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Wayne Cunningham/CNET

2012 Chevy Sonic sets a quiet tone (first drive)

Chevy's new Sonic model takes the compact spot in the lineup left by the departed Aveo. CNET editor Wayne Cunningham takes the car for an initial drive to see if it lives up to its name.

Chevy Sonic
Chevy brought out hatchback and sedan versions of its new Sonic for a preview drive. Wayne Cunningham/CNET

Despite its association with drive-in hamburgers, Sonic is a good name for a car, conveying a certain modern fury. However, it doesn't come across as the most descriptive name for Chevy's Aveo replacement, as the 2012 Chevrolet Sonic is anything but loud.

As I maneuvered the high-trim Sonic LTZ sedan through San Francisco, the beginning of a preview drive that would traverse coastal highways and mountains, the suspension neatly damped out the rough pavement and potholes of city streets. Its small 1.4-liter turbocharged engine hummed along quietly as the six-speed manual shifter moved smoothly but precisely through its gate. Where was the boom that the Sonic name suggested?

It certainly wasn't in the styling of the sedan, which refrains from radical design cues. The car looks nice and modern, employing the standard two-port Chevy grille. A subtle contour line runs back from the front wheel arches to the taillights, with a heavier crease at the base of the door. The only potentially controversial element is the round, dual headlights, clearly visible in the casing, but even those don't have the prominence of the Nissan Juke's bug-eyed headlights.

No, the Sonic does not shout out its existence to the world through styling, but blends neatly into the urban automotive landscape. However, in hatchback form the Sonic makes more of a statement. Shorter than the sedan by more than a foot, although matching the wheelbase, the rear of the Sonic hatchback drops off like a cliff. Rear door handles are playfully embedded up high, behind the side windows. It is a stronger design statement than the sedan, but still doesn't kick up dust like the Kia Soul. Think a modernized Honda Fit.

A more radical element sits inside the car: the instrument cluster, which Chevy says was inspired by motorcycle design. As I shifted the six-speed, the needle in the big round tachometer on the left bounced between idle and redline while big numbers on an electro-fluorescent display on the right showed the car's speed.

Chevy Sonic
The instrument cluster is practical and radical at the same time. Wayne Cunningham/CNET

Purists may prefer an analog speedometer, but I found this digital readout very useful. Chevy made the numbers big enough, and placed the instrument cluster pod up high and close, so that it only took a quick glance to assess the current speed. That's handy when you spot a highway patrol cruiser scanning traffic from the side of the road.

Although a good amount of hard plastic covers many surfaces of the Sonic's cabin, Chevy fitted softer stuff in areas you are likely to brush with hand or arm. Textures in the dashboard plastic break up what would be the monotony of a smoother covering. As I've seen in other recent Chevy models, the company has made great strides with interior quality. Gaps looked minimal and I heard no odd squeaks or shrieks from the interior panels, even over some more tortuous turns taken at speed.

The turbocharged 1.4-liter engine, producing 138 horsepower, ran very quietly while eating up city streets. As a bonus, Chevy fitted the six-speed manual with a hill hold feature, which came in handy while waiting for a light to turn green sitting three cars behind the crest of a San Francisco hill. When we stepped hard on the gas, the engine refused to make a racket, winding up its turbo without fuss and little lag.

But it didn't feel particularly powerful, either. Cruising along in third and looking to dive into another lane, we found the Sonic didn't exactly jump after a quick stab of the gas pedal. Similarly, while on the highway in fourth and fifth, the Sonic's engine didn't have an abundance of power on tap, despite the 148 pound-feet of torque spec.

It wasn't until I had the Sonic on my favorite twisty roads in the mountains that I found the power. A little more active work with the stick, getting the engine up close to redline a little quicker, delivered a better push, more what I would expect from the output numbers. The engine justified the Sonic nameplate more at the high revs, too, as it gave a little growl. Chalk up my earlier impressions of power to lazy American, shiftless driving.

The suspension, which damped out the rough pavement so well, held together when pushed through the turns. The Sonic is no sports car, but when traction control activated while cornering it remained unflustered, coping with the stress on the tires well. The steering felt good, too, the electric power-steering unit allowing enough feedback to let me know how the car wanted to dance.

In a presentation before the drive, GM engineers talked up how the body of the Sonic was designed to be stiff, so that it could not only deliver a quality ride but handle these types of mountain maneuvers without a lot of flex. The presentation also touted the use of alloy wheels over steelies, to further enhance ride quality.

Chevy Sonic
The stereo does an OK job of presenting music library information. Wayne Cunningham/CNET

But back on the car's lack of sonicness; that could also be said for its stereo, which at the higher trims uses a simple six-speaker configuration. There is no subwoofer, no flashy lights that pulse to music, no sound profiles to emphasize bass. Here Chevy seems to have missed an element that might appeal to the car's intended youthful demographic.

On the other hand, the stereo does offer a USB port for thumbdrive or iPod, and there is a Bluetooth phone system as part of the OnStar system. I took some time to figure out how to select music from the 8GB thumbdrive I plugged into the glovebox-mounted USB port. When in USB mode, the traditional tuning knob takes up duty as a menu controller, letting me scroll through a list of every track on the drive (tedious) or view the file structure from a higher level and select music by folder. Given the sophistication of the system, I'm assuming that it would let me browse through artists and albums on a connected iPod.

In sum
The Sonic might not be the loudest, or most ostentatious, car on the block, but it felt like a good value with its mid-30s average fuel economy and easily sub-$20s price tag. The engine may not allow you to blast by all the other cars on the highway, but it will keep the Sonic up with traffic and is easily up to the task of urban driving.

The cabin felt like a comfortable place to sit for a few hours, but the real win for Chevy would be the ride quality. Cars in this class generally don't smooth out the road like the Sonic does. The steering is responsive and there is a good amount of engagement with the driving experience.

The cabin electronics are not groundbreaking, being fairly typical for cars today. But Chevy does promise that the next model year should bring the introduction of its new MyLink system to the Sonic, which will add connected apps such as Pandora streaming music.