2012 Chevrolet Sonic LTZ: Au revoir, Aveo!

Price: $18,845 as tested (base price: $16,535).

Marketer's pitch: Sometimes looks aren't deceiving.

Conventional wisdom: It looks like a small car from Chevrolet. But Chevrolet has a habit of treating the poor and/or frugal less than well.

Reality: The Sonic is not super, but it's not bad.

Starter clutch: The EcoTec 1.4-liter turbo (a $700 option) in the LTZ comes only with a six-speed manual (the base 1.8-liter has a five-speed or a six-speed auto).

It's perfect for someone learning to drive a stick because this is the most forgiving clutch I've ever felt. It takes forever to engage, and then the wheels just start to roll. I never stalled it once, and even I, Mr. Driver's Seat, tend to space out at least once a week or so and embarrass myself.

On the other hand ... : The gearbox will give drivers a good workout. The throws are long and gear changes frequently required.

If you follow the "Shift" light to mileage Nirvana, every little hill requires a downshift, and it's usually best to go one gear lower than you think you'll need.

And on the other foot ... : The accelerator pedal also requires some extra persuasion.

I've grown accustomed to "Tap it and it flies" settings on gas pedals. The Sonic is the closer to my '68 Volkswagen Beetle, which always makes me feel very involved in my own transportation.

I first thought it had zero power for hill climbing, but then I pushed a little harder and found it was all in the accelerator adjustment.

Low revs: I never really felt the turbo kick in. The Sonic had adequate power at low revs, which is a surprising place for such a tiny engine to spend most of its time. The engine speed at 55 m.p.h. is 1,500 r.p.m. in sixth gear; compare that with the 2,700 r.p.m. of my old Protege5 in fourth. That's a lot less internal movement, and a mileage booster.

Fun factor: If I'm going to drive something that colleagues poke fun at, I want to at least have some fun doing it. This car is not down in the humdrum Honda Civic or torpid Toyota Corolla range, but it also never reaches Ford Fiesta party-time levels or even Hyundai Accent enthusiasm.

Storing stuff: I tend to find small sedans not as attractive or sensible, but the trunk on the model I tested was surprisingly big. I hauled a week's worth of Sturgis Kid 2.0's books and laundry, plus a companion's stuff, and didn't have to arrange the space to make things fit.

A trip to the store to replenish junk food, energy drinks, and other college-kid necessities for 1.0 and 2.0 also reinforced the roominess of the trunk.

Hauling friends: The rear quarters are thoughtfully designed and comfortable, but putting a third person back there would be punishment for all three.

The front seats are comfortable and don't feel narrow.

The cockpit: GM brings the Cruze dashboard and controls to the Sonic, and they are thoughtfully designed.

A nicer touch than afforded the Cruze is the motorcycle-inspired speedometer and info pod. Easy to read and attractive.

Turn on, tune in: The radio controls are so simple and attractive that one wonders why GM wouldn't think of dumping the old aggravation station (yes, I'm looking at you, Equinox and Traverse) for this set-up. When you've found something that works, share it.

And CD storage abounds. A pair of vertical racks near the heater vents hold three or four each, and an upper glovebox holds another half dozen or so. Which is good, because between the front seats is room for two cups. That's it.

Feeding the Sonic: During the week I had it, I observed 36 m.p.g., which is tied with the Toyota Corolla as the mileage winner among my tests.

But the Corolla was a four-speed auto, so a stick likely would improve things immensely.

In fact, it's only one m.p.g. better than I observed in the Cruze Eco, but I was unexcited by the Cruze. And if you want an automatic, you're stuck with the 1.8-liter four, which may pull gas mileage down.

Where it's built: Lake Orion, Mich.

How it's built: The hapless Aveo was at the bottom of the J.D. Power heap for initial quality and average for predicted reliability.

This being a new model, though, divining quality is tricky. But the last model assembled at the Orion plant was the Chevrolet Malibu, which scores "better than most" in predicted reliability.

In the end: Chevrolet has rejoined the small-car game. I still like the Accent or Fiesta for fun - and good looks - but the Sonic measures up as well.

Contact staff writer Scott Sturgis
at ssturgis@phillynews.com or 215-854-2558.