The Chevrolet Sonic 1.3D LS hatch arrives, and surprises Ryan Bubear.
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Diesel. Most petrol-heads hate the stuff*.
Where's the excitement? Where's the explosiveness? Where's the fire? Pah, diesel. It's for buses, trains and ships. Not for serious motorcars.
At least, that's the way it was. Yes, gradually, car manufacturers realised that shoehorning a diesel engine into a small hatch was actually a smart move. Utter blasphemy in the face of the mighty Petrol Gods perhaps, but smart nonetheless.
Today, diesel lumps can have character. Some sparkle. Some are even refined enough to be mistaken for their distant petrol cousins. They no longer have to be crude beasts, ticking over with the elegance of a cow falling down a mountain (I haven't seen this happen, but I can imagine it's not very elegant). And in addition to their relatively new-found civility, diesels have a distinct advantage over their petrol-powered counterparts: economy.
Enter the Chevrolet Sonic diesel. In South Africa, at the moment, the oil-burner is only available as a hatchback, whereas the 1.4 and 1.6 petrol engines come in either hatch or sedan form. Oh, and for the record, only the 1.6 petrol-powered sedan is offered with an automatic gearbox.
We had a white Sonic Hatch 1.3D LS to whizz about in for a week. And what a pleasant surprise it was.
It may have a capacity of just 1248cc, but this turbocharged diesel engine still boasts rather impressive figures. According to the folks at General Motors, it produces 70kW and, more importantly, a substantial 210Nm. Sure, the diesel Sonic doesn't travel at the speed of, well, sound, but it can certainly stand toe-to-toe with its petrol-propelled — and less efficient — Sonic siblings.
The only thing is, all that torque arrives in one, heavy, turbo-shaped lump. From around 1800rpm to about 2500rpm, the Sonic pulls rather remarkably. Short of the former figure, however, there is an appreciable lag. But, learn to drive it in this little power band — when you're in need of the extra grunt, anyway — and this is a foible soon forgotten.
To the ear, the engine is not the most refined — in fact, the noise upon start-up may convince you to get out and check that your hatch hasn't somehow transformed into a small diesel bakkie — but in terms of vibration, it is unusually well-mannered. There's no shuddering, no lumpiness, and hardly any vibrations are transmitted into the cabin.
The six-speed manual gearbox (the petrol versions make do with one cog fewer) is one of this diesel's best features. It's slick, facilitates precise gear-changes, and wouldn't be at all out of place in a sportier vehicle. And the all-important sixth gear allows exceptionally quiet and efficient freeway cruising at low rpm.
The Sonic diesel has a CO2 rating of just 119g per km and a claimed combined fuel economy figure of 4.6 litres per 100km. Under our completely unscientific, everyday testing (which involved far too many short trips, if we're honest), we returned a still-impressive figure of 5.6. Had we spent a bit more time on the open road, that number would no doubt have been a bit closer to five.
Sonic or new Aveo?
We've focused on what's under the bonnet, but what about the rest of the car? Well, it was launched in South Africa bearing the Sonic badge, but a large chunk of the rest of the world knows it as the new Aveo. Park the Sonic next to the "old" Aveo (as we did), and the resemblance is plain to see. In terms of general dimensions, they're pretty much identical.
The Sonic's "exposed" style headlights are one of its defining exterior characteristics, and immediately sets it apart from the old Aveo. More pronounced bonnet lines, hidden rear door handles and a slightly more planted stance do the same. The signature dual port grille remains, and suits the aggressively styled headlights well.
Inside, there is far more space than one would expect from a hatch measuring a little over four metres long. Head-room is ample — even for the beanpoles among us — and legroom in the rear is nowhere near as cramped as one would expect. The Sonic is one of those rare vehicles that appear small from the outside, but big from the inside.
And other than the odd bit of obligatory hard plastic, the cabin has a feel of quality about it. From the indicator stalks, to the gearlever, to the instrument cluster, everything seems to be rather well put-together. In fact, the overall package feels pleasant, and frankly, quite polished. The seats are firm enough to be supportive, but not so rigid as to be uncomfortable, and each and every knob turns with a smoothness and exactness that suggests plenty of thought was put into the design of the interior.
The instrument cluster is compact, but features an over-sized digital speedometer. An analogue rev-counter sits to the left of this, and the entire ensemble benefits from a modern blue backlighting. Boot capacity sits at 290 litres — or some 653 with the back seats folded down — and a second "upper" cubbyhole is useful for smaller items.
The Sonic is available in one trim level only. This LS specification sees 15-inch alloys, power steering, adjustable steering column, air-con, electric windows (sans one-touch operation, unfortunately), power side mirrors, radio/CD/MP3/auxiliary input, ABS with EBD, airbags, and fog lights as standard. Available options — which were fitted to our test vehicle — include an upgraded sound system, a USB port (to be found in the second glovebox mentioned above), Bluetooth, multifunctional steering wheel, and cruise control.
The Sonic is fun to drive, handles admirably (thanks in part to its relatively short wheelbase), and has a comfortable ride to boot. And, of course, it's covered by Chevrolet's five-year or 120 000km warranty and three-year or 60 000km service plan.
Yes, it's a diesel. And, no, it's not going to blow your socks off with hot-hatch rivalling performance. But it's honest. It's well put together. And it boasts an economy figure that would make a number of hybrids blush.
And, perhaps most importantly of all, it does all of this without being in the least bit dull.
Diesel. Who would've thought it could be this fun.
*based on a not-so-scientific, not-even-remotely independent poll of five random blokes.
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See page 2 for specs and pricing.