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2012 Chevrolet Sonic LT: More than a new name, Chevy’s new Sonic can compete

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Chevrolet did more than change the name of its moribund Aveo subcompact car, which ends production this year. Chevrolet, the premier global car division at General Motors, actually gave us a genuinely improved subcompact automobile, the 2012 Sonic, which is sold as a hatchback and sedan in three iterations — the base LS, mid-grade LT, and top-of-the-line LTZ.

I drove the Sonic LT hatchback, which costs $1,485 more than the comparable Aveo it replaces.

The Sonic LT has a base price of $15,735. The Aveo 5 1LT comes with a base sticker of $14,250.

The problem: The overall improved design, engineering and build quality of the new Sonic justifies every penny of its higher cost over the Aveo. But the Sonic gains little in value-for-dollar bragging rights, taking into consideration the high quality of the base-midgrade 2012 Hyundai Accent GS — priced at $14,596.

Tipping the value-for-dollar balance in favor of the Hyundai Accent is the excellently crafted, upscale Hyundai Accent SE, which has a base sticker (minus options) of $15,795, only $60 higher than the Sonic LT, but $740 less than the comparable, upscale Sonic LTZ.

Small cars, including subcompacts and compacts, constitute the most price-sensitive parts of the automobile market in the United States. Price matters. But quality matters most.

Luckily for Chevrolet, it now has an entry that truly challenges most of its rivals and soundly challenges others. Exterior styling is top-class. Ever hear of a pretty hatchback? This is one. Interior design and materials are light years from what was offered in the more-mundane-than thou Aveo. And, hallelujah! The sonic has torque — 125 foot-pounds generated by a 1.8-liter, inline four-cylinder engine.

An available, turbocharged, 1.4-liter inline four packs even more boost — 48 foot-pounds of torque. Both engines generate 138 horsepower.

The new Sonics are pocket-rockets in the old tradition — fast little cars. Reasonably fast in that they can move from zero to 60 miles per hour in 8.2 seconds, assuming you’re that keenly interested in track performance. I’m not.

What interests me more is the Sonic’s adoption of advanced automotive technology: 10 standard airbags, including front knee bolsters; a standard 1.8-liter engine that zips and an optional turbocharged inline four-cylinder model that zooms; Bluetooth, iPhone and iPad connectivity; standard OnStar emergency communications with a six-month, introductory free subscription package. Add to that a clever rework of old suspension technology (Macpherson struts up front and torsion beam in the rear) that a does a much-better-than-ordinary job in smoothing out the generally bumpy ride of small cars.

Ride experience: You can get stopped by police in the Sonic LT. It happened to me in Fairfax County. I forgot about twisting power of torque especially in a front-wheel-drive car, such as the one I was driving. I forgot about how a quick application of torque, sending too much power to the drive wheels before the car was really ready to go, could overpower those wheels and make them squeal — loudly in my case.

A county law enforcement officer was idling on my driver’s side at a too long stop light. Naturally, he wanted to have a conversation about my bombastic, seemingly disrespectful behavior.

He pulled me over. We talked. I assured him that I would never intentionally disrespect police. I wasn’t challenging him. I did not tell him I was paying too little attention at the moment, an admission that is guaranteed to bring a stiff traffic violation fine. I told him, instead, that this crazy Sonic car apparently had more torque than any small car ought to have.

I was polite, obsequiously respectful — mindful of using the honorific, “sir.” He listened, fighting back a grin. He noticed my gray hair. He also mentioned that I, at least, waited for the red light to turn the green before I noisily spun the Sonic’s front wheels. He had mercy on me, let me go, probably thinking that I was a little old man in a little car ... who needs to pay more attention when driving.

I’m a proud man. Thinking that the officer was thinking what I thought he was thinking hurt my feelings. But I’d rather take pain in my psyche than a deep wound in my wallet.

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