My intial review of the 2012 Chevrolet Sonic was less than stellar. Considerably less. But, as noted, that reviewed covered the LT trim level with the normally-aspirated 1.8-liter four-cylinder engine and six-speed automatic transmission. Everyone else (aside from our own Steve Lang) has been reviewing the LTZ trim level with the 1.4-liter turbocharged four and six-speed manual transmission. They’ve been much more positive about the car. How much difference can an engine, transmission, and tires make?
The differences begin with exterior appearance. Car companies frequently fit cars with a smaller wheel than they were designed for, but how they expect this to help sell cars escapes me. Even if some people buy the aesthetically afflicted car, others will see it on the road and form their initial impressions accordingly. Though not a beauty in any configuration, the Sonic looks much better with the LTZ’s 17-inch alloys than the LT’s 15s. The aggressively styled front end and chunky fenders were clearly penned with the larger wheels (or perhaps even larger ones) in mind. Especially when the car is painted orange, as both tested cars were, the 17s should be mandatory. Both of the tested cars were also hatchbacks, but unlike with other B-segment cars the Sonic sedan is equally attractive.
The interior plastics didn’t seem any nicer after a week than they did during my earlier test drive. Even in the LTZ they’re competitive with other cars in the segment but a clear step down from the fabric trim (on the instrument panel!) and soft-touch polymers of the C-segment Chevrolet Cruze. My fondness for the motorcycle-inspired gauge cluster did grow with familiarity. Unlike the oddball digital instruments of decades past, those in the Sonic actually work well, clearly and entertainingly presenting essential information.
The driving position and interior dimensions are of course unchanged from the LT to the LTZ. In either trim the Sonic feels larger than its direct competitors, and more like cars from a size class up, thanks to a high beltline and distant windshield. Whether this is a plus or a minus depends on whether you prefer your small cars to actually seem small. Chevrolet’s bet, is no doubt a sound one: most people buying a B-segment car would get something larger if they could afford it. Actual interior room is among the best in the segment, so the average adult will just fit without scrunching. The front seats are comfortable, but those seeking much lateral support will be much happier in the upcoming 2013 Sonic RS. Oddly, the heated seats only have one level of adjustment.
The 1.4-liter engine might be turbocharged, but with the same peak horsepower rating as the normally-aspirated 1.8 it’s not a screamer. In fact, it’s the opposite. Where the 1.8 lugs, gargles, buzzes, and roars in the process of motivating the Sonic’s 2,600 pounds (which shouldn’t actually be a tall order for a 138-horsepower 1.8), the 1.4T effectively accomplishes this task. The difference: a much plumper midrange (indicated by 148 pound-feet of torque vs. 125) and much more refinement from idle to redline. In fact, the 1.4T isn’t only smoother and stronger than the Sonic’s other engine, but better than the segment’s other powerplants. If you’re seeking a B-segment car that provides effortless acceleration in typical suburban driving, the Sonic with the 1.4T engine is your only option in North America.
Given the engine’s plump midrange and less stout top end—it was clearly optimized for the former—there’s little joy in and even less justification for making runs to the redline. But the six-speed manual transmission is still the way to go. The stick feels slicker and more solid than past GM efforts—and than Hyundai’s current effort in the Accent. Aside from the more direct connection with the car a manual transmission always provides, this one provides the additional benefit of avoiding the unrefined, poorly programmed six-speed automatic. Then again, the automatic isn’t yet available with the 1.4T (though this combo has been offered since launch in the Cruze.) The EPA ratings: 29 city, 40 highway. In suburban driving with a light foot the trip computer reported from 34.5 to 37.5. With a heavier foot it reported 27 to 30.
Already noted: the Sonic feels like a larger car from the driver seat. Aside from this, it handles quite well in LTZ trim, where the 205/50HR17 Hankook Optimo H428 tires actually provide enough grip to exercise the suspension (if still much less than the suspension could handle). There’s even some communication from the steering, though a smaller diameter wheel than the GM standard unit would be welcome. Likely tuned with young, inexperienced drivers in mind, the Sonic feels very stable and controllable even as the front tires begin their progressive slide into moderate understeer. For all but the least skilled drivers the Sonic LTZ 1.4T should be an easy and enjoyable (if not quite engaging) car to drive quickly along a curvy road.
Given this safe, predictable handling, a stability control system that cuts in much earlier and more aggressively than the typical GM system is overkill. Holding down the button to turn the system off doesn’t actually turn it off, only bumps the intervention threshold. And even then the system cuts in a little early. If you can’t safely exercise the Sonic even without the aid of a stability control system, you probably shouldn’t be driving.
Though the Sonic’s handling borders on crisp and its body motions are better controlled than those of more softly-sprung Cruze, its ride is about as smooth and quiet as it gets in this class. The Ford Fiesta feels more Euro taut and solid, but the Chevrolet feels larger and steadier.
The big disadvantage of the 1.4T engine: it adds $700 to the Sonic’s price, a significant sum in this most price-sensitive segment. Go with the LTZ to get suitably-sized rims, and the sticker comes to $18,695. A Hyundai Accent SE with an equally powerful but not nearly as torquey 1.6-liter four is $2,000 less. The Sonic does include quite a few additional features, among them four additional airbags, a telescoping steering wheel, automatic headlights, heated seats, and OnStar. (But if you want rear disc brakes like those standard on the Hyundai, you’ll need to wait for the even pricier 2013 Sonic RS.) Adjust for these feature differences using TrueDelta’s car price comparison tool, and the Accent retains a $600 advantage. Which is essentially how much the 1.4T engine costs. Consider this the price of midrange torque and, once feature differences are adjusted for, the two cars are close in price. And the Ford Fiesta? Topping $19,000 when similarly equipped, it’s clearly the priciest of the three.
Longish story short, the Sonic is a much better car with the 1.4T engine and the LTZ’s larger wheels. Unfortunately, these features also bump the price considerably. For price-sensitive folk GM needs a more refined base engine and a 17-inch wheel option for the LT. For enthusiasts, an RS is on the way with sport buckets and sport suspension. What the RS won’t have: a stronger engine. This is a shame. While the 1.4T is the best engine in the segment for the typical driver, it’s strength—a strong midrange—makes it less suitable for enthusiasts seeking a payoff north of 4,000 rpm. The Opel Corsa is available with a 189-horsepower 1.6-liter engine. If GM were truly swinging for the fences, this would be the engine in the Sonic RS.
Chevrolet provided the car with insurance and a full tank of gas.
Michael Karesh operates TrueDelta.com, an online provider of car reliability and real-world fuel economy information.