Subcompacts can be ordinary, or they can be fun. Introduced for 2010, the Chevrolet Sonic hatchback and sedan might swing either way, depending on the engine chosen. With a turbocharged four-cylinder beneath the hood, the Sonic is fun to drive and it’s economical to own. Choose the larger base engine, and the pleasure tends to fade away.
After five years on the market with little change, not much is new for 2016. Beyond three new colors, the 2016 Sonic LTZ now comes standard with an automatic transmission, while the midlevel Sonic LT adds Chevrolet MyLink infotainment.
Both the base 1.8-liter four and the 1.4-liter turbo make 138 horsepower, but that’s where the similarity ends. Optional for upper trim levels, the smaller, more efficient turbo delivers significantly quicker acceleration as well as greater fuel economy, plus a more agreeable, spirited driving experience. Manual gearboxes are available: five speeds with the base engine, six for the turbo. A 6-speed automatic is offered with either engine, and is standard on the LTZ.
Appealing to the eye and comfortable for the body, Sonic has earned good safety ratings. Last year, it was named a Top Safety Pick by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration gives it five stars, overall and on all tests except rollover (where it got four stars). Ten airbags are standard. So are blind-spot warning mirrors.
Even the least-costly Sonic LS has air, keyless entry, and OnStar 4G LTE connectivity. Noise suppression is effective, and the turbo-engine models, at least, are quiet all-around.
Hatchback and sedan body styles share wheelbase, front-end styling, and front doors; but aft of the center pillar, they’re far different. Particularly well-proportioned, the hatchback has a sportier demeanor with its snipped-short rear and longer front overhangs. Each body style avoids the boxy econocar look that has characterized many small cars.
Competition is stronger today than it was when the first Sonics appeared, now led by such mini-dimensioned cars as Honda’s recently redesigned Fit and the upgraded Ford Fiesta. Even though fuel-efficiency isn’t as much of an issue as it was a couple of years back, Sonic hatchbacks and sedans are still strong contenders.
Sonic four-door sedans and five-door hatchbacks have front-wheel drive. Both the 1.8-liter base engine and the 1.4-liter turbo can mate with a manual transmission or a 6-speed automatic. Prices are not yet available.
Sonic LS trim includes the 1.8-liter engine, 5-speed manual gearbox, air conditioning, cloth upholstery, remote keyless entry, tilt/telescopic steering column, steering-wheel audio controls, Bluetooth, four-speaker audio, and 15-inch steel wheels. OnStar 4G LTE connectivity is included.
Stepping up to the volume-selling Sonic LT trim brings Chevrolet MyLink infotainment with a seven-inch touchscreen, hands-free connectivity, streaming audio, and voice recognition. Also standard are six-speaker audio, satellite radio, cruise control, a USB port, power heated mirrors, and 15-inch alloy wheels. The turbo engine is optional.
Equipped with the turbo engine and automatic, the Sonic LTZ adds a rearview camera, fog lamps, heated front seats with perforated leatherette upholstery, and 17-inch alloy wheels.
The sporty Sonic RS hatchback features a lowered suspension, retuned exhaust, slightly lower gear ratios, distinctive wheels, bolder front fascia, aluminum pedals, flat-bottomed steering wheel, sport seats, and manual or automatic transmission.
A Dusk Package for the Sonic LTZ sedan includes gray metallic paint, ground-effects styling, and 18-inch aluminum wheels. A sunroof is available. An option group includes Lane Departure Warning and Forward Collision Alert.
Some might call the Sonic’s design bold; others deem it conservative. Overall, it’s an appealing blend of the two. Round projector-look headlights flank a horizontal split grille. Clear headlight covers wrap back along the fenders.
An angled window line gives the five-door hatchback a distinctive look, leading back to a close-cropped rear end. Viewed from the side, it’s almost a coupe-like profile. Rear door handles on the hatchback are concealed within a black trim panel.
Familiar in appearance, the twin-cockpit dashboard contains an instrument cluster said to be motorcycle-inspired. Fitted with high-quality materials, upmarket for a subcompact car, the dashboard’s center curves downward into the console. In addition to a digital speedometer, plenty of digital icons are displayed. Rather than up-to-date color, however, the display is monochrome.
Four adults fit nicely. Front seats are spacious and comfortable. Backseat legroom is adequate for adults, provided those front seats aren’t pushed too far rearward. Head and shoulder space is fine in the rear.
A number of storage bins, trays, and cubbies are provided up front. In the rear, not so much. One annoyance: no standard USB port.
Cargo volume in the hatchback measures 14 cubic feet, with a hidden storage area under the load floor (which is somewhat high). Although that space is bountiful for a car of subcompact dimensions, the hatchback falls a bit short compared to Honda’s Fit. Sonic sedans have a 19-cubic-foot trunk.
Handling decently overall, the Sonic feels strong and sturdy on the highway, holding the road securely. Steering feel is especially gratifying, helped by requiring just the right amount of effort. Although the brake pedal can feel soft; braking action is effective.
Sonic’s base 1.8-liter engine is coarse, harsh, and anemic, struggling when under heavy load and irritating at higher rpm. We strongly recommend the 1.4-liter turbo, which is more refined and develops greater torque.
Throttle response with the turbo sometimes trails the driver’s push on the gas pedal, but only for an instant. Chevrolet’s 6-speed manual gearbox is a pleasure; courtesy of short throws and direct action. Clutch behavior is so smooth, it seems nearly impossible to endure a bad gearchange.
We’d avoid the 17-inch tires on LTZ and RS models, because they’re noisier as well as rougher-riding. Quietest ride comes from the LT, which feels best isolated from coarse surfaces.
With the turbo and manual shift, fuel economy is estimated at a thrifty 29-mpg city/40-mpg highway (33 mpg combined). Automatic sinks those figures to 27/37 mpg (31 combined). Gas mileage with the base engine is slightly lower: 30 mpg combined with manual, or 28 with automatic. Similar estimates are earned by the RS Turbo model. Neither engine requires premium fuel.
In addition to driving fun with the turbo, Sonic offers more space than a lot of rivals. Following a strong beginning in 2010, sales have eased lately, partly because gas prices are comparatively low. Smaller-size SUVs have been doing a lot better, including the Chevrolet Trax.
Driving impressions by John Voelcker, The Car Connection. James M. Flammang contributed to this report.