This review is part of a seven-car comparison of subcompact hatchbacks. The Sonic is ranked in fifth place of seven.
If you don’t like the feel of a subcompact car, you might feel most at home in the Chevrolet Sonic. It’s the widest and heaviest car in this comparison. It’s one of the most powerful with its optional turbocharged engine. It has the cushiest seats and some of the best safety ratings. It’s also the only subcompact car on the market that’s manufactured in the United States.
What’s not to like?
Well, the Sonic mimics the feel of a car a class above it in more ways than just the positive ways. It’s more expensive than its competitors, and its gas mileage trails the best in the class. Handling isn’t small-car crisp. As a separate issue, the gray plastic interior doesn’t feel very upscale.
Overall, the Sonic treads a little too close to the price and fuel economy levels of larger compact cars. And if that’s the feel of car you prefer, perhaps that’s the better segment to be shopping in.
To look at
The Sonic is distinctive for its chunky front end, which bluntly wears the Chevrolet’s split-grille design language. Fairly rectangular headlights avoid the insectoid vibe critics see in many modern small cars (including Chevrolet’s smaller Spark). It also continues with an upright, boxy, straightforward shape of its body, as simple body creases trace the gently upward-sloping windowline. Overall, the exterior of the car is distinctive without looking overwrought.
Inside, the Sonic is notable for its motorcycle-inspired gauge cluster, which shows less design restraint than the car’s exterior. An analog tachometer sits astride a digital speedometer and other readouts in a small cluster behind the steering wheel. It functions fine but clashes a little with the otherwise plain, straightforward interior design.
Cabin materials are generally hard textured plastics, including on the door armrests, but the interior is well-assembled. The Sonic’s HVAC knobs feel cheap and clunky, which is sadly a common flaw among economy cars. On the tested car, a piece of plastic trim had popped loose around an upper dashboard vent; it pushed easily back into place, but that’s never a reassuring sight.
To be in
The Sonic has large, cushy front seats by subcompact standards – nicely shaped and nicely padded. As on several competitors, the tested Sonic lacked a center console armrest, but there’s a fold-down one attached to the driver’s seat. There’s decent visibility, though part of the rear windows is dedicated to exterior door handle mechanism, which is located there rather than on the metal door panel.
The rear seat doesn’t have much extra knee clearance, but the cushion is comfortable enough for two adults. A center occupant would straddle the floor hump, but the relatively flat seat cushion would help squeeze that person in.
There’s plenty of room for cargo in the boxy Sonic, including a particularly useful 19 cubic feet of space behind the rear seat. The rear seat folds flat after you remove the head restraints to open up 47.7 cubic feet in total. The cargo floor is a little high, though, and the back hatch could be wider.
The Sonic is also available as a four-door sedan.
In this reviewer’s 2012 comparison, all automatic-transmission Sonics came with a 1.8-liter engine that wasn’t very powerful, quiet, or fuel-efficient. Available with the manual transmission was a turbocharged 1.4-liter that greatly improved all three, but this reviewer lamented its lack of availability at the time on a wider array of Sonics.
It’s available now, as a $700 option on the tested mid-grade LT, and it’s definitely worth choosing. Gas mileage jumps by 3 mpg, to 31 mpg in mixed driving, and there’s smoother, punchier power.
Though it’s not a luxury performance car, power and quietness from the turbo are good by subcompact standards. Sadly, though, the 31-mpg EPA rating that would have been impressive three years ago is now just good enough for a last-place tie among these seven subcompacts (albeit a tie with three competitors).
The Sonic is heavy by subcompact standards, some 300 pounds more than the next chunkiest in this class and 500 pounds more than the Toyota Yaris. This no doubt affects its gas mileage, but it also contributes to its solid feel on the road that makes it more pleasant highway cruiser than most subcompacts.
Ride quality could still be better, though. The Sonic is quiet but the suspension jiggles a little even on smooth pavement.
Numb, slow steering counts against the Sonic, especially at low speeds – this is no zippy, agile city car. It handles with decent composure but without any sort of eagerness. That’s a pity for driving enthusiasts given that it’s holding the class’s only turbocharger.
Equipped comparably to its competitors with an automatic transmission; power windows, locks and mirrors; cruise control; and Bluetooth connectivity, the Sonic has by far the highest sticker price in this comparison – $19,370. Discounts are available, but the estimated out-the-door price remains $17,601, which edges closer to compact-car money than other subcompacts do.
And this is especially notable while the Sonic is trying to mimic their feel more than capitalize on the benefits of smaller size, for instance with excellent fuel economy or nimble handling. It’s better at being a compact car than its subcompact competitors, but it’s not better at being a compact car than a compact car is.
Consider the Sonic, but shop it carefully against its competitors one size up if its strong points are what you’re looking for.
Note that the as-tested price is high in part because of the optional turbo engine, which adds $700 to the sticker price. But the Sonic would still tie for being the most expensive car in this class without the turbo, and you can expect to make back at least some of the price difference in fuel savings anyway. For the rest of it, even if it doesn’t win out on a spreadsheet, note that the Sonic’s turbo is well worth choosing regardless for its increased power and refinement. The 1.8-liter Sonic is even farther behind the competition even at a slightly lower price.
Overall grade: B-
More from this comparison:
– Next review: 2014 Hyundai Accent SE (4th place)
– Previous review: 2015 Ford Fiesta SE (6th place)
– Rating the seven subcompact hatchbacks
– Ranking the seven subcompact hatchbacks
– Introduction to this comparison
More about the 2015 Chevrolet Sonic LT:
– Photo gallery
– Report card — how does it compare in different ways, such as comfort, performance, and fuel economy?
– Report card — how does it stack up for different types of buyers?
2015 Chevrolet Sonic LT
Vehicle base price (MSRP): $14,245
Version tested: LT five-door (2014)
Version base price (MSRP): $16,455
Vehicle price as tested (MSRP): $19,810
Vehicle price as comparable (MSRP)*: $19,370
Estimated transaction price as comparable**: $17,601
Test vehicle provided by: Sport Chevrolet; Silver Spring, Md.
Length: 159.0 inches
Width: 68.3 inches
Height: 59.7 inches
Wheelbase: 99.4 inches
Weight: 2,853 pounds
Cargo volume behind rear seat: 19.0 cubic feet
Cargo volume with seat folded: 47.7 cubic feet
Turning circle: 34.6 feet
Engine (as tested): 1.4-liter I4 with 138 horsepower
Transmission (as tested): 6-speed automatic
EPA city mileage: 27 miles per gallon
EPA highway mileage: 37 miles per gallon
EPA combined mileage: 31 miles per gallon
Fuel capacity: 12.2 gallons
Assembly location: Michigan
For more information: Chevrolet website
Review: 2014 Chevrolet Cruze LT
Review: 2014 Chevrolet Impala LTZ
Review: 2013 Buick Encore
* Prices as comparable reflect vehicles equipped with the same features: an automatic transmission; power windows, locks and mirrors; cruise control; and Bluetooth connectivity.
** Estimated transaction prices are based on data from Truecar.com and dealer quotes.