Wednesday, December 7, 2011
Review: 2012 Chevrolet Sonic LTZ: A great American hot hatch
Chances are you already know that small cars are one of the fastest growing automotive segments in the U.S. It could also be said that today’s small car offerings are the best the U.S. has ever had. Even the domestic automakers, who have historically been eclipsed by the Japanese makes, are beginning to offer some world-class subcompact and compact cars. Of the “big three” American automakers, Chevrolet hasn’t exactly been known for offering the class-leading small cars. Think Vega. Chevette. Cavalier. Aveo. None of them were class leaders, nor did they set the bar with remarkable powertrains, performance, interiors, styling, or economy.
Then there was the 2012 Chevrolet Sonic turbo.
In an amazing case of “zero to hero,” Chevrolet has gone from offering the back-of-the-pack Aveo, to selling the head-of-the-class Sonic. I spent a week with the 2012 Sonic LTZ turbo, and it’s hard to believe this car comes from the same company that offered all those previous small cars, including the until-recently sold Aveo. Where the Aveo felt unsubstantial, the Sonic is remarkably solid. Where the Aveo’s powertrain was uninspired, the Sonic’s turbocharged engine is eager. To cap it off, the Sonic now gets 7% better city fuel economy, and 14% better highway fuel economy, all with optional turbo power. Unlike the Aveo, the Sonic is actually built here in the U.S., too (Aveo was made in South Korea).
Although the Sonic hatchback doesn’t dramatically depart from the Aveo’s styling, it has been massaged in all the right places to make it look more attractive and refined. Add the 17” wheels, fog lights, a small spoiler, and the car achieves a sporty minimal look that I really like. Heck, even the placement of the rear door handles are pretty trick.
The interior of our Sonic LTZ was sporty, attractive, and comfortable. Supportive heated “leatherette” seats offer good bolstering and a comfortable driving position. The steering wheel feels good in the hands and features a host of easy-to-use buttons for Bluetooth, cruise, and audio control.
The Sonic’s back seat is surprisingly roomy. From the outside, it looks like it might be a tight fit, but it’s quite spacious and comfortable. Size wise, the rear cargo area is up to snuff, and the rear seats fold down if you want to stow cargo instead of passengers.
In-car entertainment comes courtesy of a respectable six-speaker stereo that sounds very good and has impressive bass, considering there isn’t a subwoofer. The stereo interface is easy to use and showcases a wide blue display. No touch screen here, but that’s fine— I’ll take simple any day. Speaking of simple, Chevy opted for the classic and intuitive three-dial climate control system. Everything was where I wanted it to be, and they’ve cleverly integrated certain buttons, such as the ones that control the heated seats, into the center of other dials. The interior’s overall feel is solid, well-built, upscale, and even somewhat racy.
The Sonic handles impressively, thanks to a stiff suspension, 17-inch wheels and tires, and quick steering. The ride is somewhat stiff, but not kidney jarring. Stopping is handled by front discs and rear drums; ABS is included. The car does feel a bit weighty at times, and it is one of the heavier in its class at 2,808 lbs.
You won’t have to stop at the pump much, either. The EPA fuel economy is 29 city and 40 highway. At 60 MPH in sixth gear, the Sonic’s engine stays under 2,000 RPM; part of the reason the car can achieve its 40 MPG highway rating. My week with the Sonic, primarily in city driving situations, netted the advertised 29 MPG. Also, the car runs on 87 octane fuel.
The LTZ is the Sonic’s top-of-the-line trim level, and it starts at $17,235. This includes the 17” wheels/tires, the “leatherette” interior, heated seats, Bluetooth, six-speaker premium sound system, power everything, heated mirrors, a rear spoiler, and fog lights among other things. It does not, however, include the turbo engine—that’s $700 more. The standard engine is a 1.8 liter making the same horsepower, but 23 ft./lbs. less of torque (it’s fuel economy isn’t quite as good, either). Although I haven’t driven a Sonic with the standard engine, I assure you, I’d pony up the extra $700 for the turbo, regardless.
The final MSRP, as tested, is $18,695 including destination. This is on par with the upper echelon of the competition. But I’ll say this: The turbocharged Sonic is the most fun of the recent small cars I’ve reviewed. And Kudos to Chevrolet for taking a risk and bringing a fun-to-drive, affordable, turbocharged hatchback to the U.S. market.
In fact, if you had told me a couple of years ago that Chevrolet was going to be making a subcompact car to take on the best of the best—and it’d have a turbo and be affordable—I wouldn’t have believed it. But believe it: Chevy has finally joined the game, and it’s a very serious competitor.