The Chevrolet Sonic, shown here in five-door hatchback form, is the newest subcompact car from GM's iconic brand.

Courtesy photo
CNHI News Service

Chevrolet historically has had a split personality.

On one side, it's always made some of the best full-size pickups and SUVs on the road. Chevy's engineers long ago figured out the formula for building big, comfortable vehicles that last a long time.

On the other hand, Chevy's small cars have struggled against Japanese brands since the 1980s. Honda and Toyota were known for making fun-to-drive, long-lasting cars, and Chevy simply wasn't.

Finally, that's starting to change.

There were signs of the shift a few years ago when the new Cobalt was introduced. It was the closest General Motors had ever come to beating the Japanese brands where they were strongest, which is in compact cars.

And now Chevrolet has introduced a little car that makes it harder than ever to choose a foreign-brand vehicle in this segment. It's called the Sonic.

The Sonic is an all-new subcompact car — actually the smallest and least expensive Chevy for sale today, starting under $14,000 — but it doesn't feel cheap like the bottom-end Chevys did in the 1980s and '90s.

Like the Malibu and Cruze before it, the Sonic has gotten the full "New GM" makeover that gives it more refinement, a better cabin and an advanced drivetrain.

In other words, it neutralizes all the traditional strengths of Japanese cars.

It's thoroughly modern. It's enjoyable to drive. It looks and feels spunky.

If you compare it with its most direct foreign competition — the Honda Fit and Toyota Yaris — the Sonic comes out a narrow winner, in my opinion. It's more exciting than the Yaris and feels more solid than the Fit, which is really saying something.

It also comes out ahead on gas mileage. The Chevy is rated for 40 mpg on the highway, compared to 38 in the Toyota and 35 in the Honda.

A big reason for that is its engine technology, and there's really only one thing to remember about it: the Sonic's smaller engine is the one you want.

Unlike the longstanding tradition in American cars, where you pay more to upgrade to a bigger engine, the Sonic lets you pay more to upgrade to a smaller powerplant that comes with a turbocharger.

The base engine is a 1.8-liter four-cylinder model that's durable but just a bit old fashioned. It makes 138 horsepower.

The much better engine — and the one that will get 40 mpg with a manual transmission — is the smaller, 1.4-liter Ecotec. It makes the same horsepower and significantly more torque than the 1.8-liter engine, but it gets better gas mileage and feels smoother and more refined.

What's the downside for the Sonic? Well, it's that the benchmark has changed.

Japanese compact cars aren't the best in the world anymore. That title has now been passed to the Korean peninsula where Hyundai is cranking out jaw-droppers like the new Elantra and Accent.

No matter how you look at it, though, the Sonic is the best subcompact car Chevrolet has built in decades. It's great to see a brand with all-American roots regaining its competitiveness in this category.

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