2012 Chevrolet Sonic LTZ Review By Carey Russ - GM Serious About Small Cars +VIDEO
Remembering earlier Chevy subcompacts, I was prepared to be unimpressed by the Sonic LTZ. I was wrong.
DRIVING DOWN THE ROAD
WITH CAREY RUSS
2012 Chevrolet Sonic LTZ
Is General Motors now serious about small cars in North America?
The company's past history in the subcompact field has been less than stellar. The late Aveo is best forgotten as it, even in its much-improved second generation, compared best to used cars from the major Asian competitors, and never was anywhere near the top of the fuel economy ratings that are so important for that class. GM was putting its development attention everywhere but subcompacts. Now we have the all-new 2012 Chevrolet Sonic. Is it just more of the same?
No. Not even.
After a week with a top-of-the-line Sonic LTZ sedan, it's looking to me like GM finally is serious about building a small car that can sell on more than merely low price. With the LTZ, they've figured it out very well indeed, with a lovely engine and chassis that combine spirited performance and good economy with comfort and plenty of space for the size of the car. It competes with some serious players, and can meet or beat them on its own merits.
The Sonic is absolutely not the new Aveo. Based on the Gamma II small car platform, it is the only subcompact sold in the US that's built in the US, at Orion, MI. