As vehicle manufacturers begin to focus on global products, small
cars take on a new emphasis. And the 2012 Chevrolet Sonic is a new global car, one that is representative of GM’s new competitiveness.
You walk into a parking garage in the basement of a hotel in the San Francisco Mission District. It has been taken over by Chevrolet for a presentation about the 2012 Sonic. There are about 20 cars, sedans and five-doors. Small cars. There is an area set up for presentations.
Difference 1: Historically, if General Motors was going to be building small cars for sale in the U.S. market, especially subcompacts, those cars would be manufactured someplace else. Some place not in the U.S. market. The abiding argument was that the company “couldn’t make money” producing small cars in the U.S. Post-restructuring, GM is all about making money. Yet the Chevrolet Sonic is being produced in the GM Orion Assembly Center in southeastern Michigan.
What’s more, the Sonic is being built along with the compact Buick Verano in the plant.
GM invested some $545-million in order to achieve the wherewithal to profitably produce small cars in the U.S. And the UAW got on board by agreeing to work under contractual conditions that permit lean and flexible operations in the Orion complex.
According to GM, the Sonic is the only subcompact car for sale in the U.S. that is being manufactured in the U.S.
Emphasis on only.
You can be confident that GM is planning to make money on the Sonic.
Difference 2: The area set up for the presentations (e.g., on why the Millennial Generation thinks of Baby Boomers as something out of the Neolithic era [although according to the Pew Research Institute “They respect their elders”], and why vehicle manufacturers are going to have to position cars differently in order to make them relevant to this burgeoning breed of buyer—and according to John McFarland, senior manager, GM Global Strategic Marketing, there are some 80-million Millennials) has a painted background that isn’t grey, green or some other typically institutional color with a few Chevy logos affixed in place.
Rather, it is painted by a graffiti artist from Detroit. Antonio “Shades” Agee.
Although most of the people to whom the presentations will be made were not born between ’82 and ’03—and the boundaries for the bracketing dates are somewhat fluid—the backdrops indicate that the entire approach to this car is more like Scion than Chevy—and realize that Scion is visibly separated from Toyota and the Sonic is going to be smack, dab in the middle of Chevy showrooms. (Yes, Chevy dealers are going to undergo some training that will deal, in part, with the Gen Y buyer.)
Difference 3: This one is the most striking. For years the default comparative car was always something from Toyota. And, yes, the Toyota Yaris is in the competitive set, as are the Honda Fit and Hyundai Accent.
But these are bullet points straight from Chevy:
• Available efficient Ecotec 1.4L turbo engine rated at an estimated 138 horsepower (103 kW)—18 horsepower more than Ford Fiesta—that delivers competitive fuel economy . . .
• Sedan offers trunk capacity that is greater than most compact cars; hatchback and sedan offer better rear-seat roominess than Ford Fiesta. With a rear seat that folds nearly flat, the Sonic hatchback has greater cargo capacity than Fiesta.
That’s right: Hometown rivals are rivals again. Both are offering competitive vehicles in the subcompact space. Incredible to see this shift in competence and confidence.
And it may be interesting to note that the Fiesta is assembled at the Cuautitlán Stamping and Assembly Plant, Cuautitlán Izcalli, Mexico.
However . . .
The Sonic was engineered at GM Korea in Bupyeong-gu. It was designed there. And it is also being manufactured there for domestic and export markets—but not for North America.
Still: Joaquin Nuño-Whelan, GM vehicle chief engineer and vehicle line executive, says that the Sonic is “the most globally integrated program” that the corporation has ever executed.
Still: Kathy Sirvio, GM design manager—Global Chevrolet Color and Trim, spent three years working in South Korea with a focus on the interior of the Sonic (among other vehicles), working with John Mack, who, at the time, was managing director of Advanced Architecture Design and director for Gamma Advanced Design—as in the platform for the Sonic.
