Review: Chevrolet Sonic

Millennials, Generation Y, Echo Boomers — there are 40 million of us in the workforce now, and we’ve got money to spend. On our friends, our families, and our first car purchases.

Chevrolet is keenly aware of this burgeoning automotive audience, and has zeroed in on the youth of today with its latest offering, the Chevy Sonic. The latest econo-compact from Chevrolet replaces the company’s old Aveo line, and follows hot on the heels of the über-successful, top-selling Cruze. The Chevy Sonic slots in with other sub-$20K subcompacts like the Ford Fiesta, Honda Fit and Hyundai Accent, but it’s got the price point, performance and spunk necessary to stand out in this perennially crowded category.

The Sonic’s exterior is sporty, reminiscent of the Cruze but more fun, with angled contouring along the sides and those circular headlamps that are so in style. It’s available as a four-door sedan or a 5-door hatchback, and I drove both configurations in my test. The interior of both models is comfortable and surprisingly spacious. Details like a leather steering wheel and contrast stitching on the soft, Neoprene-like “sport cloth” seats (which you can swap out for “leatherette”) make the Sonic feel more high-brow than its price tag would suggest.

With a name like Sonic, you’d think Chevy’s new subcompact would have a little boom under the hood. Not so — at least for the 138-horsepower, naturally aspirated 1.8-liter four-cylinder automatic. Slam your foot to the accelerator and you won’t get any sort of enthusiasm out of the Sonic. Acceleration is steady and smooth, no matter how hard you’re pressing the gas. If you’ve got a slow-poke big rig in front of you on a two-lane highway and an oncoming car on the horizon, you’d better not chance a pass, as you may not make it. The 1.4-liter six-speed manual Turbo, which also boasts 138 horsepower but with 148 pound-feet of torque, provides a bit more pop than the automatic.

At least the Sonic showed some spark once I took it off the freeway and onto the side roads that wind through the hills south of San Francisco. There, the car proved light and fun to drive, handling sharp curves deftly and almost feeling like a sports car when accelerating back up to speed.

The Sonic gets some respectable mileage. The EPA rates the 5-door hatchback at 40 mpg on the highway and 29 in the city, and 35/25 for the automatic sedan (the manual transmission earns 26 mpg in the city). Also, you’ve got 10 airbags (including dual front-knee airbags) and a four-channel anti-lock braking system with brake assist.

The Sonic’s body is built from a mix of high-strength steel frame elements, making it structurally stiffer than its predecessor the Aveo by a big margin (Chevy says it’s 60 percent stiffer). That rigidity, plus MacPherson struts and 100 percent alloy wheels, helps dampen the interior noise while improving the drive. Generally, I found the car to be well-balanced, but the rear of the hatchback got a bit bouncy on rougher terrain.

There’s a handy feature called Hill Hold, which of course, I had plenty of opportunities to test here in San Francisco. It detects when the car is on an incline (or decline), and it holds the brake down electronically for about 2 seconds, giving your foot time to switch to the gas before the car has a chance to stall or roll forward or backward. This is standard on all Sonic models, but extra useful for the manual LT and LTZ models.

The interior impressed me during my test as well. One would expect the youth-centric Sonic to come with a lot of smartphone-friendly tech in the dash, and the big stuff is here. Bluetooth connectivity is standard on the LZ model, and available as an option on the more basic models. Pairing is super simple — just a few button presses — and then you can use the controls on the steering wheel to flick through your playlists and to answer calls. Other options include a USB port and SiriusXM satellite radio.

The modular, motorcycle-inspired instrument panel is pretty hip looking. An analog tachometer sits on the left, and the monochrome digital display on the right shows your speed, average fuel economy, and direction.

Chevy has put a lot of personality into the design of the Sonic, the 5-door in particular. With above-average cargo space, remarkably stable electronic power steering and a smooth road feel, the car has more going for it than you’d expect, especially for one that starts at around $15,000. The only thing lacking is power. There’s no boom in the Sonic. If drag racing at red lights is your thing, look elsewhere. But suburban commuters and city slickers likely won’t mind the Sonic’s modesty.

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