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Chevy's Sonic subcompact gives big returns

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Chevy's Sonic subcompact gives big returns

The Sonic isn't the cheapest subcompact in the segment, but it has a full-size standard equipment list. Starting prices range from about $15,000 to $21,000, in sedan and five-door hatchback body st...

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POSTED May 24, 2012 12:55 a.m.

There's a little game I like to play when I first get into a test car. It's called "Guess the Price" — and it can help or hurt the first impression. It's the dollar number that I'd pay for the vehicle — and often I'm wrong, on the low side.

The bright red 2012 Chevrolet Sonic test car had the upgrade to six-speed manual and 138-horsepower, turbocharged 1.4-liter four-cylinder, alloy wheels and a rear spoiler. I was seeing dollar signs. Looking around inside, I noted the two-tone treatment (light gray and black), found the manual seat-height adjuster and set the tilt and telescopic steering wheel with cruise, phone and radio controls. There are covered vanity mirrors, a fold-down driver armrest, dual glove boxes and power mirrors-windows-locks — all uplevel extras. The audio system included satellite radio and Bluetooth phone connection. And the good-looking seat fabric had to be "deluxe."

I knew that pricing started at about $15,000 and the competition includes the Ford Fiesta, Honda Fit, Hyundai Accent and Nissan Versa. I placed my bet at $18,000, then looked at the pricing sheet. Whoa, the Sonic won at $17,735 as tested, including the $795 freight charge from Lake Orion, Mich.

I liked the pricing and I liked the car.

The sedan has a starting price of $14,660 and the five-door hatchback starts at $15,560. All models come with 10 air bags, remote locking, air conditioning, power locks and 15-inch alloy wheels. The standard transmission is a five-speed manual and the six-speed automatic adds $1,070. The top-line LTZ with all the big options (sunroof, bigger wheels and turbo engine) just brushes $21,000. A sport-tuned 2013 Sonic RS Turbo hatchback goes on sale later this year with a sleek aero treatment and such trim extras as sport seats, flat-bottom steering wheel, tuned exhaust and 17-inch wheels, but no power increase.

The base Sonic engine is the 138-horsepower, 1.8-liter four-cylinder that gets 26 mpg city, 35 highway with the manual or 25/35 with the automatic.

The test car was also optioned with the Connectivity package ($375), which adds cruise control, steering-wheel controls, Bluetooth phone connection and USB port.

You can even wrap the car (and several other Chevrolets) in one of a half-dozen graphics, with pricing that ranges from $500 to almost $1,800.

There was more refinement throughout this car than ever could have been expected from a Detroit Three subcompact of a decade ago — or three years ago. The interior is contemporary without flashy gimmicks. The plastics are solid with an appealing texture and finish. I like the lighted gauge array (Chevy says it's motorcycle themed) with the big tachometer on the left and a digital speed readout to the right. It's fun and readable in all lights. Control knobs, switches and buttons are easily deciphered and the turn signal has a three-blink to pass feature. My smartphone connected on the first attempt.

Headroom and shoulder room seemed far from subcompact. The hatchback's sightlines are good at all angles and the rear window is much larger than in the Accent hatchback. The sedan and hatchback have the same wheelbase, width, height and head, leg and shoulder room. But the five-door is 14 inches shorter with folding back seats and more cargo capacity, 19 to 30.7 cubic feet versus 14 cubic feet in the four-door.

The doors have large storage for bottles and stuff. There is basement storage to the hatch cargo area. The instrument panel face has notches and cutouts for phones and other devices.

What also distances the Sonic from cheapo econo-boxes of the past is its highway composure. The cabin is quieter than some larger imports. The suspension isn't sport-tuned, but it can handle a curve without squealing in pain. And ride quality is uncommonly settled at Interstate speeds for a car with a 99.5-inch wheelbase. Commuters would have little discomfort racking up a 62-mile commute one way, but some would appreciate lumbar adjustment to support the lower back.

Steering, accelerator and brake inputs are responsive and without electric delay. Performance from the 1.4-liter turbo is energetic — 0 to 60 mph in 8.2 seconds — and the manual transmission has a hill-holder that brakes the car for up to two seconds as the driver slips the clutch. The gearbox is smooth and easy to slot, with steady pull in second and third gears around town. And, if the driver chose to shift with great care, fuel economy might match the EPA's 29 mpg city and 40 mpg on the highway. I was averaging 31 around town and 35 to 40 on the highway cruising in sixth. But this engine-trans combo has a spirit of spritely fun.

It's not the cheapest car in the segment, but look twice and see that subcompact doesn't mean subpar in a Sonic.

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