By on January 13, 2012

My family loves small cars. If you asked my wife what car she has enjoyed the most out of the hundreds of vehicles she’s driven over the years, it would be a 1st generation Honda Fit Sport. In her world not even a decked out S-Class or a modern day Mustang compares to the fun she gets driving the original Fit around town.

At the auctions you can pretty much tell my presence by scanning the parking lot for a first generation Honda Insight. If you see one there, it’s mine. After more than 45,000 miles I still haven’t found anything that compares to it. Although a 1995 Miata that now occupies my garage comes awfully close.

So now that you know how much my family is into small cars, the obvious question arises. “What do you think of this small car?”

Press pictures always try to give the nip and tuck treatment to any new car. In person the Sonic strikes me as what would happen if a Dodge Charger mated with an Aveo hatchback.  As unholy as that thought sounds, the outcome is actually better than what you would expect.

The Sonic in it’s all-too-unique flesh offers a high beltline, a Malibu-esque snout,  and enough play with the front and rear fascias to make it easily stand out in most any setting.  In silver or black it’s sporting. However I would love to have a short talk with the folks who decided to produce so many of these ‘Inferno Orange’ Sonic creations. Eeechhh!!!

In direct sunlight, this color doesn’t complement the plumpness of the Sonic unless they were trying to make a silhouette of an ‘orange’ pineapple.

The interior is far less controversial and rivals the best in class. Chevy decided to use the motorcycle world as the inspiration for their instrument cluster. It works great. This may represent the first successful attempt in mating the analog with the digital on a mass marketed car in God knows how long. In a world where Fits, Focii and many others have embraced the insectozoid school of dashboard design under the guise of sportiness, Chevy offers a far more artistic and user friendly format.

 

 

The designers deserve special credit for creating a modern work of art.

The rest of the insides are somewhat upscale… but not quite. Chevy implanted many of the interior adornments of the Cruze with far fewer soft touch surfaces and pretty much left it at that. Given how popular the Cruze has become this is a very smart move.

The only heavy criticism I can levy on the Sonic is that the seats are a bit less supportive than the Fit and the Rio. Also there is no instant MPG setting on the dashboard. None. Sorry.

Space is surprisingly big… in that small car sort of way. We were able to seat three people across that would be considered ‘average’ in the year 1979.  However that middle seat would get a bit uncomfortable for today’s horizontally endowed average person. Now that most families have four or fewer people, the Sonic definitely seems to satisfy the ‘average’ need.

Yesterday’s trunk is chopped to a third and stood upright with the Sonic. One suggestion from my better half. Chevy should strongly consider a two-level storage system similar to the one offered in the original Malibu Maxx.

With a heavy-duty upper shelf instead of the cover, the hatch would offer more versatility and space for families on the go. On a long haul to Grandma’s we managed enough Christmas presents for 12 people with the lightweight cover.

A family of four can comfortably go for a week long vacation with the Sonic even without a shelf. It is surprisingly versatile although not near to the level of the Honda Fit. However there is one cantankerous thing that will get in the way of enjoying that long vacation ride: the transmission.

1st generation Saturns have a tendency to ‘rubber-band’ as they get older. It’s a strange sensation where you feel the car jut ever so annoyingly during downshifts and the rpm’s jack up anywhere between 200 to 400 rpm’s.

This 2012 Chevy Sonic did the exact same thing. Twangg!!! The 3rd to 2nd downshift was particularly heinous… at times. Sometimes it shifted fine. Apparently, so I’m told, GM decided to go with software that makes the transmission ‘adjust’ to the engine over an indeterminate period of time.

Really?

The last time I heard of similar driving issues was when Volvo offered unique ‘programming’ to their electronic throttle modules on their 1999 – 2002 FWD Volvos. The outome was a 10 year / 200,000 mile warranty,  a lot of angry Volvo customers, and a vast wasteland of S70’s and V70’s that can now be found at the auctions.

Perhaps mine wasn’t given the update. But as a matter of conscience I can’t yet recommend the automatic version of the Sonic until this transmission issue gets resolved.

