Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Review: 2012 Chevrolet Sonic LTZ: A great American hot hatch

2012 Chevrolet Sonic LTZ turbo - Subcompact Culture

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.

2012 Chevrolet Sonic front view

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.

2012 Chevrolet Sonic LTZ Turbo interior

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.

2012 Chevrolet Sonic gauge cluster - Subcompact Culture
I happen to love the unique gauge cluster, which was inspired by a sport bike. It is easy to use and easy to see. Not too much going on, but nothing is lacking. The large tachometer dominates the cluster, but the digital speedometer and trip computer offer just enough information.

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.

Chevrolet Sonic's turbocharged 1.4-liter Ecotec engine
Our Sonic LTZ was powered by the 1.4-liter turbocharged and intercooled DOHC Ecotec four-cylinder making 138 hp and 148 ft./lbs. of torque. (It’s the same engine found in the larger, heavier Chevrolet Cruze.) Thankfully, it was equipped with a six-speed manual transmission—the only transmission available with the turbo engine. This is a gem of a powerplant. It has a very usable amount of low-end power, making it a hoot to drive. Power runs out in the upper RPMs, however, but there’s not much need to rev to the stratosphere with this engine. Chevrolet claims 0-60 in the low eight-second range, and that’s good for this class. The shifter feels precise, but throws are a touch long. Clutch feel, however, is nearly nonexistent, making it difficult to tell when it will engage. The clutch does have a hill-holder feature so you don’t roll back on inclines, though.

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.

2012 Chevrolet Sonic handles very well and is the classic hot hatch recipe - Subcompact Culture
Chevy has concocted the classic recipe for a hot hatch: Small car, powerful engine, great handling. Chevy has hit the nail on the head. Yes, it’s a bit heavy, but the fun factor is still there in spades.

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.

2012 Chevrolet Sonic's rear - Subcompact Culture

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.


Jim L said...

Good call. I share your enthusiasm having experienced the Sonic first hand. Chevy seems to get it. Form, fit and function at last in a subcompact from GM.

Chevy PDX said...

Great car. It's all about the Sonic!

D2M said...

Wow! Awesome to hear Chevy finally stepping up! It'll be nice to recommend an American brand (and made!) small car. I wonder when I'll start seeing these guys around here? (Where I live, people tend to buy from the "The Big Three", regardless of quality.)

Dino said...

Welcome to the Chevy Sonic community. Got the car myself a month ago and very happy with. Will be even happier once I start modifying it. Excellent Blog!

Love the pix, but you definitely should blank out your license plate to protect your personnel information.

Andy Lilienthal said...

Thanks, Dino!

This Sonic is media review vehicle, so I'm not too worried about the plate. :-)

Anonymous said...

sonic 1.4 made my final three list with the new accent and honda fit. i ended up going with the accent as i felt more comfortable in it and preferred the interior. it also felt a little quicker. but, the sonic probably was my next choice over the fit.

Anonymous said...

This is on my short list for replacing my wife's 1998 Chevy Cavalier once it rust out, though we'll probably stick to the naturally aspired engine.

Auto Leads said...

To be honest I don't like this particular design, actually I really don't like the hatchback models for some reasons. I have seen the Chevrolet Volt it really looks good as it like the sedan models. The interiors are really cool and spacious. There are some good colors as well but I particularly like the metallic color and the white color

ebestcars said...

I was looking for car reviews magazines, but did not get the clear picture of new Chevrolet after reading this review that explains car’s fantastic pick, extra sonic that could be found in "2012 Chevrolet LTZ" I get much clearer idea now. Thanks for the post !

Anonymous said...

December 15, 2011 at 10:04 AM
Anonymous Auto Leads said...

To be honest I don't like this particular design, actually I really don't like the hatchback models

Because of the gratuitously HUGE rear 3/4 blind spot caused by the rear door handle placement. Get rid of that, and enlarge the mirrors (all visibility issues!) and make them rectangular, and I'd take this over a FIT! Darn close, but visibility is my new MUST HAVE!