Friday, November 18, 2011

Review: Little Chevy Sonic boasts style, pep


Brian Konoske (Photographer) / GM

The 2012 Chevrolet Sonic hatchback.

By Dan Carney

Only a block from the media introduction of the 2012 Chevrolet Sonic, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art hosted an exhibit of products created for the Braun electronics company.

The exhibit demonstrated how the designs, by Dieter Rams boosted the appeal of consumer products and  influenced today’s paragon of industrial design: Apple.

This is relevant to the new Sonic because if carmakers from time to time lose focus on the importance of the styling of their vehicles, they especially seem to think that people who buy low-priced subcompact cars have no taste, style or aspirations.

Subcompact cars, outside a few niche premium products like the Mini Cooper and Fiat 500, have been doomed to wear dull, indifferent styling.

But Braun, and then Apple, showed that it is possible to design affordable, mainstream, high-volume products that look like they belong in a museum. I wouldn’t necessarily predict that the 2012 Sonic is museum-ready, but the car’s adventurous, expressive styling does offer small-car shoppers some redemption from the too-often invisible style of cars in the segment.

The vivid flair of sport motorcycles provided the Sonic’s inspiration inside and out. The influence is most apparent in the quad circular headlamps and in the instrument binnacle atop the steering column. 

Elsewhere, well, it’s hard to find much else on a compact car that resembles the spare appearance of a sportbike. But a prominent exhaust or faux handgrips molded into the steering wheel would have been an overwrought interpretation of the theme.

Some un-motorcycle-like details: Engineers sought to make the Sonic as safe as possible with a profusion of airbags. It’s hard to imagine where they could fit 10 airbags in such a small car, but that fact certainly cultivates the mental image of the entire cabin stuffed with pillowy cushions in the event of a disaster.

Of course, those cushions are no good if the metal box around them is flimsy, so the Sonic is reinforced with high-strength steel that yields a body shell 77 percent stiffer than that of the outgoing Aveo model.

Some other upgrades? How about available sunroof, heated seats and remote start? Here is some substance to support the Sonic’s style that lets customers escape the feeling that they’ve shortchanged themselves by buying a subcompact.

One miss: the outgoing Aveo model offered a lumbar adjuster for the driver’s seat that is absent from the Sonic. We brothers of chronic lower back pain beg for its return.

Also un-motorcycle-like: sluggish, indifferent throttle response that lags disappointingly on the application and churns onward after lifting off the gas with the inertia of a temporary government program.

The tiny 1.4-liter four-cylinder engine produces an impressive 138 horsepower and a more surprising 148 pound-feet of torque thanks to a turbocharger. Once a shibboleth connoting maximum performance, turbocharging is now a tool applied to improve fuel economy because it lets small engines do the work of big ones. Seeing a torque number that’s bigger than the horsepower rating is the proof Chevy’s engineers have accomplished that feat because in small engines that order is normally reversed.

But it seems that tuning engines to sip gas like espresso rather than to gulp it like Gatorade saps them of the crisp response epitomized by the zing of sportbikes. Even the masters of small engine tuning at Honda struggle with this. Hopefully GM's tuners can continue to improve this detail.

Of course it’s a detail that matters only to us unreformed enthusiasts who insist on choosing the Sonic's superb six-speed manual transmission, with its precise shifter and smooth clutch take-up. Most Sonic buyers will choose the automatic, which masks the engine's throttle response characteristics.

Behind the wheel the driver's eye falls on a vast expanse of plastic. What did you expect in a subcompact, Terrazzo tile? But Chevy's designers wisely chose not to pretend otherwise.

"We do have a plastic dashboard," noted design manager Kathy Sirvio. "Instead of trying to make it look like something it is not, we put a nice technical grain on it."

If you have ever wondered what a reviewer means when discussing "good" vs. "cheap" plastic, this is it. Good plastic is honest enough to not pretend it is something else, without surrendering all pretense of style so that it looks like something found at the bottom of your kid's toy box.

The high-strength steel in the body shell contributes to the Sonic's solid feeling, both on the road and when closing doors. Standard aluminum wheels trim away a couple decibels of road noise, further refining the drive. 

Both motorcycles and subcompact cars are supposed to get good fuel economy, and the EPA says the Sonic is superlative, with a 40 mpg highway rating for the tested manual transmission. But fuel economy depends substantially on how the car is driven, and a few days of fun driving pushed my test car's mileage down to an un-motorcycle-like 25 mpg.

I'll take the blame for that this time, but it was surprising to see such a low number. Drivers who were born to be mild but appreciate motorcycle-influenced style can aim for the EPA's 40 mpg rating with their own Chevy Sonic.

Vital stats: 2012 Chevrolet Sonic

Base price: $16,495

As tested: $17,195

EPA fuel economy (city/highway): 29/40

Pros: The only subcompact made in America, 10 standard airbags, premium options, such as seat heaters.

Cons: A sluggish, disconnected throttle response.

Verdict: Not just GM's first great subcompact; the Sonic is the first one that’s good.

Standard equipment: 138-hp, 1.4-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine, aluminum wheels, tilting and telescoping steering, power windows and door locks, heated outside mirrors.

Major options: Six-speed manual transmission.

Safety equipment: Electronic stability control, 10 standard airbags, antilock brakes.

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