2012 Chevrolet Sonic LTZ Sedan: Weekend Test Drive

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2012 Chevrolet Sonic, road test, Catskills Mountains, October 2011

2012 Chevrolet Sonic, road test, Catskills Mountains, October 2011

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"Bracket creep" is the phenomenon where each successive generation of a car gets slightly bigger. It's what allowed the Honda Civic to evolve from the 1973 model, which today we'd call a minicar, to the compact it is today.

The  2012 Chevrolet Sonic, deemed a subcompact by GM, is a prime example of bracket creep. Fifteen or 20 years ago, it would have been considered a compact. At 173 inches long, it's exactly as the length of a 1995 Honda Civic. And like the 2012 Hyundai Accent it competes against, it's large enough to carry four adults comfortably.

So does the new Sonic, which replaces the late and unlamented Chevy Aveo, make a good compact ... err, subcompact car?

Absolutely. The high-level sedan model we tested was fun to drive, filled with features, and got decent gas mileage.

MORE 2012 Chevrolet Sonic: First Drive

And its larger size leaves room for the even smaller 2013 Chevrolet Spark minicar just announced two days ago.

Aggressive, but obviously Chevy

The 2012 Chevrolet Sonic has a more aggressive version of the Chevrolet twin-grille "face" than most other models. The projector headlamps are exposed, rather than hidden behind glass, which the company calls "motorcycle derived" styling.

Both the four-door sedan and the five-door hatchback are tall, rather slab-sided vehicles, but accent lines go some way toward hiding that.

2012 Chevrolet Sonic, New York City launch event, October 2011

2012 Chevrolet Sonic, New York City launch event, October 2011

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All models have chrome trim on the front door handles (the rears are hidden in the roofline), body-color mirrors and bumpers, and alloy wheels--even the base model forgoes steel wheels. These are nice touches that give all Sonic models an upscale look.

To our eyes, the best looking model is the hatchback in LTZ trim, which includes the largest 17-inch alloy wheels Chevy offers.

One thing we noticed: The car attracts attention from people on the street and other drivers. Our white Sonic sedan was the antithesis of flashy, but several other drivers turned to look at the car as we passed or as they passed us.

Inside the 2012 Sonic, there's a simplified version of the Chevy twin-cockpit look. The tiny instrument cluster is simply a tachometer plus a rectangular digital display that includes all other driver info.

But we found it surprisingly usable, along with the large eyeball vents at the edges of the dash, which are effective and easy to adjust without taking eyes off the road.

2012 Chevrolet Sonic

2012 Chevrolet Sonic

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The digital display sits between two horizontal rows of round holes that prove to contain the various warning lights, although you won't know that until you start the Sonic up.

Another reviewer called them Detroit-derived bullet holes, but we think the tiny molded plastic cluster housing looks like some obscure kitchen implement.

Fun to drive, 34 mpg

One big question for us was whether the 2012 Sonic would actually deliver the kind of gas mileage you'd expect from a fairly small car.

Over our 250-mile weekend road test, we got 34.2 miles per gallon. That's slightly better than the 33-mpg combined EPA average for the 1.4-liter Sonic with six-speed manual. That model is rated at 29 mpg city, 40 mpg highway.

2012 Chevrolet Sonic, New York City launch event, October 2011

2012 Chevrolet Sonic, New York City launch event, October 2011

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But it's exactly equal to the 34 mpg we got in the 2011 Chevrolet Cruze Eco we tested in March, which is a larger, better equipped, and quieter vehicle.

We suspect the two Chevies will appeal to different audiences--and that's what Chevrolet marketer Matt Scarlett said the company predicts. The 2012 Sonic is for first-time and younger car buyers, he suggested, whereas the Cruze skews slightly older and more family-oriented.

Only 30 percent of buyers will be "conquests" from other brands, Scarlett said. Main competitors are the Honda Fit and the Ford Fiesta, along with the new 2012 Hyundai Accent.

Cruze minus $3K

For similarly equipped models (roughly), the Sonic is also about $3,000 cheaper than the Cruze. So the Sonic gives you the same gas mileage, and is a smaller car that's more fun to drive, for less money.

As for the fun-to-drive part, the 138-horsepower, turbocharged 1.4-liter engine in the Sonic gave us a nice thrust once it reached about 2500 rpm. The Sonic isn't all that quick off the line, but if you keep engine speeds between 2500 and 5000 rpm, the boost stays on and the little car hustles right along.

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