Nuño-Whelan points out that on the one hand, they developed the vehicle so that it would be globally competitive in every market from the start, “so that we didn’t have to do dumb things later.” And, yes, the car was specifically tuned for the U.S., as regards the powertrain and the ride and handling of the vehicle.
But still: The Sonic (though known as the Aveo elsewhere) is a global car.
Aveo? Is the Sonic simply a refresh of the smallest Chevy in the U.S. showroom that hasn’t exactly set sales records? No, Nuño-Whelan answers. This is a car that is completely different. Not a bit of shared sheet metal or plastic with the car that the Sonic replaces.
What You Need to Know About the Sonic
Compared to the Aveo, it has 10% more spot welds for a rigid structure.
The bending mode of the trimmed body is 23 Hz.
Almost 60% of the body structure is made with high-strength steel (as are four hydroformed mounts that are used as part of the engine cradle structure), with ultra-high-strength steel (with tensile strength 1,000 MPa or higher) deployed primarily ahead of the rockers.
The passenger compartment is engineered as a safety cage, with reinforce-ments for the front hinge and A- and B-pillars. The Sonic’s roof structure can withstand forces that equal more than five times the vehicle’s weight.
The Sonic has a drag coefficient of 0.315.
Quietness is a key characteristic of the car, which the stiff structure and the coefficient of drag help contribute to. There are noise abatement mats used between the engine and the passenger department tuned to the particular powertrain used. Composite nylon baffles are used.
Most notably, there is the use of liquid-applied sound deadening (LASD) material in place of adhesively applying damping materials. LASD outperforms those materials by 10 to 40%. While LASD isn’t typical in a car in the Sonic’s class, this goes back to the GM Orion Assembly Center: the LASD equipment was installed for the Buick Verano, and as they have it available there . . . a win for the Sonic.
There are two engines and three transmissions available for the Sonic. Both of the engines have hollow-frame cast iron blocks and aluminum heads. Both have dual-overhead cams and continuously variable valve timing. The 1.4-liter is turbocharged and is rated at 138 hp @ 4,900 rpm and 148 lb-ft of torque between 2,500 and 4,900 rpm. The 1.8-liter is naturally aspirated; it provides 138 hp @ 6,300 rpm and 125 lb-ft of torque at 3,800 rpm.
The standard transmission with the 1.8-liter engine is a five-speed manual. The optional transmission is a six-speed automatic, the Hydra-Matic 6T30, the first deployment of this transmission in a North American application. It is designed so that the planetary gear sets are on the same axis as the crankshaft centerline, thereby providing a more compact powertrain package. The 1.4-liter turbo comes with a six-speed manual.
Inside, it is the now-becoming-standard Chevy dual-cockpit theme, with an emphasis on the centerstack. Kathy Sirvio explains that they didn’t want a design that flows across the car as much as one that is centered. She says the instrument cluster in the car is influenced by motorcycle design (this is also said to be a characteristic of the exterior, at least as regards the headlamps); she ought to know more than a little something about that as she rides a 2004 Moto Guzzi Breva 750. Another interesting aspect is the way the materials are used: “We wanted the materials to be what they are, not try to be something they’re not. If it is a plastic, then let it be a plastic, but use a grain and molded-in color, for example.”
While Sirvio says that she and her team worked with seven GM design studios around the globe during vehicle development (she also worked on the forthcoming Spark and the already in-market Cruze—“I’ve spent the last seven years working exclusively on Chevrolet,” she says, pointing out that during her 20 years with GM—straight out of College for Creative Studies—she had the opportunity to work on every brand in the portfolio, including those brands that no longer exist) for input. She says that every region tends to have an area of specialization (e.g., in Korea it is fabrics; in German grain technologies; in Australia its advanced development), and that they work to benefit from one another.
The Primary Difference: You talk with Joaquin Nuño-Whelan. You talk with Kathy Sirvio. You talk with other members of the Sonic development team.
And you recognize that there is a confidence that is born of hard work and authenticity, of understanding and achievement, a bona-fide confidence in the product that they’ve created, not the bluster that had too long been characteristic of some of the products produced by the General.