First Drive: Chevrolet Sonic Hatchback
The new Chevrolet Sonic is GM’s very first offering to run off the line of its new, front wheel drive, global BFI, ‘Gamma’ platform. That may sound like gibberish, but it’s in fact pretty serious stuff when GM says this new architecture will be the foundation for small car offerings to be sold in more than 50 countries, over five years, accounting for as many as 2.4 million vehicles. One could call this little, B-segment, hatchback a seriously big venture then for GM.
GM want the Chevrolet Sonic to set new benchmarks in styling, interior design, quality and powertrain performance. Well, that kind of represents the whole package right there and then, now doesn’t it? Clearly meaning GM wants to take the fight to the might of the multiple-award winning Volkswagen Polo. A tough ask…, let’s see how close they’ve come to pulling it off.
The Sonic suggests something of a progressive and purposeful character from the exterior, which is quite a departure from the GM norm when we consider cars like the Optra and Aveo (which you can still buy – the Sonic is not an Aveo replacement). The 5-door offers up the conventional hatchback format sure, but is teamed with aggressive lines, a very handsome front end and pronounced wheel arches. The typically enormous Chevy ‘bow tie’ front emblem is flanked by chrome surrounds on the grille and a matt-black, honeycomb mesh backing, and the exposed headlight cluster is probably its best feature. And of course, the rear door handles are placed on the upper half of the door creating that oh, so, de-riguer coupé-like appearance. It looks conventional but good, spacious, and far more appetising than GM hatchbacks of yore. A worthy styling effort indeed, even if the package is let down somewhat by some rather bland 15-inch alloy wheels, and what you might call a lack of funky embellishments or fine touches.
On the inside, surfaces are tuned for a highly visual appeal, with lots of ambient lighting and electronic connectivity to enjoy, assuming you upgrade to the ‘Comfort package’ for R7 500, which includes a 6-speaker sound system with USB and Bluetooth connectivity, as well as steering wheel mounted audio controls. The seats are surprisingly comfortable, and I bow in admiration for the height and reach adjustable steering, while I’m less of a fan of the analogue/digital tachometer and liquid crystal display speedometer. The combination display seems a bit low rent for a car going head-to-head with the bulletproof, Volkswagen interiors but competes well and is probably on par with the Ford Fiesta’s interior.
GM say this new BFI platform, along with the use of some high-strength steel has ensured that the Sonic has best in class torsional rigidity and stiffness for a small car. These steels are used in more than 65% of the lower half and 50% of the upper half. So it’s safe and sturdy without compromising sportiness or refinement. It has a 5-star NCap safety rating and a full array of ABS and EBD and four airbags on all local models, but no traction or vehicle dynamic control. The Sonic’s wind noise rating is apparently just 40.5 decibels, I however, have no idea if that’s a good or not… it didn’t seem overly quiet on our drive, but we’ll just have to take GM’s word on that one.
It’s only four-pot, petrol motors for the Sonic in South Africa in 1.4-litre and 1.6-litre guise at the moment, with a 70 kW 1.3-litre TDI diesel expected in 2012. Both petrol motors are driven through a 5-speed manual transmission for linear, midrange performance and thankfully both offer a good amount of tech, with double overhead cams and variable valve timing on both the inlet and exhaust camshafts. The 1.4-litre is good for 74 kW and 130 Nm at 4 000 r/min, with a combined cycle economy rating of 5.8 L/100km. While the 1.6-litre maxes out at 85 kW and 155 Nm at 4 000 r/min, while consuming 6.5 L/100km.
We only got to sample the cheaper, more economical 1.4-litre on our drive, but our Ed has procured a 1.6-litre, fresh from the launch vehicle fleet, and intends to put it through its paces and report back on its performance shortly. What we can report now is that even at the coast, the smaller capacity mill still needed plenty of poking through the manual transmission to find its rev happy middle-to-top end torque band. With only 500 km on the odometer, and forgiving that the motor still probably needs some more kilometers under its belt, it wasn’t the most sonorous four pot in the world, with quite a din resonating into the cabin. However, one must keep in mind that both GM motors are more powerful than the locally available, petrol engines for the VW Polo, that are now getting ever so long in the tooth. With 63 kW and 77 kW all you get from the comparable 1.4 and 1.6-litre VW motors respectively. So it’s a job well done on the engine front, although the diesel will be a great addition to the range as well.
As far as handling and road holding go, GM wanted the Sonic to deliver European driving dynamics. That’s referring again to the VW Polo I’m sure, which was tested extensively on the Nurburgring. The Sonic has McPherson strut front suspension with a high rigidity engine sub-frame, torsion beam rear suspension, and this allied with the Sonic’s very stiff, overall steel structure mentioned earlier, offers a stable and taut ride. It’s good, with the dynamics easily accessible through the feeling of the steering.
Grip-wise the Sonic is let down somewhat by the 15-inch wheels wrapped in Hankook rubber. The wheel and tyre combination don’t give you quite the crisp, morning-fresh turn in feeling you’re looking for, which for me makes Chevrolet’s emphasis on chassis rigidity, particularly at the front, a bit pointless, because the front suspension itself feels like it handles its power delivery role with ease. The Sonic has more potential there to deliver a fun, small, revvy hatchback drive than is currently on offer, so I’d still have to peg it a few notches behind the Polo and the Fiesta for driver involvement. A sedan version, along with the TDI will be available in 2012. Pricing has not been finalised as yet for these or for the Sonic hatches we drove, but GM say they will fall somewhere into the range as shown below.
Pricing (Incl. VAT and CO2 Tax)
Chevrolet Sonic 1.4-litre LS R155 000 – R158 000
Chevrolet Sonic 1.6-litre LS R168 000 – R171 000
Prices include a 5-year/120 000 km warranty, roadside assistance and a 3-year/60 000 km service plan.