AT last year's Vancouver International Auto Show, the GM booth was all abuzz with excitement over Chevy's plug-in hybrid, the Volt.
In fact, so many journalists were glommed on to the diminutive gas-sipper, they might as well have dubbed it the Chevrolet Static Cling.
Not me. I was over in the corner checking out an even diminutive-er machine, a little orange sub-compact with the four-eyed front-end of a mid-1980s BMW. It's called the Sonic and it has some pretty interesting specs: available six-speed manual transmission, turbo-charged 1.4-litre engine with a grunty 148 foot-pounds of torque, and motorcycle-themed instrumentation.
General Motors has already earned my undying gratitude as an automotive journalist for having made, in the past, some pretty shoddy small cars. It's all very well to intimate that the glorious steering feel on a Ferrari is akin to rubbing suntan lotion onto circa-1964 Sophia Loren, but there is an equal amount of glee to be had, for instance, in noting that the Pontiac Sunfire is not a car to be set aside lightly; instead, it should be flung via trebuchet directly into the Marianas Trench.
With this new car Chevy has made a greater leap forward than with the hightechnology Volt. Finally, GM is making a car that is not just competent but, frankly, excellent. The turbocharged Sonic LTZ is pretty much as good as a Mini Cooper S for the monthly payments of a Nissan Versa.
However, Chevy won't sell too many of the turbo-and-a-stick-shift hot model. Most of the Sonics sold will be this model here, the mid-level LT model with a 1.8-litre engine and an automatic transmission. The question is, in this more basic trim, is the Sonic still any good?
As mentioned, the front end of the Sonic has a smidgen of E28 BMW about the headlights. The quad round headlights add a certain amount of European flair in a throw-back to earlier cars that somehow blends well with the Sonic's chunky modern styling.
A high beltline and truncated back end give the Sonic a sort of escape-pod sensibility, and the hidden rear door-handles make the car look even smaller and sportier than it is.
One caveat, the broad expanse of sheetmetal on the sides of the car along with the small greenhouse (think Camaro), can make the Sonic look goofy with smaller-sized wheels. The LT has 15-inch wheels as standard, but you're well advised to select the $1,550 Appearance Package which adds the appropriately sporty 17-inch rims, along with other niceties such as a moonroof and fog lights.
The Sonic's tall profile makes for easy wriggling in and out of the car when wedged in a narrow parking space. Once inside, you won't be fooled into thinking you're in an expensive car - its cousin the Chevy Cruze is a bit more conservative and upmarket - but the layout of the dash is sensible and practical with any number of useful cubby-holes.
Then there's that motorcycle instrumentation I keep talking about. It really is authentically like a modern sports-bike with a round tachometer blended with an in-set rectangular speedometer that gives you a digital readout. It's unlike anything else you've seen in a car before, but not gimmicky at all: it works with the feel of the car.
The rest of the interior is sporty and certainly youthoriented. However, there's lots of hard-touch plastic everywhere and it's not quite as stylish as some of the Korean offerings.
What's more, while the rear seat room is surprisingly good, the Sonic can't quite match the segment's practicality leader, the aptly named Honda Fit. The little Chevy's rear seats fold better than in the Nissan Versa, but aren't as clever as the Honda.
Overall though, the Sonic is such an enormous improvement over previous bow-tie offerings that these minor issues seem like mere nit-picking.
On paper, the power gap between the top-spec 1.4-litre turbocharged engine in the Sonic LTZ and this model's 1.8-litre engine is pretty small. The turbo mill puts out 138 h.p. and the larger Ecotec makes 135 h.p.
However, the true tale is one of torque, with the 1.4litre turbo producing its 148 foot-pounds of twist all the way down at 1,850 r.p.m. By comparison, the larger engine makes a still-respectable 125 foot-pounds, but you need to rev it up to 3,800 r.p.m.
The difference in the drive can be minimized by opting for a manual transmission to keep the 1.8 singing in its sweet spot, but the optional six-speed automatic is seemingly only interested in upshifting early in saving fuel.
This is no bad thing, but some of the Sonic's fun factor is surely sapped by the autobox's reluctance to change up and tendency to lug the engine somewhat. Shifting smoothness could be improved as well - perhaps a transmission software upgrade could improve these teething troubles.
Thankfully, there's nothing changed with the rest of the Sonic's dynamics. The steering is still delightfully quick and darty (if a little numb on-center), and the 17-inch rims with their 205series tires offer a surprising amount of grip, certainly as much as you'll ever need on the street.
Standard features on the $18,990 LT trim include power windows and mirrors, CD player with MP3 capability, premium cloth seats, six airbags, four-channel anti-lock brakes and airconditioning: everything you might expect.
What you might not expect is to have to pay $465 extra for the "Peace of Mind" package which adds sideimpact airbags for rear-seat passengers and driver and passenger knee-airbags. I'm not sure I actually need an airbag just for my knee, but the Sonic only gets its highest safety marks if this option is included.
As mentioned, the Appearance package adds a power moonroof and gets the look right with 17-inch rims. Another must-have package would be the very reasonable ($510) Sound Package, which adds USB connectivity, two extra speakers and Bluetooth.
For the price, it's a nobrainer.
Curiously, this lesspowerful 1.8-litre engine option also returns poorer fuel-economy than the peppier 1.4-litre turbo.
Transport Canada rates the automatic-equipped 1.8-litre Ecotec at 8.3 litres/100 kilometres city and 5.5 l/100 km highway, compared to the turbo's 7.3 l/100 km city and 5.1 l/100 km highway.
During my time with the little car, I have to say the observed efficiency was quite good, perhaps better than the ratings might indicate.
Nippy handling; excellent fuel-economy; sporty interior. Stop sign
Reluctant automatic transmission; wheel-upgrade required for maximum curb appeal.
The checkered flag
Finally, a small car that Chevy - and anyone who buys one - can be justifiably proud of.
Competitors Fiat 500 ($13,595)
Ciao bella! Fiat's compact car might be based on the ultra-pragmatic Panda but it has flair and verve and the sense that if you fed it enough protein shakes it might grow up to be a Ferrari. All this in spite of the sort of horsepower rating you'd expect from a push lawnmower.
However, the little Fiat's not selling as well as you might expect, partially as it's been pitched as a direct competitor to the premium-priced Mini Cooper - which it's not. Wait for the turbocharged Abarth version to come along soon, or see yourself into a Sonic for some four-door practicality instead. Kia Rio ($14,095)
Her name is Rio and she dances on the sand . . . er, tarmac. The littlest Kia is as slick as any one of its stylish stablemates and packed with a shocking amount of technology for the price.
The high-end SX trim even includes such niceties as a full leather interior and a heated steering wheel. It's a nice interior too, as good as that in the award-winning Optima sedan, and the stylish Euro-look of the hatchback is sure to appeal to the youth buying segment.
On the other hand, and like many other compacts, the Rio's 1.6-litre GDI engine has to be flogged a little to get you up and going. While the Sonic lacks the premium goodies of the Korean offering, that turbocharged engine makes it practically a good ol' musclecar by comparison.