I had the 2012 Chevrolet Sonic LTZ for a long weekend which included shopping, trips to see the family and hauling around leftovers.
From what I can see, it's a good little car that can do everything but haul a giant plasma screen television home, and that's only because it's not tall enough and the TV needs to stand up. Otherwise, the Sonic fit all of my gifts from shopping, extra clothes I ditched during the unseasonably warm day in Michigan and bag of extra stuff for a houseguest.
I wouldn't call the engine strong but it does a completely acceptable job of moving the five-door hatch around. I had no problem getting up to and maintaining expressway speeds, but I did have to downshift once or twice to get back up to cruising velocity after slowing down. The 1.4-liter turbo makes a nice racket when you're really pushing it but cruises quietly. Road noise and wind noise make more sound than the small four-banger.
The interior is clean-looking and comfortable, and I appreciated the quick-heating seats when jumping in the car in the early morning. The radio is straightforward and easy to use; I had my iPod plugged in most of the weekend, but only through the auxiliary input jack, so I didn't get to play with the iPod radio controls. The sound system is good and loud; when I wasn't listening to podcasts I had it cranked up pretty far.
The only thing that really bugged me on the inside was the seatbelt buckle. For a car that looks new everywhere from the headlights to the liftgate, it seems silly to have a buckle from 1976. Like a bad scene takes you out of a movie, the buckle gave me pause every time I looked at it.
I like the new gauge-pod design. It puts the tachometer front and center with an easy-to-see redline. It has sort of a video-game feel to it with the digital numbers and colorful accents.
The shifter and linkage seemed strong. I'm not the gentlest person with a six-speed but this box had zero slush to it. I could see it with a five-speed though, instead of the six. I didn't get amazing mileage on the highway, so it's not like sixth is a tall, cruising gear. I would have liked the extra oomph of longer first and second gears. The clutch pedal was a tad light for my taste but it had just the right amount of sensitivity. It's not nearly as bad as the last small Hyundai we tested, which had no weight in the left pedal.
As I said, fuel mileage wasn't amazing. I averaged a bit less than 30 mpg for five days. Maybe I'm expecting too much, but the car is rated at 40 mpg on the highway, and I spent plenty of time there.
My last quibble with the Sonic is the price. In this configuration, at nearly $19,000, it seems too expensive. It's only $700 for the upgraded engine, which I'd highly recommend, but it's small. Four grown adults would be pushing it. Start it at $16,000, let buyers get out of the dealership for less than $18,000 and you might have a winner on your hands. It certainly looks cool.
The Sonic surprised me. It's a solid, fun car to drive and the interior is spacious. And the seats were comfortable as well. It took a bit to get the manually adjustable seats to a position that I liked but I eventually got there.
This segment will continue to be competitive with just about everyone needing to have a small, fuel-efficient car as fuel prices continue to climb. This is so much better than the Aveo it replaces, and General Motors should be complimented on that.
The little turbo engine doesn't have much down low, so I'm glad this was fitted with a six-speed manual. I found myself driving a lot in third and four gears--if you're in fifth or sixth and doing anything but freeway cruising, you need to drop down a couple of cogs to get into the small powerband of the engine. The shifter was tight, easily slotting into the right gears.
I also liked the instrument pod a lot, although at night, the bright-orange tach needle got annoying after a while. The radio interface was simple and the sound was good.
I would disagree a bit with Jake on the price. At $18,000, this thing is pretty much loaded. With all of the coin you'll be saving at the gas pump, the utility the car offers along with the small fun factor, I think the Sonic is a winner.
Count me as someone who thinks the as-tested price of this range-topping LTZ isn't bad. It falls in line with the competition. A 2012 Honda Fit Sport equipped with 16-inch aluminum wheels costs $18,876, while the new 2012 Kia Rio SX five-door is $18,450. Those numbers represent the range-topping trims of each model equipped to roughly match what our Chevy test car has. So if you put it that way, the Sonic isn't expensive at $18,695. It's priced competitively.
How do the rest of the numbers compare among the three cars? For comparisons sake, I picked the Fit because I've seen the Honda as the benchmark in this class for a long time, and the new Kia is a really strong offering with its direct-injection four-cylinder and impressive interior quality. In the engine category, the Fit brings the knife to a gunfight with just 117 hp from its 1.5-liter four-cylinder, while the Rio and the Sonic tie at 138 hp. However, the Chevy's turbocharged 1.4-liter packs more torque than the Kia (148 lb-ft vs. 123 lb-ft).
As for fuel economy, the older Fit is bringing up the rear with 27 mpg city and 33 mpg highway with the five-speed manual transmission. The Rio, with the standard six-speed automatic, has an EPA rating of 30 mpg city and 40 mpg highway. The Sonic, packing the six-speed manual, achieves 29 mpg city and 40 mpg highway.
So, as you can see, the Sonic stacks up well on paper against an established and respected entry in the B-class and a new and much improved combatant.
Behind the wheel, the Sonic's turbo engine suffers from minor lag down low on the tachometer, but in the midrange punch is quite good, which had me cruising around in third and fourth gears a lot much like Roger did. The six-speed manual isn't as crisp and precise as the five-speed in the Fit, but not many cars are.
Ride quality is solid, and the Sonic buzzes down the expressway at 80 mph competently. On surface streets, the suspension damps ruts well, and steering response is nice. The Fit's overall chassis setup boasts better reflexes and is a tad hyperactive in nature, but the Sonic's softer ride character probably better suits most consumer tastes.
Interior comfort also is a high point. I was able to get comfortable quickly behind the wheel, with the seats offering necessary support in all the right places. The gauge cluster is different, which is nice to see. Material quality is on par with the rest of the class. On the outside, it's a nice-looking package with sharper lines, but I personally find the Rio and the Fit more attractive.
What's the best news of all about this Sonic? That would have to be that this isn't the Aveo. Be thankful for that. It's an extremely competitive small car, and that's something Chevrolet hasn't had in a long time.