“Once you have experienced excellence, you will never again be content with mediocrity.” Quality is an elusive thing, but we know it when it stares us in the face. When I read Steve Jobs’ biography, I was struck by the stories about how he’d obsess over the tiniest details, like the screws in the MacBook and precise shape of the NeXT computer. From a cost perspective, many of these details would be unnecessary expenses. But as an engineer, while some design choices may fly in the face of practicality—yeah, a precisely square shape isn’t that thermodynamically efficient—it’s a beautiful way of thinking. Just because perfection is unattainable does not mean we should stop seeking it.
I’ve been thinking about this since I drove the Chevrolet Sonic a few weeks ago. I can’t help thinking that, while GM as a whole has moved up in quality since the days of my Beast Chariot, I feel disappointed by the Sonic.
[Full disclaimer: GM wanted me to drive the Sonic so badly I had to rent it from Hertz while on a business trip to Chicago.]
My vehicular vexation starts with the car’s looks. I can’t say anything bad about how the Sonic looks, but I also can’t say anything good. It...looks like a Chevy? If the design team’s goal was “make a Chevrolet hatchback”, job done, I guess.
The silver color doesn’t help. Having worked with people in the automotive coatings industry, I wholeheartedly agree with Stef Schrader in declaring silver the most boring color imaginable. But car rental agencies advertise these cars for people who just want some form of transportation that isn’t public or two-wheeled, so it can’t be painted a garish shade. In my humble opinion, those people need to get out more as much as they need 50cc’s of adrenaline to the heart.
I do like some of the Sonic’s design elements. For instance, the rear door handle, which is part of the C-pillar. It really sleekens (that’s a word, right?) the rear half of the car, which is a good thing for a hatchback. It’s also easier to operate than a normal handle when you’re carrying a bag full of take-out.
The back half of the car is also more pleasing to the eye than the front. From the 3/4-view shown above, it looks distinctive enough to be spotted in a parking lot flooded with silver hatchbacks. But only once you get in close: viewed from the side and from far away, it tends to fade into the background. Remember where you parked if you drive to any malls or sporting events. It also just occurred to me that it’s also more fluid and lighter somehow than the front. That’s not a bad thing, necessarily: the front fascia
screams somewhat loudly announces ‘Chevy’ and gives an air of solidity that may placate consumers who are still scared of driving a small car (such as my mother). It can look a bit heavy from some angles, though.
In short, the Sonic has a few neat exterior styling cues, but not enough to make it pop, compared to other hatchbacks of a similar size. It looks solidly bland and inoffensive, and fits into the Chevy family. If I had a Viper and my own column on AutoTrader, I would give it a 6 or 7 out of 10.
It should be higher, though. GM could totally do what Honda did with the newest Civic: bonkers, distinctive, and completely not bland. That’s what frustrates me with the Sonic. It doesn’t offend, but it also doesn’t make me smile when I look at it. It’s just there. Car and Driver may not like the new Si’s looks, but I like the direction Honda’s taken with it. It may not be attractive, but it’s sharp and draws the eye. It’s unquestionably Japanese, and sporty without a doubt.
Those reading this may correctly point out that the Sonic isn’t intended to be a hot hatch, or even a mildly spicy one. But Chevy has made special trims and editions of the Sonic that look fantastic.
It’s not like they’re limited by the hatchback’s size. In fact, I would argue that the car’s dimensions lend themselves even better to snappy paint jobs and sharp graphics than larger cars: the small space emphasizes, rather than dilutes.
I wouldn’t be making this big of an issue over the exterior if it wasn’t for the interior.
If the exterior was a bit meh, the interior’s more of a huh. But it’s a good huh, the kind where your voice rises a bit at the end.
Speaking as a former GM owner, I’m always pleasantly surprised by the interior quality GM has achieved. None of the plastics felt cheap, the seats were comfy, and the displays were clear. Speaking of displays, I really liked the car’s motorcycle-inspired gauge. I honestly think it’s one of the best and most interesting gauges in the subcompact segment.
