Road Test: Chevrolet Sonic 1.6 LS Hatchback

The global small car market is a veritable war among manufacturers and one that’s conducted within the boundaries of contradiction and irony. Millions are invested in R&D, production and marketing, to create compact, affordable, cars that are judged on how much space they offer and how much technology they have packed into them. There are no prizes for guessing that the Germans are involved, in fact their small car army of Polos are what everyone else is aiming at. The Eastern powers are recruiting stylish, well-equipped and wallet-friendly troops at a rapid rate, but the focus of our attention, lies with the Americans.

‘The land of the free’ has become the ‘land of the terrorised’, which is largely self-inflicted, but I digress. For all we know, behind closed doors they could label their four-wheeled competitors as terrorists too, but it’s not like the Americans to exercise diplomacy in the face of a threat, no, instead they fight fire with fire and their weapon of choice is the ‘world car platform’. Ford have developed the B1 and C1 platforms for their Fiesta and Focus models, while Chevrolet have done the same with the Delta II platform for their Cruze and now the Gamma platform for the Sonic. The question is, has Chevrolet introduced an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) to infiltrate the German ranks and send a message to the East that they are still standing on shakey ground?

We live in a material world and as such, looking good is key. From the outside, the Chevrolet Sonic features an aggressive and authoritative face, together with the prominent bow-tie emblem, with which the Sonic looks as if it would revel in branding its competitors – like an American Midwest farmer would his cattle. Exposed head- and taillight clusters add texture to the Sonic’s figure, which looks a little flat when viewed side-on, save for the deep etched line that rises from behind the front wheel to towards the rear. The standard 15-inch alloys don’t quite fill the wheel wells, although the flared arches give the Sonic a wide and planted stance. Contributing the smooth profile are the rear door handles that have been recessed into the upper half of the door and create the impression of a two-door bodystyle. While we were promised much with the close-to-production-looking Aveo RS Concept, shown at the 2010 Detroit Auto Show, the new Sonic will likely strike a chord with many for its contemporary design in the face of more avant-garde offerings from Ford and Kia.

On the inside, the Sonic follows Chevrolet’s dual-cockpit theme first seen on the Cruze sedan. The design gives front passengers the feeling of being surrounded by the car, as lines and curves flow from the centre console, across the dashboard and into the door panels. The two-tone dash brightens the interior, as does the silver/gray centre console, molded from smooth surfaced and well finished plastic. Chrome highlights on the rotary control dials for the headlights, radio, and HVAC functions, as well as around the transmission gate, add a welcome dash of style in conjunction with the cabin’s blue ambient lighting. The driver’s instrument cluster seems to be a bone of contention. Those familiar with motorcycles will find its standalone mounting and analogue/digital combination display, concise and familiar, while others may miss the traditional analogue dials and more conventional layout. I found it easy to read at a glance and quite like the alternative design. Regardless, one feature that would be appreciated is the ability to adjust the brightness at night. Standard features in the Sonic include air conditioner; electrically operated front-windows; 4-speaker radio/CD/MP3-player; tinted windows; a height and reach adjustable steering column; and height adjustable driver’s seat.

Thanks to the range of adjustment on offer, the driving position is comfortable and, when equipped with the optional ‘comfort package’ that includes bluetooth/USB connectivity and multi-function controls on the steering wheel, access to the Sonic’s essential functions are at your fingertips. The exception to this rule are the indicator and wiper-blade stalks, which are mounted a little too high for my liking and can feel a little awkward at times. Other oddities include the fuel gauge measurement in a less common kilometers per litre, as opposed to the widely used L/100km, as well as the central air vents that can’t be closed. In terms of practicality, the Sonic offers plenty of storage areas for personal items – three cup holders in the floor mounted centre console alone – as well as generous rear legroom for a car of its size. The rear seats fold flat in a 60:40 split configuration and in so doing, expand the boot area from 290- to 653-litres.

