that's the first car that comes to mind when figuring the Sonic's adroit feel.
The Sonic team is aiming for 40 mpg highway from the more efficient drivetrain, where the Fiesta hits 38 mpg in base trim. Both cars fight a war of attrition against their size: it's easier to get better fuel economy in longer cars because of their aerodynamics. Where the Sonic seems to have a hands-down victory is in wheelbase, about an inch and a half longer than the Fiesta--which translates into a bit more interior room, especially in the driver seat, where a deep, adjustable bucket seat on turbo models left me with about four inches of headroom to spare, and none of the center-console intrusion on leg space I've found in the Fiesta.
From the outside, we're calling it a draw, for now. The Fiesta has a spunky, smoother upkick to its sheetmetal. The Sonic's a bulldog, with chunky fenders squaring off against the road and a strong D-pillar on the hatchback aping the best of the hot Euro hatches. As short as it is, the Sonic looks a little bigger than the Fiesta, too--that's from the deep shoulder line that runs uninterrupted down the rear doors, minus any intruding door handles. They're hidden in the window trim, vertically, a clever styling touch. Inside, the textures and shapes on the dash are distinct even within the Chevy brand, and the motorcycle-ish gauge pack is a cool signature piece that could rescue digital gauges from our mental automotive scrap heap.Our full drive of the Sonic won't come for a few more weeks, when we'll sample the base four-cylinder sedan and other versions. With the promise of ten airbags, USB and Bluetooth swag, even remote start and heated front seats, the Sonic has to be good to elevate its new name over the price leaders sticking it out in the subcompact class. It'll have to tackle the Fiesta at the knees, and convince Accent (and Veloster) and Fit shoppers that a little space is a fine sacrifice for lots more driving fun. And it has to overcome any lingering impressions buyers might have of the unloved Aveo, if any of them ever read about cars, study cars, or care about them before they buy one.
Our quick spin makes us believe that's within reach.