The Sonic beats the class-leading Fit in a few notable respects. Room. Power. Quiet… especially on the highway. With the 1.8 Liter Ecotec the Sonic offers a far more ample supply of torque than the Fit when it comes to real world highway driving. 80 mph cruising yielded only 2800 rpm’s of relative quiet compared with the 3400 rpm’s of Fit buzziness. On the road the Sonic feels more planted than the Fit, while the later feels more athletic. Take your pick.

As for fuel economy, the mpg estimates on the Sonic are 25 city, 35 highway. I averaged 31.2 mpg combined with much of my city driving squarely in the 27 to 28 area.  Unlike certain manufacturers I am confident in endorsing the Sonic’s MPG window sticker.

So why should you buy a Sonic? If you do a lot of highway driving and find a six-speed manual to your liking, then definitely consider it. This Sonic LT came with the ‘connectivity plus cruise’ package for $525 (remote vehicle start, cruise, steering wheel controls, bluetooth, USB), the wheels and fog lamp package, and a (disco!) inferno orange metallic exterior. The total comes to $18,580.

Alternatives to the Sonic LT? Baruth loves the Rio. I like the Fit for in-town driving. Sajeev would buy an army of Panthers, and Bertel likely prefers a Volkswagen. Seriously, there is a crushing load of competition out there.

Fit, Accent, Rio, Versa, Yaris, Fiesta, Golf,  Fiat 500, the upcoming Dodge Dart, SX4, Impreza… not to mention lower end Civics, Corollas, Jettas, and maybe even a based out Focus with the right dealership.

The short answer for today’s consumers is that, “The Sonic would be great if…”  Hopefully a quick and vigorous remedy for the Sonic’s transmission software will let millions of future buyers say, “The Sonic is great because…

I received a full tank of gas, insurance, and a week’s worth of driving for this review. Drives ranged from 10 to 150 miles and due to my auction work, I was all over metro-Atlanta that week. My apologies if this review doesn’t offer the usual photo gallery but a few pictures surprised me with their blurriness. That’s what I get for using a flip camera.

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57 Comments on “New Car Review: 700 Miles In A 2012 Chevy Sonic LT...”


  • avatar
    VanillaDude

    This was a very good review because you made yourself clear as to your personal preferences regarding cars in this field, as well as your credibility in this field. I did want to know what a small car lover thought of this car, and you honestly delivered. Thank you.

    That said, personally I find this car’ styling to be kind of odd. To the point where I would have no interest in adding it to a my list of small cars to consider test driving. I believe this could be a consideration if I was needing to buy a fleet of cars. However, the problems you experienced with the automatic transmission would probably nix that because fleets need automatics.

    The dash is artistic, but it also looks like a whole lot of cheap plastic. While the exterior seems to attempt to mimick a larger car, the interior doesn’t.

    Interesting vehicle, I hope it is successful for GM.

    • 0 avatar
      Zackman

      What??? I…uh…er…I don’t know how to react – I’m still lauging at the relatively civil flame war on the other thread earlier today!

      BTW, I pretty much second your comment. I’ll check one out at our upcoming auto show.

    • 0 avatar
      gslippy

      I, too, liked the quality of this review.

      The sedan version of the Sonic is a much better-looking car to me. I don’t like the chopped-off look of today’s hatchbacks; it’s as though the designers ran out of time and merely hacked the trunk away. [Being a product designer myself, I know this isn’t exactly so, but the end result gives that appearance.]

      I assume this particular car had all its brake pads in place?

  • avatar
    Secret Hi5

    My comment doesn’t have to do with the Sonic (sorry!)–I’m driving a rental Focus this week (fancy trim with leather, etc). The transmission exhibits this strange behavior: When I let off the accelerator, the RPMs will continue to rise for a second. It’s quite unnerving. Is this what you’re talking about in the Sonic?

    • 0 avatar
      Steven Lang

      Very good question.

      For the most part it was exactly the way you described it. In town though it would sometimes do a mini-flare between the shifts.

      Also if you accelerated to 6th gear at around 42 mph and then decelerated to 5th gear, it wouldn’t get back to that 6th gear until it around 52 mph.

      About half-way through the week I decided to use the manual button shifter instead of relying on the software’s logic. On a trivial note, that little shifter button in the Sonic happens to be identical to the one used in the Malibu Maxx of yore. I still have a soft spot for that old Chevy.

