When the Ford Fiesta first touched down in 2010, the model seemed doomed to follow in the footsteps of the American compact cars that had gone before it. Through December of that year, sales of the smallest member of the Blue Oval family failed to crest more than 4,000 units per month. Despite a pandemic marketing campaign and healthy buzz ahead of the vehicle's launch, production delays and tolerable gas prices did little to help usher the models off of dealer lots. But as fuel prices inch ever skyward, the littlest Blue Oval has begun gaining traction. In May alone, 7,120 Fiesta units leapt off of lots. Even more importantly, the tiny cars carried a higher average transaction price than the outgoing Ford Focus, Honda Civic and Toyota Corolla - all substantially larger vehicles.
With the little Ford poised for some big numbers this year, it's clear that U.S. buyers are embracing domestic small cars like they haven't done in ages. General Motors is understandably keen to prove that it, too, can build a B-segment contender. The 2012 Chevrolet Sonic is the company's latest effort in the category. As the successor to the egregiously disappointing Aveo, the Sonic needs to prove that GM can do more than unload Korean hatches at the dock. We took to the wheel of a few pre-production models in Indianapolis, Indiana to see how the effort is coming along.
Despite retaining a profile that's remarkably similar to its predecessor, the Sonic is an aggressively styled vehicle in either hatchback or sedan guise. Much of the compact's personality comes from its angular visage and massive, scowling quad headlamps, which give the impression that the Sonic is either deep in furious thought or on the verge of eating your cat. It's kind of like a less cuddly version of ALF. Those headlights are built with four smaller lenses instead of a single, larger polycarbonate cover. While the design makes for a striking looker in the flesh, we'd hate to have to scrub bug bits from the details.
Large fender arches dominate the side of the Sonic hatch along with two forward-leaning lines. The upper half of that parallel wraps up into the cabin's window opening while the lower detail slides over the rear wheel well. Move toward the rear of the vehicle and you'll notice a standard spoiler and blacked-out tail lamps.
Unfortunately, our pre-pro tester hatchbacks didn't come wearing an interior that was indicative of final models. The good news is that GM allowed us to photograph a sedan with interior bits that were closer to what buyers can expect to see when the Sonic arrives in dealerships at the end of this year.
Chevrolet treats the driver to a small steering wheel with simulated perforation and all the appropriate contours. The piece stands ahead of the new compact's motorcycle-inspired gauge cluster. When we first laid eyes on the massive tachometer and blue LCD screen back at the Detroit Auto Show, we weren't entirely taken with the design, but we've grown to appreciate its simplicity. The large tachometer is easy to read and the massive miles-per-hour reading keeps the driver constantly informed of vehicle speed. Given the substantial adjustability built into the seats and steering wheel, we do wish that the pod was maneuverable as well.
We won't spend too much time picking apart the cockpit until we get some more time with a final production Sonic, but we will say that that the cabin felt cheaper than models like the Ford Fiesta and Honda Fit.
The Sonic will arrive with two engine options - a naturally aspirated 1.8-liter four with an estimated 138 horsepower at 6,300 rpm and 125 pound-feet of torque at 3,800 rpm and a turbocharged 1.4-liter four with 138 hp at 4,900 rpm and a heady 148 lb-ft of torque at just 1,850 rpm. Those powertrain options should sound plenty familiar, as they're the same beating hearts employed in the larger, heavier Chevrolet Cruze.
The minds at GM expect most buyers to saddle up with the larger displacement four-cylinder and an optional six-speed automatic gear box, though a five-speed manual is also available. Those who opt up to the turbo 1.4-liter turbo will be able to choose between a six-speed automatic and a six-speed manual cogswapper.
Our first chance to drive the 2012 Chevrolet Sonic was limited to a handful of autocross runs designed to demonstrate just how much work that the company's engineers have poured into the vehicle's chassis and suspension development. In total, 60 percent of the Sonic's body structure is comprised of high-strength steel, which not only aids in crash protection, but also creates greater chassis stiffness for a sharper driving feel. Those familiar with the mashed potato dynamics of the compact's predecessor will be relieved to hear that GM has crafted an incredibly sharp machine - at least for dodging cones. Check out the Short Cut below to see how the Sonic performed. (Special thanks to Craig Cole from AutolineDaily.com for letting us ride shotgun during his run.)
The Sonic relies on a MacPherson strut design up front with a modified torsion beam out back. GM calls the piece a compound crank, and while it lacks the sophistication of a fully independent rear, the truth is that most buyers in this segment will never know the difference. Even with its somewhat rudimentary hardware out back, the hatch is a blast to fling. We were able to line a topped-out 1.4-liter Sonic LTZ equipped with a six-speed manual transmission up against an automatic-equipped Ford Fiesta and a five-speed 2011 Honda Fit.
GM hasn't released final U.S. curb weight information on the Sonic, but the hatch felt significantly lighter on its feet than its Ford counterpart. In Europe, an equivalent Sonic (still known as the Aveo in those parts) tips the scales at between 2,575 and 2,700 pounds, while both the Fiesta and the Fit weigh in at a whisker over 2,500 lbs. Turn-in is blisteringly quick thanks in part to a snappy steering ratio. It takes just 2.4 turns to go from lock to lock, and inputs are precise and tactile. Even with its front-wheel drive configuration, understeer is minimal, and with traction control off, it takes just a few manipulations of the steering wheel to induce a little polite rotation. In fact, the Sonic is every bit as engaging to drive as the Honda Fit, and the Chevrolet routinely generated lap times that were a second or more quicker than its Japanese rival.
Even so, we missed the instantaneous throttle response of the naturally-aspirated Honda, which makes us hungry for a stint behind the wheel of the 1.8-liter normally aspirated Sonic. Around the short autocross course, the Sonic's front disc, rear drum brake setup returned admirable stopping power and stood up to the abuse of a half-dozen auto journos without producing any fade or ruined rotors.
We'll need to wait until we get a little more seat time over more types of roads with the Sonic before we make a final pronouncement on just how effective the model might be against mainstays of the segment like the Honda Fit, Hyundai Accent and Toyota Yaris, as well as new fighters like the Ford Fiesta and the segment's best-seller, the Nissan Versa. Judging from our short stint behind the wheel, it's clear that GM is finally taking the segment seriously. With a targeted 40 mpg highway from 1.4-liter, six-speed manual-equipped models and a genuinely engaging driving experience, the Sonic has the bones to be a legitimate competitor. If its on-road manners and production interior hit the right marks, the Sonic could easily muscle its way to the top of subcompact buyers' shopping lists.