– By MARK PHELAN

Detroit Free Press

The 2012 Sonic subcompact is the latest strong entry from small-car specialist Chevrolet. Wait. Let me try again. I promise I’ll get through that sentence without laughing. Give me one more chance.

Chevrolet’s not a small-car specialist. Never has been. But still … The three newest, and three of the best, cars in Chevy showrooms are the subcompact Sonic, compact Cruze and Volt. Something’s going on here.

Chevy built its brand image on powerful sports cars, roomy family sedans and rugged pickups. Chevy’s honor roll includes the Camaro, Corvette, Malibu and Silverado, not benighted small cars like the Chevette, Vega, Cavalier and Cobalt.

But all of a sudden, Chevrolet is pumping out excellent small cars like a Pez dispenser.

The Sonic’s impressive list of features includes 10 air bags, a spunky and fuel-efficient turbocharged 1.4-liter engine, responsive handling and attractive, contemporary styling.

The car’s interior materials and voice recognition for hands-free phone calls need work, but the Sonic has a lot going for it.

Chevrolet’s new line of small cars could be the start of something big.

The Sonic was a risky bet, but it appears to have paid off.

Chevrolet bet that it could develop a subcompact that would compete with Asian small-car experts like Honda, Hyundai and Toyota.

The United Auto Workers Union bet its members would make unprecedented concessions to build the car in the U.S. at a price that challenges vehicles from Mexico, Japan and Korea.

The Sonic is the only subcompact built in the U.S.

It’s the latest among new subcompacts that have more features, comfort, style and performance than earlier small cars.

It competes with the Ford Fiesta, Honda Fit, Hyundai Accent, Nissan Versa and Toyota Yaris.

Prices for the Sonic start at $13,735 for a sedan with a 138-horsepower 1.8-liter engine and five-speed manual transmission. Hatchbacks start at $14,635 with the same engine and transmission.

Adding a six-speed automatic raises the price to $14,805 for the sedan and $15,705 for the hatch.

All Sonics come with 10 air bags and other safety features including antilock brakes and stability control.

An optional turbocharged 1.4-liter engine and six-speed manual transmission give the Sonic plenty of pep and add 1 m.p.g. to its EPA highway fuel economy rating.

The engine and transmission cost $700 and are available on the Sonic LT and LTZ.

I tested a Sonic LTZ hatchback with the turbocharged engine and six-speed manual. It cost $17,935. All prices exclude destination charges.

Sonic prices are competitive with the other comparably equipped subcompacts.

The hatchback’s exterior design has crisp, sporty lines.

The front view is particularly strong, with four large round lights bracketing a bold twin-port grille. The sides are noteworthy for sharp creases over the front fenders and rear-door handles concealed in black trim around the windows.

The passenger compartment has more room than the Fiesta, Accent and Yaris. Headroom is particularly generous.

The hatchback offers a useful 19.0 cubic feet of cargo capacity — 30.7 with the rear seats folded flat.

The Sonic’s gauges are easy to read. Their design appears to be influenced by motorcycles and video games.

The stalks, dials and controls feel solid and substantial, but the interior materials are very basic. Just about every surface is covered in hard plastic.

The front seat could use more storage bins. A sunglass holder and a center armrest with storage underneath would be welcome.

The Sonic’s voice-recognition system for hands-free phone calls is poor. The sound quality of hands-free calls is quite good, however. Wind and road noise are minimal, even at high speeds and over bumpy surfaces.

The Sonic’s handling is responsive and enjoyable. The steering provides good feedback. The suspension absorbs bumps well and holds the car stable through fast curves and other enthusiastic maneuvers. The Sonic’s quick steering and small size make it ridiculously easy to park.

The 1.4-liter turbocharged engine revs eagerly. It generates peak torque of 148 pound-feet at just 2,500 engine rpm.

The shifter is slick, the clutch light. The high torque at low engine speeds provides strong acceleration, but only through the first three gears.

Fourth, fifth and sixth gears are all overdrives, with tall ratios that top out at 0.61:1. That contributes to fuel economy, but leads to frequent downshifts when dicing in traffic. The Sonic I tested rated 29 mpg city, 40 on the highway and 33 in combined driving. The combined rating matches the best subcompacts on the road.

The Sonic’s looks, features, performance and price help it stand out in spite of the interior’s unappealing materials.

Chevy and the UAW backed a long shot when they bet on the Sonic. It came home a winner.The hatchback’s exterior design has crisp, sporty lines. The front view is particularly strong, with four large round lights bracketing a bold twin-port grille.