I find it strange that it was in a car like the Sonic that GM decided to be a little daring. The tach dominates, just like on motorcycles, with the LCD display functioning as the speedometer, fuel gauge, and odometer. You can also toggle what’s displayed in the upper right corner using the little knob at the end of the left stalk on the wheel: estimated range remaining, average fuel consumption, average speed, and trip time. Weirdly, it doesn’t include the max speed.
But the gauge itself still feels out of place with the rest of the interior. Hell, with the rest of the car as a whole. It’s not that the rest of the interior’s bad, per se, just not as cool. It is just as well executed, though. While GM could’ve continued the motorcycle theme to the shifter, a la the Nissan Juke, but I’m glad they didn’t. In that car it feels forced, like it’s actively trying to be quirky; the weird interior and exterior clash. Here, it fades into the background: you don’t think about it. True, the brushed silver is somewhat
boring subdued, but I think it makes the car look modern and upscale without looking cheap or flimsy.
It bears repeating, this car’s not trying to be sporty. Why, therefore, in this professional, simple interior...the racy gauge? One of these things doesn’t belong here. Let me get back to that.
I drove the LT version, which meant it had pretty much every piece of tech that I really needed: Bluetooth, OnStar, cruise control, and a lot of USB & power outlets. It didn’t have nav, but I didn’t really need it as, a) I’m from the area; and b) I normally just turn on Google Maps and look up the directions based on traffic flow. The touchscreen annoyed me slightly. While there’s nothing wrong with the menu setup or its clarity, it seems to be drawing a little too much from Cadillac’s CUE, insomuch as you really have to press the buttons to get the system to respond.
Seeing as most of my friends and Lyft drivers do something like that, the other parts of the car’s interior will be very welcome. Not only are there pockets next to the air vents in the center console, but there’s also a really neat feature by the glovebox.
Not only is there a USB port inside the little storage area above the glovebox itself, but there’s also a notch cut into its cover, so you can snake a cord out of it to keep your phone charged.
One thing that’s a bit older-school, but all the better for it, is that you can rest your arm on the windowsill when driving. With today’s high sills, this is a rare but very welcome feature. The driver’s seat does come with an armrest, but it felt cheap, and having an armrest for your right hand is completely different than resting your left on the windowsill.
I do have a few gripes about the interior besides the touchscreen. A minor one is the cupholder position. They’re a bit awkward to reach when driving, being a bit further back relative to the seat than in other cars I’ve been in. I’m sure with more driving time, I’d get used to it.
The real problem is in packaging. There’s a good amount of headroom, and the visibility out the front and side mirrors is excellent, but the rear views are...not so good.
The C-pillar ruins the over-the-shoulder view, due to the handle. Thankfully, the side mirrors and the car’s short length mitigate this. However, the view at the back is just plain poor. This shouldn’t be a problem in the future, as the 2017 Sonic is allegedly supposed to come standard with a backup camera, but that won’t help those who already own one.
At least the rear’s not too cramped, though I can’t say the same for the trunk. I drove a Fiat 500 last year, and it had roughly the same amount of trunk space. Let me re-phrase that. A car which is a full size segment smaller than this one, had roughly the same trunk space.
And it’s not like removing the floor cover adds a ton more space, either.
To sum up, the interior’s nice, the rear views and trunk are compromised, but the only cool things in there are the main gauge and the notch for your phone cord. While I liked the quality, that gauge felt a bit out of place.
But enough about features and car seats—let’s get driving!
Driving the damn thing
I said when I started this post that I was disappointed with the car. I also said that the sportbike-esque gauge felt out of place with the rest of the car. The driving experience is the reason for both those things.
Over the course of a week, I traveled 135 miles on roughly 5.9 gallons of gas. The EPA rated the 2016 Sonic LT at 26 mpg city, 34 mpg highway—I got 22.9 mpg. That’s over 11% less than the city mileage. Now, I was driving a lot in stop-and-go Chicago suburban traffic, but I also did some freeway driving; it was still a bit of a shock at how much fuel I’d burned.
In hindsight, I should’ve been prepared. I had to do my best King Leonidas impression on the throttle just to get up to speed on the freeways. It’s not that the engine doesn’t have any power—once you get above 3000 rpm or so, it’s actually quite nippy—but you have to wring the engine out a bit more than the average commuter would to get any half-way decent performance out of it. It’s also only got 138 hp and 125 lb-ft of torque from the naturally aspirated 1.8L Ecotec, and the car weighs roughly 2750 lbs.
