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2012 Chevrolet Sonic

2012 Chevrolet Sonic

 (Chevrolet)

Chevrolet has two new subcompact cars. They’re both called the Sonic.

No, I’m not separating out the sedan and hatchback versions of this Aveo replacement, but rather what can go under their hoods.

The Sonic offers a choice of four-cylinder engines, either a 138 hp 1.8-liter or a 138 hp 1.4-liter. I agree, on first glance that makes no sense.

But dig deeper into the specifications and you’ll learn that the turbo puts out nearly twenty percent more torque than its sibling. Horsepower may get the headlines, but torque is what makes the world go round and cars get up and go.

The turbo also sounds better. It’s very smooth and muted compared to the gruff note of the larger motor. Fuel economy is improved, too, with an EPA rating of 29 mpg city and 40 mpg highway versus 26/35. My personal observations seem to bear those numbers out.

That’s when both cars are equipped with manual transmissions, a five-speed in the base car and six-speed in the turbo. A six-speed automatic can also be had with the 1.8-liter, which knocks 1 city mpg off of its window sticker. The turbo gets it sometime next year.

But aside from their powertrains, the Sonics are identical yet feel very different. The base car is pokey, while the turbo is effortlessly quick – if not quite worthy of the Sonic name. Nevertheless, the later translates into a more substantial sensation permeating the entire car.

All things considered, as a $700 option on mid and top trim level Sonics the turbo is one of the great bargains in the automotive world. But even without it the car makes a pretty good case for itself.

The Sonic is the beneficiary of what’s known in the auto biz as segment creep, where subcompacts of today are as large as the compacts of yesteryear. Designers are doing the same thing these days with women’s clothing, except they call it vanity sizing.

Here it means an interior with a spacious feel, especially up front where the dashboard sits close to the firewall instead of jutting out to engulf the passengers, as is often the case in cars today. A slim center console helps open things up even more and most front seat occupants will find an excess of legroom, while a tall roof accommodates a high seating position and gives a commanding view of the road. With 10 airbags throughout, it all goes a long way toward alleviating any claustrophobia among the subcompact averse. The trunk on the sedan is equally impressive and would serve the Sopranos well.

A pod-style gauge cluster plays off of the Sonic’s exposed headlights in an effort to bring some motorcycle cool to the otherwise straightforward design of the cabin. The simple layout of the controls is welcome in a world of increasingly complex interfaces. One particularly nifty and completely original mechanical touch is a slot in the center stack that holds a toll or parking ticket.

That said, the lack of an in-dash navigation system option is a bit of a surprise in such a youth-oriented car, even though the Sonic comes equipped with GM’s OnStar and its turn-by-turn direction feature for an annual fee.

Of course, Chevy needs to get people in the door before any of the above matters. Even if it breaks no new ground, the Sonic is an attractive machine, particularly the sedan, which is a tough shape to pull off on such a small scale. Chevy’s design lab in South Korea did well.

Don’t worry about that last bit, Mr. Buy American. Unlike the Aveo, our Sonics are built in Michigan. That probably explains the ride, which borders on boulevardier. The soft suspension is just the thing for neglected downtown streets and expansion joint-ridden highways, if not twisty mountain roads. But the quick steering promises good things to come, and you can be sure that a higher performance model is on the way. Hopefully it will have disc instead of drum brakes in the rear.

Autocrosses, be on the lookout, if not beware.

In an increasingly crowded subcompact class, the Sonic stands out by cruising down the middle of the road. Less cutesy than the Ford Fiesta, but more comfy than the Honda Fit, it is the most American car in this very foreign segment.

The fact that there are two of them to choose from can’t hurt.

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2012 Chevrolet Sonic

Base Price: $14,495

Type: 5-passenger 4-door sedan or 5-door hatchback

Engine: 1.8-liter inline-4, 1.4-liter turbocharged inline-4

Power: 138 hp/125 lb-ft torque, 138/148

Transmission: 5-speed manual or 6-speed automatic, 6-speed manual

MPG: 25-26 city/25 hwy, 29 city/40 hwy