Saturday, October 26, 2013

The Hedgehog and the Antelope

This week, fate put me in two sedans on opposite ends of the Chevrolet spectrum (pun not intended), as I rented both the Sonic LTZ Turbo and the Impala LT. It was a great opportunity to see how one company serves 20-somethings and 40-somethings alike.

The Hedgehog

The Sonic has one of the best faces in its class. Aggressive blackout headlamp clusters flank the corporate grille giving the car a youthful, sporty appeal. Body lines are better on the slightly-more-expensive Sonic hatchback, in which the design energy is continued through a great relationship between the rear doors and the c-pillar; and a tidy tail with blackout tail lamps. By comparison, the sedan's arse is just... kind of... there.

While well-laid-out and feature-rich, Sonic's interior is a penalty box. Unlike its big brother, the Cruze, coddling isn't in its vocabulary. Don't get me wrong—it was comfortable to drive, though obviously a little tight for back seat adults. It just has no elements of warmth, whatsoever. Hard surfaces abound and the small, motorcycle-style gauge cluster leaves a lot of empty expanses on the dash. This LTZ did have MyLink touchscreen, voice recognition, OnStar, and heated leather—nice touches not expected on a $20,000 entry-level sedan.

Like the fleet-footed video game icon, the Sonic Turbo wants to be quick and fast. Not having a good basis of comparison, I didn't find it to be either. I'm sure a manual transmission would help a great deal. Its 138hp turbo four certainly gets the job done, and steering is quick and precise. But power doesn't come on strong enough, and seems to fade fast. It certainly trounces the baby brother Spark, but if Chevy wants to move more Sonic Turbos, they should make the Sonic Turbo move more. If this were more of a little barn burner, it could easily make shoppers forget it's tiny competitors, like Mazda2, and FIAT 500,

The Antelope

When my Enterprise agent offered me an Impala, he and his co-workers were surprised to see me cringe. The 2013 Impala is a throwback to a platform from the late '90's. Only cops should drive it. Yet Chevy continues to make them in 2014 as the Impala Limited, for rental fleets ONLY.

What I didn't realize was that the agent was offering me the all-new 2014 Impala LT, sister-ship of the Buick LaCrosse and Cadillac XTS. THAT, my friends, is a whole other story.

Fly me to the moon, indeed.

During the walkaround, my three developer friends and I oohed and ahhed over Impala's sexy looks. The Camaro-esque front end looks great, even with the slightly over-sculpted front hood. The body sides are handsome and crisp—I just wish Chevy would ditch their slavery to that arc which flares over the rear wheel well. It's a design vestige from years gone by that should be given the Coco Chanel treatment: Remove one accessory. The tail is a bit of a nap, but looks much better on models with the integrated chrome exhaust ports. This $30,000 LT was not such a model.

Inside, Impala dazzles. Some might find the details a little too much, while others will appreciate its American boldness. I'm of the latter thinking. I love the dual-cowl dash with its contrasting stitching, echoing the upholstery treatment. The seats are supremely comfortable and I loved the fabric inserts, which keep winter cold and summer hot from coming into contact with the lower back. Controls to the bountiful features quite literally fall into your hands. And Chevy has out-cooled Cadillac with a secret Batcave on the dash that slides the MyLink touchscreen open guillotine-style, to reveal a secret cubby with a USB port. Quibbles? Steering wheel looks like it came off a utility van; door lock switches are hard to see/find; giant touchscreen can't be independently dimmed. And it's a shame to have to plunge a key into that dash. A car this nice should always have pushbutton start.

I recently bought a 2013 Buick Regal GS, specifically avoiding the 2014 model and the advanced safety features that come with it, in favor of the previous year's higher horsepower. Speaks to my priorities. This Impala was my first taste of the safety features I missed out on in making that decision. Lane departure warning, blind spot warning, following distance/collision avoidance, and back-up camera with active telemetry - Impala had it all. And I loved it. Especially the backup camera, which connects to the steering to superimpose motion graphics onto live video, helping guide you into parking spaces. It became a game—all of us gazing at the monitor as I backed-in without looking behind or to my sides. Don't try this at home, kids. If you do, don't blame me if it goes wrong. Everything else worked beautifully, save for one glitch in which collision avoidance went off, beeping and projecting a flashing red LED warning onto the windshield when there were no other cars in sight.

The V-6 provided great thrust whenever I needed it, mercilessly spinning the tires (stability control disabled) from a dead stop, and blasting through holes on Chicago's congested I-90. Through it all, Impala is beautifully quiet and controlled. Impala LT has seats made for broad American backsides, without any sort of bolstering for spirited driving. As a result, throwing it around corners required bracing myself with one knee against the door and the opposing elbow against the console - a move I became accustomed to in my old 2012 Regal Turbo (predecessor to the GS). Still, it handled these maneuvers with aplomb.

Handing the Keys Back

Sonic's tiny footprint would make it a good city car for singles and couples, pre-kids. The hatchback would be even better. For my taste, however, it would need a little more grunt and some soft touches on the inside in order to be truly livable.

Stares and compliments are part of my daily driving experience in my Regal GS. The same was true of the Blue Ray Metallic Impala. Add a sunroof and navigation and I would be perfectly happy with an Impala as a long-range family cruiser.

GM is on to something, and it's not just skin deep. These two Chevy bookends are evidence that styling, performance, and content can come together for buyers on a variety of budgets, in an unapologetic and uniquely American way.

No comments:

Post a Comment