While I had to Hulk-kick the loud pedal to get any kind of meaningful acceleration, I certainly wasn’t doing it to hear the engine’s attempts at singing. Emphasis on the word ‘attempts’. The engine doesn’t necessarily sound bad, inasmuch as it’s practically inaudible from inside the cabin. As the revs build towards redline, the engine does get that thrashing noise which tends to plague some four-cylinder engines—the Ecotec especially—but even then it’s a restrained din. Think heavy metal band hopped up on Stratera, or maybe Novocain.
That dulled, thick-down-pillow-over-the-head feeling pervades most of the Sonic’s performance. At higher rpm’s, the transmission’s shifts are heard more than felt; lower in the rev range, it’s a bit clunkier, but it never stumbled or shifted roughly while I drove the car. It’s an inoffensive transmission, is how I’d best put it. The ride is actually quite nice, with the hatchback not falling victim to overzealous dampening. Bumps, especially ones from large-diameter speed bumps and the kind of multi-hits you find in construction zones (read: roughly 30% of Chicago at any given time), are felt, but they never unsettle the car, and there’s no sensation of buzzing or harshness. They never disturb the steering either, but then it’s hard to disquiet something already dead.
Picture John Cleese’s ex-parrot: that’s this car’s steering. I test-drove the Sonic when it first came out at an on-campus Chevy Drives event back in 2014 or so, and I was immediately turned off by the steering wheel’s total and complete lack of feedback. I thought Chevy would’ve fixed the issue by now, but nope. There’s more genuine feeling in The Watchmen’s Dr. Manhattan than in this steering wheel; Kristen Stewart as Bella was more emotional than this steering wheel; The Room was more emotionally satisfying than what was being transmitted through the wheel. You get the picture.
The best thing I can say about the steering is that there’s no torque steer. While GM didn’t make the steering artificially heavy, I’m torn if the light effort it takes to turn the wheel is good or bad. All I can say for certainty is that it fits the character of the car. More on that in a bit.
Getting away from the steering—which, ironically for something so dead, is really pissing me off—one of the consequences of the ride is that the car does dive a bit under heavy braking. The brakes themselves are pretty good, if excessively grabby. The brake pedal is also doped to the gills, meaning braking effort can be difficult to modulate between “the light touch of a dragonfly’s wing” and “Dark Helmet panic stop”.
If I had to sum up the driving experience, it’s that it drove like a small crossover. And here’s the reason I’m disappointed.
The reason I’m disappointed
‘It drove like a small crossover.’ I shudder typing those words, but that’s the best way I can sum this car up. It’s comfy, has good tech, and is fairly inoffensive in styling. I might as well be describing the Honda CR-V instead of a small Chevy hatchback. I know Jack Baruth makes an excellent point about crossovers being a potential savior for car enthusiasm, but that isn’t the Sonic.
Look, I get that most consumers think heel-and-toe is some crazy mutated strain of foot-and-mouth. Inoffensive but mildly interesting is what sells in today’s market. Whatever makes driving in rush-hour traffic less of a chore. But they are a freaking menace to traditional affordable enthusiast vehicles, like the hot hatch.
I can’t help feeling that GM is missing out on something. You don’t craft a car with a name like ‘Sonic’ and a gauge from a Playskool rendition of a Kawasaki Ninja, and then just turn into a bland-mobile. At a time when Ford is weighing bringing over the next Fiesta, casting doubt on the future of one of the great hot hatches of our time, GM should be taking the Sonic and putting its name to good use.
In fact, GM? I’ve got an idea for ya. You’ve already taken VW’s diesel thunder away from it, courtesy of the Cruze Diesel—why not really deflate ze Germans’ wienerschnitzel and scoop up Ducati? Imagine: a light-weight Sonic with the screaming heart of a Ducati V-Twin. Not just RS looks, but actual get-up-and-go.
You could call it...the Hyper-Sonic. Or Super-Sonic. The names write themselves.
Anything but this version. Because while most people are fine being quietly cocooned in the slow lane, for me this car was anything but a Sonic boom.