2012 Chevrolet Sonic LTZ 1.4 Turbo First Test – Motor Trend
Erase all memories of small Chevys past — especially the recent Chevrolet Aveo. The all-new 2012 Chevrolet Sonic is a completely different animal. Unlike the outgoing and mostly unloved Aveo, Chevrolet’s new subcompact sedan and five-door hatch were conceived by a global General Motors team before being fine-tuned for local markets. Here in the U.S., Chevy is pitching the Sonic as the Cruze’s little brother.
Our first spin in the 2012 Sonic was earlier this year at Lucas Oil Raceway, a dragstrip a few miles from Indianapolis Motor Speedway, where we flogged some pre-production Sonics at a temporary autocross course. Now it was time for some real-world driving that took us from San Francisco to Pescadero before reaching our final destination in Woodside, California.
For the first leg of the trip, we grabbed an Inferno Orange Metallic Sonic LTZ sedan equipped with the top-spec engine: GM’s 1.4-liter turbocharged four tuned to 138 horsepower, mated to a six-speed manual transmission. The clutch is light and shifter action is smooth and precise. Throws are about right for this class of car — not too short; not too long. The streets of San Francisco afforded plenty of opportunity to test the Sonic’s hill hold feature, and it worked as intended. The car holds in place for two seconds after you move your right foot from the brake pedal to the accelerator.
The turbocharged engine proved to be a smooth operator, and its 148 lb-ft of torque offered up plenty of mid-range power to tackle each hill, one block at a time. We eventually made our way to Pacifica Highway, where we stopped at a local surf shop to trade cars, jumping into a black LT trim sedan equipped with the naturally aspirated 1.8-liter four-cylinder hooked up to a six-speed automatic. The 1.8 is also rated at 138 horsepower, but it peaks at only 125 lb-ft of torque.
Both engines were more than capable of maintaining (and creeping past) posted speed limits, including on the uphill sections of the route. As we traveled along the coast’s gentle curves and elevation changes, the 1.8-liter sounded a bit buzzy compared to the more refined 1.4-liter turbo. The six-speed auto gear-hunted a bit at times in an effort to keep the car at speed, but with the 1.8, it was a competent and willing dance partner in most situations.
While the LT only sports 16-inch wheels, it felt as confident in the curves as the LTZ fitted with a 17-inch wheel and tire combo. Speaking of wheels, all Sonics are equipped with forged alloys, including the 15-inch wheels on the base LS model. Chevy reps say forged wheels are three times stiffer than steel, aiding engineers in improving chassis tuning to reduce noise, vibration, and harshness. The engineers did their job well. During most of our drive, the Sonic exhibited relatively low wind and tire noise.
Inside, the Sonic’s compact “motorcycle-inspired” gauge cluster features a large analog tachometer and digital speedometer that made it easy to keep track of engine and road speed while caressing the curves along the coast and through the windy mountain roads. Both the cloth seats in the LT and the leatherette seats in the LTZ were supportive, keeping us in place as we clipped along just above the posted speeds.
Placement of buttons and controls in the Sonic’s interior is logical, and they’re easy to reach. There’s plenty of storage, with a storage bin on each side of the center stack for cell phones, mp3 players, or CDs. The “upper” glove box houses an AUX input and a USB port for mp3 players or iPods, and the door has a discreet cutout to run cords through. Both trim levels we sampled featured Bluetooth connectivity and steering wheel controls for audio, phone, and cruise control. Rear seats are comfortable and appear to offer legroom at least as good as other vehicles in its class. The rear seats fold virtually flat for increased cargo capacity. The hatch offers 19 cubic feet of space with the rear seats up and 30.7 cubic feet with the seats folded. The sedan has 14 cubic feet in the trunk.
At our next stop, we snagged a Summit White LTZ hatchback with 17-inch wheels, the turbo engine, and six-speed manual. Good thing, because we were zipping through the mountains under the shadowy canopy of a tree-lined, two-lane road around ever faster and tighter curves toward the iconic Alice’s Restaurant in Woodside. The Sonic felt planted enough on its 205/50/17 Hankook rubber, and its electric power steering rarely felt artificial, but it did exhibit a fair bit of body roll through the twists and turns.
When we got to Alice’s Restaurant, the Chevrolet reps had a few of the Sonic’s main bogies — the Ford Fiesta, Honda Fit, and Hyundai Accent — available for impromptu comparison tests. We were able to snag seat time in the Fit and Fiesta, which came in first and second place respectively in our last small car comparison test. Both cars featured automatic transmissions and 15-inch steel wheels and were comparable to a Sonic LS with the 1.8-liter engine and automatic transmission.