      Hopefully GM can add that little rear shelf and eliminate the software issue. If they did I would be very comfortable in recommending the automatic version of the Sonic.

      • 0 avatar

        I noticed the same rev rise when downshifting on an ’07 Civic I drove.

        By the way, in the world of small cars, you left out the Fiat 500. I had occasion to rent one, and I liked it a lot. Very light and agile, great visibility except around the C pillars.

        Am with you totally on the insectizoid (excellent description) appearance of some cars’ dashes, and the superiority of the Sonic’s design.

      • 0 avatar
        Steven Lang

        I did list the Fiat 500. The soon to be released Dodge Dart was also put into the competitor mix.

      • 0 avatar
        Beerboy12

        I vaguely remember reading somewhere that that little engine rev between gears is deliberate (the joys of modern computer electronics). It’s a new trick and has something to do with “protecting” the transmission… I think that even a manual does it to.

  • avatar

    Loved this. Thanks mr. Lang. When this car goes on sale in Brazil in the middle of the year I’ll look upon it with your perspective in mind. Problem is that here they’re talking of prices well over 50k reais. Just for that I’d already become jaded about the car.

    Thanks for reminding me to keep my heart open.

  • avatar
    CJinSD

    I’m curious about the comment that the Sonic beats the Fit in terms of room. What do you mean exactly? The Fit has more passenger volume and more trunk space, plus a vastly larger capacity for luggage when only two people are aboard. A Fit with a folded seat has 57 cubic feet of cargo volume compared to 31 cubic feet for the Sonic. Are you making comparisons to your 1st generation Fit?

    • 0 avatar
      Steven Lang

      I found the rear seat room to be better and the front seat room to be comparable.

      My wife and kids were ‘tight’ in the rear of the Fit. The Sonic seemed to be more spacious for rear seat passengers and space seemed to be fine for the front seat passengers. Perhaps the large rear windows, head room, and design of the rear seat factored into the equation.

      I do think the Fit is far more versatile. That’s unquestionable in my mind. However a larger window or a better contoured seat can tell a tale that plain numbers often can’t.

  • avatar
    Jeff Waingrow

    VD’s trying to make nice. Lots of work still to do.

  • avatar
    BlackDynamiteOnline

    You want best in class, get the Turbo.
    The base Sonic is not best in class, and isn’t as roomy as the Fit, in passenger or cargo space
    BD

  • avatar
    tankinbeans

    That instrument cluster is…nasty, in a Walmart stick on “fake Buick” porthole kind of way. It looks like you can knock it off with a not so big whack.

    • 0 avatar
      JMII

      + 1 this looks like mess, the older Fit’s dashboard is OK the newer one (following the trend) has gotten uglier. The Versa’s dash is actually nice, its simple and straight forward. I drove one as a rental for a week. Acceleration was a joke, but then again I drive a Z so suddenly almost all cars feel like they are powered by hamsters.

    • 0 avatar
      Rod Panhard

      It’s even uglier in the flesh.., er, plastic. In three years, it’ll be laughable. This dashboard is the Bangle-butt of dashboards.

      • 0 avatar
        vbofw

        “in three years the dash will be laughable”

        Couldn’t agree more. I’d be sick of the Mattel look of it in 3 months. The Fit is a cheap looking dash but much more restrained and it’ll age ok.

        Come to think of it, GM’s interiors couldn’t be more underwhelming across the board. Even the upcoming Malibu will be behind the main competition day 1.

    • 0 avatar

      My bthoughts exactly. It has already made its way into some Brazilian Chevies. While the Idea may have been OK (though I prefer the traditional analog gauges), the execution is just so poor (argh! that plastic just looks so cheap, that needle!). Like center mounted speedos, I bet these get really tiresome after the noveties wears off. Like after 2 days of owning the car.

  • avatar
    NN

    The 6 speed auto transmission I believe is a Daewoo-built hydramatic that is the same family/design as what is used in both the Cruze and the Malibu.

