If you're looking for one of the best and most fuel-efficient small cars for the money, skipping the Chevrolet dealership would be a mistake; following the introduction of the all-new Chevrolet Cruze compact sedan last year (and the Chevy Volt), GM now has some seriously competitive small cars. And the latest entry, the all-new 2012 Chevrolet Sonic, hits new marks for comfort, refinement, and frugality, while being—surprisingly—quite fun to drive.
The 2012 Chevrolet Sonic is far more impressive from a driving standpoint than its predecessor, the Chevrolet Aveo, while its fuel economy is better and cabin appointments don't feel bargain-basement. Up close, trims are still clearly economy class, but there's a sense of flair—and much better detailing—inside and out. Inside, the instrument panel is shaped somewhat like that of the Cruze, with a smooth flowing design and V-shaped center stack, but it's complemented with a motorcycle-inspired instrument cluster that includes a digital speedometer and trip gauge, and a big, round tachometer.
While the Sonic's base 1.8-liter four-cylinder engine gets pretty good ratings, of 26 mpg city, 35 highway with the standard five-speed manual or 25/35 with the available new six-speed automatic, it's the turbocharged 1.4-liter four that's the frugal pick in the lineup (and puts this model on par with rival models like the 2012 Hyundai Accent and Ford Fiesta), at an EPA rated 28/40. The so-called 1.4T performs better, and it gives the Sonic the sophisticated, refined driving feel of a more expensive car; if you're considering one of the better-equipped LT or LTZ models, the 1.4T costs just $700 more—and it's worth it.
Even if gas mileage isn't the top priority, there are plenty of good reasons to choose the Sonic. Since it's built on an all-new platform, the Sonic was designed from the beginning to achieve top ratings on several continents. Here in the U.S., it's already an IIHS Top Safety Pick. But there are just a few feature letdowns: While alloy wheels are included in all models, and base LS models include A/C, power windows, and other conveniences that the cheapest cars don't always come with, you need to move up to the top LTZ to get a Bluetooth hands-free interface or a USB input for full iPod control.