It wasn’t all that long ago that when you bought the base level compact car in a maker’s lineup, you were kind of living in “automotive poverty” so to speak. No frills, a bare-bones interior, and an exterior that told everyone you didn’t pay much for your new car.
That’s changed a lot in the past few years, and there’s no better proof than with Chevrolet’s new Sonic subcompact. Replacing the not-well-loved Aveo in the Chevy line, the Sonic is interesting to look at, fun to drive, and best of all, has features that used to only come on cars costing way more.
In the structure of the Chevrolet brand, the Cruze is not what you’d call entry level. Its interior volume is technically mid-sized, and its price structure puts it well above the lowest priced cars on the market. The Sonic slots in below it, but still won’t leave buyers wanting.
For my test, I was handed the key to a 5-door with the 2LT trim package. Even at that, the sticker price was right around $18,500, and this is one spec’d out little ride. The automatic transmission is a 6-speed, while some small cars still only run five gears. That’s one of those things that has trickled down from more expensive categories.
And that automatic makes driving the Sonic a pleasure. The 1.8 liter engine never feels strained, and the shifts are smooth as silk. This isn’t what you’d call a powerhouse of a car, but it scoots along quite nicely, while still returning respectable fuel economy numbers of 25 city and 35 highway.
Other upscale touches in the 2LT (with the optional connectivity package) are satellite radio, a USB port, and wireless Bluetooth connection for your cell phone. And the controls for these things are all on the steering wheel, so you don’t have to take your eyes off the road to operate them.
Another high-end kind of feature is remote engine starting from the key fob, something that’s trickled down from more expensive cars. On a cold morning or hot afternoon, push a button on the remote and the little Chevy’s engine starts and gets the heater or air conditioner, respectively, working in advance of your entry.
Looking around the interior of the Sonic, you get a sense that General Motors really wanted to make this car not feel “cheap” in the view from the driver’s seat. Sure, plastic in car interiors is a way of life these days, but the better cars make the plastic pieces look nice and rich. You can add this one to that list of “better cars.” The various shapes and textures of the dashboard, door panels and center console conspire to hide their plastic-ness.
Stepping out of the car and giving it a once-over, you can see a touch of richness here as well. The Sonic goes that extra distance to make you forget that it’s an entry-level car. The headlight clusters, for example, are very modern and seem lifted from some kind of custom or concept car. Around back the taillights — while not quite as bold — are also handsomely styled. And the door handles for the rear portals in the 5-door hatchback are hidden somewhat to impart a coupe-like appearance.
You can even go a little more upscale with the Sonic LTZ model, which offers heated seats and an optional sunroof. Even at that, the sticker price barely crosses the $20,000 mark. If you’re really pinching pennies, the lowest-priced version of the Sonic is the LS trim 4-door sedan at $13,735, and that includes the automatic transmission.
Is the 2012 Chevy Sonic inexpensive? Considering the scope of new car prices these days, yes. Is it “cheap”? Absolutely not.
I’ll see you down the road.
Dave Kunz is the automotive reporter at KABC-TV Channel 7 and can be heard on “The Car Show” Saturdays at 9 a.m. on KPFK, 90.7 FM. E-mail Dave at TVCarz @ pacbell.net Twitter: @dave_kunz