    My wife drives a 2010 Malibu LTZ with the Daewoo built 6 speed transmission and the 4cyl. When we bought the car, the transmission seemed to shift as smooth as can be, however, over time the downshifting coming to a stop light became more abrupt and jerky, and although no lights came on the dash, I determined something had to be wrong. I took it to the dealer at 27k and it turns out I had to have the transmission rebuilt under the 100k warranty. I believe the clutch packs for 2-3 shift needed replacement, as well as the 5-6 and the TCU valve assembly replaced, and “R&R”ed (I hope I have those descriptions right…I am not reading from the invoice but trying to recall from memory).

    The problem is fixed now (at least for the time being) however I am concerned with the durability of this and all GM Daewoo-built auto transmissions. I think there is a distinct possibility of the Volvo-like end to this story that Steve references, but at a much more massive scale.

  • avatar
    APaGttH

    How would it do on an auto-X course? Would it be competitive?

  • avatar
    LectroByte

    That car brings me to one of my pet peeves over all these giant grille mouth faces that cars seem to have. Up close, the grille opening is really just a fair amount of black plastic.

  • avatar
    MR2turbo4evr

    Is the Sonic a revised Aveo (Daewoo) or is this an all-new vehicle? I’m asking because the first gen Aveo with manual transmission was probably the worst vehicle I’ve ever driven (company vehcile).

    • 0 avatar
      Steven Lang

      All new.

      I would argue that the Sonic tries to fit in 2 different slots. The Aveo’s higher end and to a degree, the Chevy HHR.

      Everyone mentions the Aveo. I would argue that the Sonic has quite a bit in common with the HHR as well. It doesn’t have the ‘delivery’ space. But the price levels, trim, market focus and overall packaging are all there… at least in LT trim.

  • avatar

    This car is MUCH better with the 1.4T, six-speed manual, and 17-inch wheels. I’ll have a review of this combo…well, how soon do people want one?

    Other cars also in the backlog:

    Cadillac CTS with Touring Package

    Mercedes ML350

    Subaru Impreza

    Infiniti M35h

    Toyota Yaris SE

    My review of a car much like Steve’s was posted a couple months ago. Hated the powertrain and the limited grip.

  • avatar
    grzydj

    From what I understand, the revving after throttle liftoff is for emissions.

    • 0 avatar
      golden2husky

      Generally speaking, rev hang – the artificially slow decay of RPMs when you snap the throttle closed – helps prevent a spike in NOx emissions. Annoying, but in time you get used to it. That is until you go to your garage and fire up the early 70s carburetor equipped dinosaur and see what “real” throttle response feels like…

      • 0 avatar
        tedward

        rev hang is something I complain about constantly as a manual driver, but it seems like this might be a different thing, or maybe just a poorly executed rev hang. Were they trying to keep throttle steady between gear engagements? Maybe they didn’t compensate for the lack of resistance between gears and so it ends up blipping the throttle. Really puzzling, as automatic transmissions have been going way past smoothing engagements and by now should (all!) be expected to rev match downshifts at large enough rev differentials.

        On that front, does the Sonics auto rev match?

  • avatar
    Russycle

    Kudos to GM(or perhaps Daewoo) for figuring out that 4-bangers don’t need to go high in the revs for highway cruising. Any idea if the manual trans has a similar cruising gear? I love the analog tach/digital speedo combo, hope we see more of that…although not necessarily in that form factor.

  • avatar
    OldandSlow

    It looks like the Sonic shares the low front overhang of the Fit – which tends to be a driveway scraper where I live.

  • avatar

    I actually like orange cars. In fact, I can tell when my prediliction for them came out. It was by being a young boy growing up in America and watching the Dukes of Hazzard. Their car made me a mopar fan. I also liked the flag on the roof, though being a young boy at the time I was not aware of any political implications.

    I also seem to remember the bad fat guy who always dressed in white’s cat. It was yellowish Rolls, right?

    Anyway, if I still lived in America, I probably would have taken the plunge and bought the new-retro Challenger. Heeding to the little boy in me, I probably would’ve bought it in orange. Sans flag though.

  • avatar
    racer-esq.

    Instant MPG can be provided on this, or almost any ’96 or later car US market car, with an OBDII readout like this one.

    http://www.amazon.com/PLX-Kiwi-Calculator-OBDII-Scanner/dp/B001QJ7WSM

    However, it should not take the aftermarket to provide this kind of display in a modern car.

