America has pretty much always sucked at making small cars. No other cars quite embody this fact like the Pinto, Gremlin, Pacer, and Vega. You may have a soft spot in your heart for these little buckets of failure because all you have to do to make them good is shoehorn a huge V8 in 'em. As economy cars, though, they were all entirely worthless. Take the Vega for instance. Aside from the 2300cc four cylinder engine that needed rebuilt every two or three miles, Chevy decided to use a TH350 transmission and a ten bolt rear differential; both pieces found in Camaros and trucks. Out of the 90 horsepower the engine made at the crank, it's a wonder the little scamp could move under its own power at all. For those drivers who didn't want to "upgrade" to the automatic transmission, the Vega's base transmission was a three speed manual with the shift quality of churning butter with rocks in it.
Things have certainly changed since then, but until recently, the American marques had a hard time competing with their import rivals on the econocar front.
Enter the new Chevy Sonic. Video game character references aside, it's styled like an angry robot. Its gaping maw chomps on a plus-sized Chevy bow-tie, and the exposed headlamp assemblies and swooping hood give it an aggressive disposition on the road. Its looks are polarizing for sure but they've grown on me.
Like many cars in its class, the Sonic is tall, but Chevy has managed to keep its height reasonable. It's not as goofy looking as a Fit, but it also doesn't sacrifice interior space in the interest of design. It's a very good balance of form and function.
The interior is really where the little Sonic shines, though. Frankly, the Sonic has a nicer interior than Chevy's own Corvette. Very little in the Sonic would look out of place in a VW Golf. Even the sound of the door closing makes an almost VW-esque thwump. The center stack is a bit shiny and hard, but everything else is soft touch, matte finish stuff. It appears to share its steering wheel with the 2012 Camaro, which is no bad thing. It's thick and has grips in just the right places. Even Chevy's gold bow-tie looks high quality. A gauge cluster, reportedly inspired by motorcycles, sits in front of the driver, and it's supremely cool. Thankfully, an analog tachometer is the most prevalent feature on the left, gnawing Pac-Man style on a rectangular digital readout on the right. This little multifunction rectangle displays fuel level, mileage, and the like, as well as your speed with a slight skew so you feel like you're going fast. Polka-dots above and below the rectangle display dummy lights.
Turn the switchblade style key in the ignition and the Sonic whispers to life. None of the buzzy shakiness of other cars of its size. The car I drove was equipped with the manual transmission, thankfully. The throws are longish, but relatively solid feeling with positive engagement. One ergonomic foible: the seat mounted arm rest has no adjustment, and resting your arm on it makes it so your hand is three inches above the shifter. grab the shifter and your elbow meets the very front of the rest. I finally put the damn thing up.
Once underway, the Sonic feels seriously solid. Road imperfections are felt but not heard. At slow speeds, steering effort is pinky light. At highway speeds it seems to weight up, but there could still be a bit more feel. A slight twitch of the wheel at speed reminded me that I was driving a compact car, as it responded instantly to my inputs.
Getting off the highway I tossed it into a turn. It responded eagerly with very little drama. A little bit of lean, but no tire squeal. Accelerating out of the turn, the little 1.4 turbo growled, but never shouted, and moved the little hatch with purpose. It needs a few extra ponies to do a certain blue computer generated hedgehog proud, but for an economy car, the Sonic scoots along nicely, especially at the bottom end of the tach. Seems to run out of breath after about 5000 rpm.
As far as cars go, I'm not easily impressed. But the Sonic impressed me. If I was in the market for a new car right now, the Sonic would be near the top of the list. It blends fun, comfort, and economy better than cars in the midsize segment costing thousands more, and it proves that Chevy is serious about delivering genuinely good cars. If this is a sign of things to come from GM, I can't wait to see more.