You might have noticed the sudden flurry of small-car launches announced by many of the world's automakers.

You might have also noticed the steadily rising pump prices attributed to certain oil-producing-nation strife. This volatility is bad news for drivers of big, thirsty vehicles, but it's the perfect storm for General Motors which will this fall launch the all-new Sonic series of sub-compacts.

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The Sonic replaces the Korea-built Aveo that has served as the automaker's entry model since the 2004 model year. Like the Aveo, the Sonic will be offered in both sedan and mini-wagon formats. However, unlike the Aveo, the Sonic will be constructed at GM's Orion, Mich. plant that was recently refitted to the tune of more than $500 million.

As such there's obviously a lot more North American flavor built into the Sonic's design that now features a stubbier-looking nose with a more prominent grille and fancier headlight pods. In back, the sedan appears somewhat similar to the outgoing Aveo sedan, while the stylish hatchback does a good job at hiding the rear door latches adjacent to the roof pillar. As well, the liftgate's shape is one of the more stunning examples of this genre, with curved glass plus a set of really fancy taillamps that were apparently inspired by motorcycle headlights.

The impressive design characteristics also extend to the interior, where the dashboard and control panel exude an up-level quality rarely seen in the econo-car class. An analog tachometer dominates the driver's field of vision, flanked by a rectangular screen displaying a digital speedometer, odometer and fuel gauge. Up-level models will offer two-tone dash and door-panel trim.

2012 Chevy Sonic Photo Credit: Chevrolet

Overall, both Sonic body styles are larger than their outgoing Aveo counterparts by nearly 3.5 inches in overall length and more than three inches between the front and rear wheels. In the sub-compact class, these increases are significant and point to added front and rear passenger space.

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More is also definitely better as far as performance is concerned. While the Aveo's standard 108-horsepower four-cylinder engine typifies those found in this class, the Sonic roars to life with a 135-horsepower 1.8-liter four-cylinder, or optional 138-horsepower turbocharged 1.4-liter four-cylinder. Although their horsepower ratings are similar, the turbocharged engine makes 148 pound-feet of torque at a lower engine speed than the 1.8 with its 125 pound-feet. This translates into more seat-of-the-pants acceleration at part throttle.
The 1.8 comes with a five-speed manual transmission or an optional six-speed automatic, while the turbo 1.4 is matched to a six-speed manual gearbox.

Since both powerplants also see service in the larger and heavier Chevrolet Cruze sedan, you can expect the little Sonic to be a lively performer along with delivering respectable fuel economy.

As for road manners, Chevy says that the extra-rigid body structure, wide stance and suspension components were tuned by the automaker's Corvette engineering team and should help provide a competent and perhaps even a sporty driving experience.

Base Sonics will likely arrive as relatively stripped-down price leaders, but will include front- and rear-seat side-impact airbags, side-curtain airbags plus knee cushions for the driver and passenger. There's a total of 10, which is at least four airbags more than the rest of the "sub" pack.

Up for grabs is a variety of premium content, such as leather-covered seats (heated in front), power sunroof, MyChevrolet hands-free phone, text and audio connectivity and larger (up to 17 inches from 15) wheels.

The Sonic's late-2011 arrival will be followed by an even smaller small car called the Spark, further bolstering Chevy's focus on the svelte end of the passenger-car scale.

Prices will likely begin at about $14,000 (including delivery charges), possibly slightly more for the hatchback version. That should make for a super-Sonic buy in a class where automakers appear to spending a lot more care and attention to detail than they were when gas was cheap and bigger was better.

That's good news for buyers who are tired of fuel-price volatility and, up to now, had no real options.

What you should know: 2012 Chevrolet Sonic

Type: Four-door sub-compact sedan/hatchback

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Engines (hp): 1.8-liter DOHC I4 (135); 1.4-liter DOHC I4, turbocharged (138)

Transmissions: Five-speed manual (1.8); six-speed automatic (opt., 1.8);

Six-speed manual (1.4 turbo)

Market position: The Sonic is a major step up from the Aveo in every way, from style to performance, as the competition in the sub-compact drives all players to invest; dispels the notion that small means cheap.

Points: Fashionably designed and significantly roomier than Aveo; Chevy Cruze-based powerplants should provide lively performance; Sonic earns safety bragging rights with 10 standard airbags; Planned performance hatchback will resonate with "tuner" audience; Proof positive that fun and fuel savings can go hand in hand.

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Safety: Front airbags; front/rear side-impact airbags; front knee airbags; side-curtain airbags; anti-lock brakes; traction control; stability control.

MPG (city/hwy) 25/38 (1.8, MT, est.); Base price (incl. destination) $14,000 (est.)

By comparison

Ford Fiesta
Base price: $14,000
All-new sedan and hatchback models are easy on the eyes and easy on gas.

Honda Fit
Base price: $15,850
Class-leading, fun-to-drive wagon features a versatile interior

Base price: $15,000
Sporty, fuel-sipper looks great. Slick-shifting manual gearbox a real treat.