  • avatar
    Zombo

    Daewoo come and me want to go home !

  • avatar
    replica

    Why is an entry level shitbox $18k+? When did this become acceptable? I feel quite smug in my $16k Mazda2 Touring. Look at me. I’m smugging. I need a top hat and cane so I can point at Sonics in traffic while I shake a wad of cash at them.

    Be gone Sonic phillistines! I shall jog on my treadmill made of poor people.

  • avatar

    why? inflation.

  • avatar
    theonewhogotaway

    At that price point and for that segment IMHO nothing beats the AWD SX4 hatch for price/features ratio. I do like small hatches as well and usually have at least one around and I am kinda in the market for another one to replace an aging Cherokee as the third car of the household (the other 2 are an 07 SX4 – pre CVT years and the one up in the userpic, which is great but a garage queen.) I have not driven the Sonic yet (wonder if there ane lawsuits in the future from the drive in restaurant chain) and I probably will at some point, but those stickers in that segment are getting close to ridiculous, inflation or not. Just wish that there was a manufacturer out there who would offer one of those hatches with the basics (like air, power locks and windows, a single CD stereo, ABS, a few airbags, cruise control, a tachymeter, and an outside temp indicator) with a good old 5 speed transmission, without packaging them with stuff like psychedelic lights, remote start, bluetooth connectivity, “stability” and “traction” “control”, 17 inch alloys, “blushed alluminum trim” and the such) for about $12K. I think that it is fairly doable. Pop a comfortable driver’s seat and you got a winner…

    • 0 avatar
      tedward

      The SX-4 is definitely the best value in the segment. However, the refinement just isn’t there to compete with a truly finished car. My mother has one, and I consider that one of my best vehicle recommendations, but the gearshift is crude and rude (manual) and the quality of suspension components is, I now suspect, total crap. I’m already shopping new dampers for her and the car hasn’t really crested the 50k mark, and it doesn’t seem like these are isolated problems at all, the forums are full of transmission gripes and replacement suspension stories.

      Still, even with the premature maintenance, this car is a great value.

  • avatar
    jeanpierresarti

    Steve, what about the Kia Soul? That car seems to be a great value for the price and just as versatile…

  • avatar
    ckgs

    The comparison to the Fit reminds me how Honda needs to get serious about road noise. I just don’t understand why they can’t figure this out. It’s such an easy area for competitors to beat the equivalent Honda model and make their model feel like it’s higher quality. And I mean really under control, not with band aids like “active noise cancellation”.

  • avatar
    Stu Sidoti

    We own a 2006 and a 2010 Honda Fit Sport(s) along with two other vehicles. The other day I was in for an oil change on the ’10 and sight-unseen my dealer offered me $7800 for my ’06…not bad for a six year old car to hold 43% of it’s original selling price. A friend of mine with a Honda Pilot paid it off in 4 years and traded it back to the same dealer in the 5th year of ownership for more than half what the original sticker was.
    While the Sonic is quite fun to drive and delivers a surprisingly quiet, capable ride, I really doubt if it has the same level of reliability as my Honda experience has shown (six Hondas so far) over the years, or the very enjoyable, yet rare dealership experience, nor going to reward my purchase with a trade-in amount of nearly half of my money coming back to me. If GM can build this competitive a vehicle for 3,4,5 product cycles they WILL get there, but until then I am a Honda loyalist. My Hondas have cost me very little over the decades and been an overall excellent ownership experience.

  • avatar
    geo

    Yes the dealership probably would. Honda salesmen routinely tell the customers “Hey, it’s a Honda”, when asked questions about their overprices used cars. And customers buy both the nonsense line and the car.

  • avatar
    replica

    I guess my more recent Honda experience was a fluke. I’ve owned probably about 9 Hondas. From a CRX, to three generations of Civics and so on. The last one I bought new was a 2007 Civic Si Sedan. The transmission would pop out of third gear, there were rust spots from the welds on the triangle windows, the interior panels scuffed easy, the paint was thin and terrible. The car had no steering feel and the drive-by-wire was beyond terrible. It felt like a car designed by different departments that never talked to each other.

    That Honda premium doesn’t mean much after 2005 or so.


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