Test Drive: Chevrolet Sonic is easy to drive, a good value

— -- Sonic is a burger, a boom, a video game character and a new small Chevrolet.

It replaces Chevy's Aveo, never a runaway hit. Sonic has the potential to be one, but the test car didn't quite deliver. Not bad, just not quite as expected.

Sonic's allure is that it is a lot of motor vehicle, with an unusual amount of power and good fuel economy, for the price — roughly $14,500 to $20,500. It stands strong when pitted, on paper, against the Ford Fiesta, a logical rival.

The Chevy is roomier, and feels it. (In fact, it feels more spacious than the Ford Focus, a bigger car.) Sonic is straightforward inside and out, while the Fiesta wears Ford's edgy small-car exterior styling and the automaker's oddball control layout.

Sonic engines are rated 138 horsepower, a lot for the size and price class. (Fiesta is 120 hp.) But the Sonic test car failed to excite.

When you're forced to give up the comforts of size — as you must in a small car — the redeeming attribute should be a delicious nimbleness that sparks delight when you're behind the wheel.

Didn't quite seem to be there. Maybe that's not bad, at least for Chevy. Sonic comes across as a small car for the mainstream, though Chevy is calling it the right choice for frisky drivers.

The test car, an $18,695 LTZ hatchback with optional 1.4-liter turbocharged engine and a manual transmission, was quiet, not boisterous. It went down the road with smooth composure rather than a sense that it was a dog ready to run.

Absurd amounts of construction and road repair in Northern Virginia offered ample opportunity for the test car to send up a roar of road noise, but it never did. Handled that cold-milled asphalt like a premium machine.

The turbo engine, which should have been the big attraction, felt slightly numb, taking a moment to come alive under a heavy right foot. Once awake, it stormed ahead just fine, though.

If you like to blip the gas and rev the engine for downshifts, as all your finer enthusiasts do, the 1.4 turbo could disappoint because of that reluctance to soar up the rev band the instant you toe the throttle.

The Sonic's front seat area was unencumbered by the customary fat center console or intrusive door panel control pods. That space-conscious design opened extra width that made Sonic feel like a bigger car. No sense of that driver-oriented cockpit that some automakers try to execute (often badly). Back seat knee and leg space was tolerable only if a tall person didn't have the front seat slid well back.

The interior's fairly plain, which isn't bad. But a few plastic parts look and feel cheap. The only jazz inside is, in fact, a drawback. A big, round traditional tachometer is cheek-by-jowl with a cheap-looking rectangle that houses digital readouts and warning lights. Chevy says it's supposed to resemble what motorcycles do. Never understood that. Motorcycles have a different appeal than cars, obviously, and the two don't always mix well.

Visibility in the hatchback was good, despite the wide rear roof pillars. Cargo space is generous with the back seats up or down.

The essentials — steering precision, brake feel, cornering ability — all seemed more than satisfactory. Sonic is unlikely to annoy you with petulant dynamic behavior.

A lukewarm reaction to Sonic could be a matter of expectations more than a fault of the car's.

Chevy's choice of engines from the bigger, heavier Cruze and a need to gain ground fast in the fierce small-car market signaled that the Sonic would be closer to the life of the party than the test car seemed.

Still, it's hard to find big gripes — except that ugly instrument panel and the industry-standard cheap-out sun visors than don't extend to help block sun-blindness.

Sonic is a good car: useful, easy to drive, a good value. It's just not the high-class, scintillating little scooter we were expecting. For many buyers, though, it could hit the sweet spot.

•What? Front-drive, four-door subcompact available as a sedan or a hatchback, replacing South Korean Aveo in Chevrolet lineup.

•When? On sale since late August.

•Why? Aveo wasn't popular enough or competitive enough to battle the flood of new small cars.

•Where? Built at Orion Township, Mich.

•How much? Base LS sedan starts at $14,495, including shipping. Base hatchback starts at $15,395. Automatic transmission is $1,070 option with base engine.

Test car was a well-equipped LTZ hatchback with 1.4 turbo engine and manual transmission, priced at $18,695.

•What makes it go? Base engine is 1.8-liter four-cylinder rated 138 horsepower at 6,300 rpm, 125 pounds-feet of torque at 3,800 rpm.

Optional ($700, available on high-end LT and LTZ models): 1.4-liter turbocharged four-cylinder rated 138 hp at 4,900, 148 lbs.-ft. at 1,850.

Five-speed manual is standard on 1.8, six-speed automatic optional. Six-speed manual standard on 1.4 turbo. Optional six-speed automatic for 1.4 turbo is due next spring.

•How big? Similar to Ford Fiesta, Sonic sedan is 173.1 inches long, 68.3 in. wide, 59.7 in. tall on a 99.4-in. wheelbase. Hatchback is the same, except 159 in. long.

Weighs 2,684 to 2,862 lbs., depending on model and equipment. Passenger space, 90.4 (sedan) or 90.6 (hatchback) cu. ft. Cargo: 14 cu. ft. (sedan), or 19 cu. ft. behind rear seat and 30.7 cu. ft. when seat's folded (hatchback).

Turning circle diameter: 34.5 ft. curb-to-curb with standard 15- or 16-inch wheels, 36.1 ft. with 17-in. wheels.

•How thirsty? 1.8 manual rated 26 mpg in town, 35 highway, 29 in mixed driving. 1.8 automatic: 25/35/28 mpg. 1.4 turbo manual: 29/40/33.

Trip computer in hatchback test car with 1.4 turbo, manual, registered 26.1 mpg (3.83 gallons per 100 miles) in suburban driving.

•Overall: Lot of car for the price.