2015 Chevrolet Sonic Hatchback First Drive
The Right Car for the Right Audience
Connecting with millennials is no easy task. Big companies spend millions upon millions trying to figure out how to reach this tough-to-crack market, and so far few in the auto industry have succeeded. There's no doubt that the Chevrolet Sonic is meant to appeal to that segment of buyers, but does it stand a chance?
I remember a few years ago when I first saw a commercial for the Sonic that used fun.'s hit song "We are Young" and depicted vaguely college-aged men and women doing things a team of fortysomethings probably believed college-aged adults like to do. "Oh, those crazy kids. They love dancing awkwardly in their cars," I imagine some out-of-touch marketing exec thinking. As someone who falls into the Sonic's target demographic, I felt pandered to. Even the car's name was an attempt at being cool by association, bringing to mind indie band Sonic Youth and Sonic the Hedgehog.
But enough about the Sonic's early marketing campaign. How is the car itself, especially now that it's been on the market for more than three years? The answer: Not too bad. Our 2015 Sonic LT hatchback with the optional turbocharged, 1.4-liter I-4 engine and six-speed automatic transmission performed its intended function just fine (2014-2015 Sonics are pictured in this review). The engine's 138 hp and 148 lb-ft of torque feel more than adequate for putting around town and the hatchback gets up to speed quickly enough on the highway. The transmission makes the most of that power through intelligent shift logic, but drivers can also shift manually if they're so inclined. Instead of paddle shifters or a Tiptronic gear selector, the Sonic LT automatic gets a switch on the lever that's not as fun but still gets the job done. Manual shifts seem to happen immediately and smoothly at the press of the switch, and the transmission will hold a gear at higher rpms for a good amount of time. With that kind of responsiveness, it's a shame you can't get paddles in the Sonic — or at least something more engaging than a dinky little switch. However, you could always opt for the six-speed manual if you want real engagement.
The ride isn't bad for a subcompact car. The bumps and impacts typically associated with short-wheelbase cars seemed less pronounced in the Sonic, though you do feel them. Wind buffeting is also noticeable at speed, but tire noise from the optional 16-inch alloy wheels wrapped in 205/55-size Hankook all-season rubber was muted. Handling is decent, with the Sonic exhibiting predictable, controllable body movement through turns. Steering feel is also surprisingly good, especially compared to similarly sized cars such as the Nissan Versa Note, which suffers from vague, overboosted steering.
The steering wheel, however, doesn't feel high quality. There's a seam of excess material left over from the injection molding process that you can feel around the entire diameter of the wheel. Hard plastics dominate the cabin, but the materials feel no cheaper than those used in other vehicles from the class. The cloth material used for the seats is fine for the most part, but on the driver's side armrest it feels scratchy against your skin. But even if the upholstery were better, the armrest wouldn't be that much more comfortable because it's so short and thin. If you don't use it, though, you risk accidentally resting your hand on the traction control button, which is inexplicably almost as wide as the entire center console.
There are other interior clues that quality is lacking. The infotainment system worked well enough and was easy to use, but the screen in our low-mileage tester was already having issues. When navigating through the system, there would sometimes be a ghost image of the main menu's outline. It would appear on the back-up camera display, the radio screen, and on other menus as if it were burned into the display. It was not always present, however, so it might have been a software issue. Another minor annoyance was the amount of force needed to close the rear doors. If you didn't slam it, the door would be only partially latched in the jamb. The rear seats aren't terribly cramped, but they're not nearly as spacious as those in the Versa Note and Honda Fit. The USB port is located in the small compartment above the glove box that makes a nice shelf to store your phone while charging. But if there's no passenger to plug you in, the port is a bit inconvenient for the driver.
Although I'm not a fan of the Sonic's motorcycle-like gauge cluster, I do like the large digital speedometer that's easy to read through your peripheral vision. The exterior design is funky, but the good kind of funky. I like the inset lens-less headlights and three-dimensional taillights. They really make the Sonic stand out in a class where most vehicles look more or less the same. That could be one reason why the Sonic was the second-best-selling B-segment car in 2014, ahead of the Ford Fiesta, Honda Fit, and Toyota Yaris and behind only the dominant Nissan Versa. It's unclear how many of those customers were young people, but given the Sonic sedan's low starting price of $15,070, there's a good chance many were cash-strapped millennials. Our tester, however, came in right around the $20,000 mark as equipped. For that kind of money, I'd rather have a Fiesta EcoBoost, but I could also step up to a slightly more fun Sonic RS for a bit more.
The initial marketing efforts may have missed the mark, and the car's interior quality could be better, but the Sonic hatchback caters to the youth market pretty well. It's fun to drive in turbo trim and offers usable features and interior space. The Sonic makes a great sidekick for those newly initiated into car culture, and it's basic transportation seasoned drivers don't have to be ashamed of. Perhaps the most impressive victory the Sonic claimed during my time with it is that it got the attention of a Facebook-obsessed twentysomething family member -- a difficult task for anything without a backlit touchscreen. GM might continue to struggle figuring out what makes young people tick, but in the meantime it has a car that stands a fair chance at giving them what they want.