The Gamma platform upon which the Sonic rides, is an important one, as it provides the GM with the economies of scale required to take the fight  to its competitors. The Gamma platform will be the basis for some 2.4 million vehicles produced within the General Motors stable by 2014. A “jack of all trades, master of none” scenario it could prove, but this is something of a mute point, as the Sonic’s character is designed for broad appeal. This means the ride and handling are as expected, comfortable, progressive and predictable, helped in part by the equal width front and rear tracks. In fact, the Sonic’s underpinnings feel ready to cope with far more exciting levels of engine and suspension choices. As things stand, the Sonic is a comfortable commuter, with a compliant ride, and accurate steering ratio, making it easy to park and quite unfazed by some of our country’s neglected urban routes. The Sonic is safe too, 5-Star Euro NCAP safe in fact, thanks to an advanced high strength steel construction, which allows it to support 4.2 times its own weight on its roof, pedestrian sensitive front-end construction and engine bay layout, as well as electronic aids such as ABS and EBD.

Like the 1.4-litre petrol engine we sampled at launch, the 1.6-litre is also a new generation 16-valve, four-cylinder, unit with twin overhead camshafts. Chevrolet have employed a number hi-tech features in the design of the engine. DCVCP (Double Continuous Variable Cam Phasing), for example, manages the intake charge with constant length intake runners for optimised efficiency and a quieter and more refined intake noise. The hollow frame construction of the grey cast iron engine lock has reduced the engine’s overall mass by 3 kilograms over the company’s previous generation 1.6 and the increased structural strength has resulted in lower noise levels. Together with improved cooling and lubrication throughout, the engine produces maximum power of 85 kW and peak torque of 155 Nm. Combined cycle fuel economy for this engine is estimated at 6.5 L/100km.

With less than 750 km on the odometer when our test car arrived, the Sonic’s 1.6-litre heart felt about about as comfortable as a rugby player in a thick-knit, undersized, woolly, turtle-neck jersey. In addition, a notable lull in power delivery was present from 4 000 r/min for what seemed like forever, before things picked up again towards the 6 500 r/min redline. Thankfully, however, the breathless and stumbling nature was only temporary – like a newborn Springbok taking its first steps in the world – as once the kilometers ticked past the 1 050 km mark the engine began to find its feet and delivered Chevrolet’s claimed output figures in a linear and confident manner. Throttle response is lively and the engine pulls well from lower down the rev range in unison with the 5-speed manual transmission, making the 1.6-litre the recommended choice for those living at altitude.

While the Chevrolet Sonic isn’t an ICBM that will annihilate the Volkswagen Polo on the battle ground of percieved quality, nor shake the ground beneath the feet of its Eastern competitors in terms of price and in some cases more dynamic looks, the Sonic does manage an authentic blend of both – a package that will see it continue the favour earned by the Aveo with the buying public and fleet customers.

What we like…

  • Front-end styling and chunky stance.
  • Rear passenger leg and head room.
  • Wrap-around interior dashboard styling.

What we would like…

  • An LT specification with larger diameter wheels and a little sportier-looking exterior trim.
  • Less whine from the engine.
  • Adjustable levels of brightness for the ambient and back-lighting.
Quick Facts
Base Price R168 570
Warranty 5-year/120 000km
Engine Capacity 1 598 cm³
No. Of Cylinders 4-cylinders, In-line
Aspiration Naturally aspirated
Power 85 kW @ 6 000 r/min
Torque 155 N.m @ 4 000 r/min
Transmission 5-speed manual
Drive type Front-wheel drive
Acceleration 0-100 km/h in 11.3 seconds (claimed)
Top Speed 189 km/h (Claimed)
Fuel Consumption 6.5 l/100km (claimed combined)

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About Scott Hayes

Scott Hayes is the publisher and editor of the SA Car Fan website, which he founded in early 2009. Scott is a member of the SA Guild of Motoring Journalists and works behind the scenes on a daily basis to ensure you remain up-to-date with the latest motoring news. Follow Scott on Twitter.

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