Few new cars have undergone a transformation as dramatic as Chevrolet's subcompact. Indeed, the difference between the outgoing Aveo and the all-new 2013 Chevrolet Sonic, released for 2012, is staggering. Where the Aveo was slow and dull-witted in corners, the Sonic is quick and surprisingly agile. Where the Aveo had the look of a 1990s bargain-bin leftover, the Sonic is sharp, modern and full of well-designed and thoughtful features. It may have its foibles, but they are few and far between. Certainly, if you are in the market for an affordable pint-sized champ that won't make you feel second-class for driving it, the 2013 Chevrolet Sonic may have your number.
What's New for 2013
Because the Sonic was all-new for 2012, changes for the 2013 model year are expectedly minimal. Still, the hatchback adds a sporty new RS model to the roster this year.
What We Like
Good handling; great value; light-years ahead of Chevrolet's old subcompact Aveo; great gas mileage
What We Don't
No navigation system; high premium for the hatchback model; small engines can get winded on hilly roads
Standard on all trims is a 1.8-liter 138-horsepower engine with a 5-speed manual transmission. It returns a decent Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) rating of 26 miles per gallon city/35 mpg highway. Adding the $1,070 6-speed automatic transmission makes for more convenient in-traffic driving, and reduces estimated city mileage by an almost imperceptible 1 mpg.
Although the 1.8-liter standard engine is a solid performer in this size category, the Sonic's dark horse is the optional 138-hp 1.4-liter turbocharged engine that it borrows from the Cruze Eco. Available with manual or automatic transmissions, the 1.4-liter Ecotec engine makes for some seriously fun driving. It also returns 25 mpg city/33 mpg hwy with an automatic, or 27 mpg city/34 mpg hwy with a manual.
Options & Standard Features
The Chevrolet Sonic is clearly marketed as a first-car purchase among the huge and growing group known as the Millennials (18-29 year-olds).
The base LS model (around $15,000 for the sedan or $16,000 for the hatchback) comes with premium 15-inch alloy wheels as standard equipment, along with air conditioning, remote keyless entry and a tilt/telescoping steering wheel -- all items that make the car stand out among the competition and feel like a higher-class entry than it is.
Next up is the mid-grade LT (starting at $16,500 for the sedan or $17,500 for the hatch). It adds a 6-speaker sound system with XM radio, power windows with 1-touch up and down and heated exterior mirrors.
The upper-end LTZ ($18,000 for the sedan or $19,000 for the hatch) adds a much higher level of smartphone integration, including a USB port and Bluetooth connectivity. It also adds steering wheel-mounted audio controls, heated front seats, cruise control, fog lamps and larger 17-in alloy wheels.
New for 2013 is the Sonic RS, a hatchback-only model that starts around $21,000. In addition to performance-oriented items such as upgraded suspension and a sport-themed steering wheel, the Sonic RS boasts leather upholstery and 4-wheel disc brakes.
The Sonic boasts a slew of standard safety features, including a class-leading 10 airbags, electronic stability control, anti-lock brakes and crash-collapsible pedals to protect the driver's feet and legs. The Sonic has received a 5-star overall crash-test rating from the federal government's National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). To earn that rating, it scored five stars in frontal- and side-impact tests and four stars in rollover tests.
Behind the Wheel
On flat to slightly sloping uphill runs, the 1.4-liter turbo was incredibly zippy. While we didn't measure it ourselves, Chevy claims the engine can get the car to 60 miles per hour in about 8 seconds -- a claim that our experiences certainly supported. However, the turbo tended to lose power on moderate-to-steep uphill climbs, requiring what we felt was an excessive amount of downshifting on the 6-speed manual to power through. Even with rather sporty driving at average speeds of about 40 mph in both the city and on hilly canyon roads, we were able to squeeze 32 mpg out of the 1.4-liter turbo with the manual transmission.
The nontraditional gauge cluster places a conventional tachometer to the left of a bright blue digital display that collects everything from current speed and direction to average fuel economy and distance driven into one easy-to-read package. While it took a bit of getting used to, after driving with it all afternoon we wouldn't be surprised to see other manufacturers start copying this gauge implementation.
When combined, the Sonic's supportive seats, excellent suspension, standard driver armrest -- a rarity in the subcompact market -- and tilt and telescoping steering wheel made for one of the most comfortable rides of any small vehicle we've driven. Over the course of the day, the seats blended into the background and never caused any noticeable dead spots or discomfort.
Other Cars to Consider
Ford Fiesta -- Ford's smallest model comes in a sedan or hatchback body style. It also offers a great driving experience and frugal engines.
Honda Fit -- The Fit may be in need of an update, but it still offers a good driving experience and strong fuel economy. Sedan shoppers may lament the fact that it's only available as a hatchback.
Hyundai Accent -- The newly redesigned Hyundai Accent also comes as a sedan or a hatchback. Equipment is generous, but fuel economy can't match the Sonic.
Nissan Versa -- Nissan's latest Versa can't match the Sonic for driving enjoyment. Pricing, however, is a strong suit, as the Versa remains one of the least-expensive cars on sale.
For our money, the Sonic is one of the best subcompact cars available. If we were on a budget, we'd choose the LS, since it offers basically everything you need in an affordable small car. But if we had a little more money to spend, the LTZ offers just about everything we could want. In each case, we'd take the hatchback for its improved practicality -- even if it means spending an extra $1,000.