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December 4, 2012

Review: 2012 Chevrolet Sonic LTZ Sedan

Photos by Ulysses Ang
Whether Chevrolet likes it or not, the Sonic story actually starts with the Aveo, a cheap and crummy sub-compact from parent General Motors’ Korean subsidiary, Daewoo. It certainly was cheap for its time, but it wasn’t cheerful in any sense of the word. It was one unsatisfying car to drive with a dismal design and abysmal driving dynamics. It was so bad that Chevrolet’s micro car, the Spark, was a much better drive.

That was 2004.

Fast forward almost ten years later and Chevrolet has rightfully decided to retire the Aveo name and replaced it with a new one: Sonic. And despite a few kinks here and there, it has thankfully erased all memories of Chevrolet’s less than acceptable offering in the sub-compact segment way back in 2004. What a difference a generation makes.

By just looking at it, you know Chevrolet’s on to something with the Sonic. It actually looks young, sporty and somewhat aggressive with the two character lines running from the front wheel well towards the rear of the car. Upfront, it’s got one of the best and unique faces seen in years thanks to oversized fog lamps and projector-style headlights which are mounted without traditional lens covers. It creates a very three-dimensional appearance, especially when viewed from just the front corners. The wheel wells are filled with the right stuff: five-spoke alloys with a split-spoke design and 205/55R16 tires. At the back, the four-door’s not bad, but it takes a more conservative turn compared to the hatchback with its unique “hidden” door handles. Clearly, the Sonic isn’t the staid and boring car that the Aveo was before.

The Sonic is meant to be taken seriously by people who actually enjoy driving, so once you slip inside, you’re greeted by an instrument panel that looks like it was plucked straight from a motorcycle. The large, hooded tachometer is flanked by a digital display for the speedometer and fuel gauge with the odometer, PRND indicator, and other functions sprinkled at the top and bottom of the main display. This instrument panel treatment is one of the most unique and coolest done in a car, but the ice blue lighting can get somewhat blinding when driving at night (there’s no instrument panel dimmer).

Aside from the motorcycle-influenced instrument panel though, the Sonic’s cabin takes its design cues straight from the Cruze, which isn’t a bad thing. The materials used are understandably the hard variety, but the two-tone black and gray motif actually makes the interior airier and very hospitable for everyday driving. There’s a good spattering of painted silver plastics around as well. Oddly enough there’s not one ounce of leather in here, which puts at a disadvantage compared to its sub-compact rivals which offer at least a leather steering wheel (others even have leather seating).

Despite not offering cow hide anywhere in the standard features list, the Sonic does have a comfortable interior with ample space for four adults. The driver seat features four-way adjustment which is complemented by the good leg and hip room thanks to the “dual cockpit” design. Those in the back won’t feel squeezed out with good knee room and adjustable headrests, at least for the outboard passengers. And in terms of in-car entertainment, the Sonic satisfies with its standard six-speaker system as well as a built-in stereo with Apple iPod connectivity and even Bluetooth hands-free.

As impressive as the Sonic is with its standard features and funky design inside and out, its drivetrain is somewhat of a letdown. Instead of employing a brand-new mill, the Sonic soldiers on with the same, old 1.4-liter Ecotec 4-cylinder engine straight from the Aveo. And by having the same old power plant, it carries with it the same problems as before: lack of power, refinement, and fuel efficiency. With just 100 horses and 130 Nm of torque, the Sonic is saddled by a lack of straight-line oomph.  Puttering around town is a fine exercise for the Sonic, but when it comes to overtaking especially uphill (say going up Tagaytay), and you’ve got a problem. Plus, it’s coarse sounding, especially at the top end. The Sonic’s conventional 6-speed automatic does have Chevrolet’s standard button-on-the-shifter manual override and that rectifies the lack of thrust somewhat, but the transmission’s clearly tuned more for fuel efficient shifting than spirited driving.

You’ll be willing to issue a pass on the Sonic’s drivetrain if only it were set up for maximum fuel economy, but here is where insult piled atop injury. After four days of driving the Sonic, it only saw 7.8 km/L in purely city driving. It’s not improved from the Aveo’s 8.3 km/L figure, and it’s unusually low in this class where 10++ km/L should be the norm. This is a real problem since most people who’re opting for a car in this segment would prioritize fuel efficiency.

While the Sonic isn’t a threat to its competitors at the pump, with its sporty and aggressive looks, you’ll think it might be a handling champion. It certainly has the right ingredients: a stiff chassis and well-tuned suspension, but the steering simply is the letdown with its lack of feedback and somewhat heavy effort (the Sonic uses a traditional hydraulic assist steering as opposed to an electric assist system). More than once, it felt like it was connected to a pair of rubber bands rather than actual tires. The steering aside though, the Sonic is tidy through corners with almost no wallow and there’s a good amount of grip from its generously wide tires.

The Chevrolet Sonic is proof that the company has gone a long way from the Aveo, and for the most part it has banished the cheapness and disappointment that plagued the Bow Tie’s small car experience. Despite some shortcomings, the Sonic is a solidly balanced car with a stylish exterior, well-built interior, and solid driving dynamics. The Sonic will certainly not win any prize for fuel efficiency, technology, space, utility or value for that matter (the 4-door model tested is P 828,888), but it’s a step in the right direction for Chevrolet. This may not be the generation where it takes the market lead, but you can’t help but think on what’s next in store for the next Chevrolet sub-compact.

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