In our admittedly quick sample of the two subcompact heavyweights against the Sonic, we came away even more impressed with the Chevy and its much stronger engine. Both the Fit and Fiesta seemed a bit less refined than the Sonic from a powertrain, chassis, and even interior perspective. We smell a new comparison test coming on…
Speaking of tests, the test crew was able to put the Sonic through our standard battery of instrumented testing back in SoCal at the same time we were plying the Sonic up in the Bay area. Testing director Kim Reynolds’ feedback: “Better grip than I expected. The exhaust is a bit of a droner, but the car has a cheery character nevertheless. Lots of roll and pitch, as expected.” The Sonic went around our MT figure-eight course in 27.6 seconds at 0.61 g average and .80 g around the skidpad. The Fiesta and Fit achieved 28.7 seconds at 0.55 g and 28.6 seconds at 0.56 g around the figure eight, respectively.
Although heavier than the Fiesta and Fit, the Sonic’s more powerful engines compensate for the added heft. In our track testing, the 2794-pound Sonic LTZ Hatchback with the 1.4-liter turbo and six-speed manual transmission achieved a 0-60 mile per hour run in 8.1 seconds and continued on to finish the quarter mile in 16.1 seconds at 86.4 miles per hour.
The last manual equipped Fit Sport we tested weighed 273 pounds less than the Sonic and was two ticks slower in both the 0-60 and the quarter mile times, while a manual-equipped Fiesta SES we tested sauntered from a standstill in 9.5 seconds to 60 and a 17.0-second flat quarter at 81.2 mph. The Fiesta weighed 2552 pounds.
Associate road test editor Carlos Lago had this to say about the Sonic after his test runs: “Pleasantly surprised; I rather liked driving this thing. Yeah, it’s slow, but this engine feels eager. Best launch achieved by slipping the clutch at around 5500 rpm. Even with Stabilitrak completely off, the system would cut engine power if I dumped the clutch.”
The Sonic isn’t playing games when it comes to fuel economy, either. The 1.8-liter offers 35 miles per gallon highway whether mated to the five-speed manual or six-speed automatic. City mileage is rated 26 mpg with the manual and 25 with the automatic. Adding the automatic to the 1.8-liter engine adds $1070 to the bottom line. But the big news is the 1.4-liter turbo engine, which is rated 29 miles per gallon city and the coveted 40 miles per gallon highway. Stepping up to the 1.4-liter turbo engine from the manual trans 1.8-liter will only set you back $700 – and save you $370 over the 1.8-liter saddled with the automatic transmission. That’s a bargain considering the improvement in fuel efficiency and power. A six-speed automatic will be available with the 1.4-liter turbo engine next spring.
The Honda Fit is rated 27 city and 33 highway for the base manual as well as the Sport with the manual or automatic. The base Fit with the automatic is rated 28 city and 35 highway. The Fiesta offers 28 city and 37 highway with the manual and 29 city and 38 highway with the automatic transmission.
Pricing is also competitive. A Sonic LS sedan starts at $14,495; an LT sedan adds $1200 more to the price; and the top trim LTZ tacks on $1600 to the LT’s price. Hatchbacks add $900, $800, and $700 to the LS, LT, and LTZ trim levels of the sedan, respectively. All trims come standard with the 1.8-liter and manual transmission. The 1.4-liter turbo is optional on the LT and LTZ trim levels. A sunroof is offered as a stand-alone option for $850.
The Fit starts at $15,175 for the base and $16,910 for the Sport. Adding Navigation — a feature not offered on the Sonic — to the Fit Sport brings the tally to $19,540. Instead, the Sonic offers OnStar with turn-by-turn navigation. A base Fiesta S sedan starts at $13,745 and tops out at $18,045 for an SES hatch before adding option packages.
Chevrolet took a page from Honda’s playbook by offering all safety features standard regardless of trim level. Ten airbags, including driver and front passenger knee airbags, are standard, as are Rollover Sensing System (ROS), ESC, ABS, brake assist system (BAS), and electronic brake distribution (EBS). The Fit has eight airbags; the Fiesta has seven. The Sonic also features high-strength steel in 60 percent of its body structure and engine cradle.
Despite its new school feel, the Sonic employs old-school rear drum brakes. Chevrolet reps we talked with said rear discs are in the global portfolio and could be possible if deemed necessary, but engineers felt they were able to reach the braking targets with the less-expensive rear drums. The Sonic stopped from 60 miles per hour in 124 feet in our testing. And of course, we also asked about possibly upping the power on the turbo to compete with the rumored Fiesta ST. The Chevy team alluded that more horsepower was possible if deemed necessary.
While the Sonic isn’t perfect, without a doubt it finally has all the goods to be a true competitor in its segment, something the Aveo never was able to accomplish. Along with the well-received Cruze and the promising-looking 2013 Malibu, Chevy’s back in the car game, and this time, it looks like they’re in it to win it.