Perhaps I should have known right away, when I saw the stilt walkers, that this wasn't going to be your average car launch.
The morning was already scorching hot at the Atlantis hotel car park in Dubai, where Chevrolet had set up its first introduction of the new Sonic compact car to the Middle East media, complete with said circus acts, a variety of events and challenges and guest speakers to talk about the car. General Motors has high hopes for this little Sonic here, and it wanted to hammer home the notion that this is a cool car aimed at the youth market to make them, well, cool and youthful.
And so, as a group of 40 or so auto journalists sweated through the day, the events were fun and frivolous: knocking a giant football into a net with the car, painting one with wash-off graffiti, packing as many boxes into the boot as possible, roaming out on a short scavenger hunt; you get the idea. I sure did.
The problem is, I can't help but be a cynical, sceptical journalist; there wasn't much of a chance to really get a feel for the car and, typically, when someone says something is cool, it is, in fact, completely the opposite; warning bells started clanging in my head. GM is hiding something, I thought. I have to spend a bit more time with this car.
And so I did. And what a pleasant surprise it was.
The Sonic comes in two body styles: a four-door saloon and a four-door hatchback. The saloon has more staid styling and is likely to be seen most on a hire car lot, but the hatchback - the one I'm spending time with - is downright stylish. It's tall but rakish, with sharp creases, four round headlamps at the front and a squat stance with its rear wheels pushed all the way to the bumper. Features such as hidden rear door handles and sporty wheels add to its sophistication; GM has finally built a nice-looking car in the compact category and its styling will be a big selling feature here.
And as nice as the exterior is, the interior is more than satisfying. Though it's a small car, even tall passengers won't want for space - headroom is more than ample, even with the lower ceiling of the sunroof and rear passengers won't be rubbing their knees against the front seats. Cargo space ranks among the best in class, though the rear seats don't fold completely flat.
The layout is both creative and smart; the gauge cluster is modelled after that of a motorcycle, and it's easy to read. Though the materials used are mainly hard plastic, it's done well, with different textures and colours, and the switchgear feels a bit more upscale, especially the rubberised buttons on the steering wheel that control the stereo and cruise control. And for such an inexpensive car, you do get a well-stocked cabin; features on this mid-level LS model include electric mirrors, door locks and windows, an excellent stereo system with USB connectivity, a sunroof, cruise control, A/C and tilt steering (though not telescopic). For such a so-called econobox, there's not much left out of the Sonic, save for a sat/nav.
Though North America and other markets will get a 138hp, 1.8L engine, the Middle East gets a 115hp, 1.6L four-cylinder, mainly to keep the cost of the car down here. I'd always rather have more horsepower, and this 1.6L is not scintillating by any means, but it is a competent motor, especially when you start to get the revs up. It has no problem holding speed on the motorway and offers some good zip when the speed is up, but it can be a bit anaemic coming off the line, a downfall that's really to be expected in this low-cost sector.
Coupled to that engine is an all-new, six-speed automatic; a first for this segment, where most cars have four or five cogs. And while the extra gear helps with acceleration and fuel economy, it's continuously searching up and down for the right gear in city traffic due to the engine's lower horsepower. It can be a bit annoying at times but it does aid the performance. GM also offers a new five-speed manual in the Sonic, a gearbox that would probably better suit more spirited driving.
But the biggest wow by far, for me, is the Sonic's handling and comportment on the road. Despite its entry-level cost, this is a genuinely fun car to drive. The chassis is rock solid and clearly better than what the engine can offer it; you know the car can be pushed farther but the 115hp just isn't able to offer any more help to reach the chassis' limits. Cornering is tight and crisp and there's a bit of body roll but understeer, thankfully, comes later than you would expect. And despite this crisp handling, the ride is firm but very comfortable, and it offers a sophistication you'd expect from larger, more expensive cars. It's a calm, solid ride at higher speeds on the motorway, and only during heavy gusts of wind blowing across Sheikh Zayed Bridge did I find it just a little unsettled and roaming.
Ulrich Schmalohr is GM's head of global small cars and the vice president of GM Korea, where the Sonic was designed and will be built. He was at the launch and said that, when first designing the Sonic, engineers looked at all the available chassis GM had across its world portfolio at the time and developed a new one based on the best features of them all. And, thankfully, GM announced recently that it will build a performance version of the Sonic with more horsepower. I can't wait to drive it.
Yes, this car has a youthful appeal to it, but I think it will appeal to more than just the youth of the Middle East. Will this car make you cool? I can pretty well guarantee no; if you need a car to be cool, nothing will help you. But with this spirit and these features at such a low cost,what it probably will do is make you smile. Isn't that more important?
Base price / as tested Dh44,800 / Dh53,500
Engine 1.6L inline four cylinder
Gearbox Six-speed automatic
Power 115hp @ 6,000rpm
Torque 155Nm @ 4,000rpm
Fuel economy, combined 7.2L/100km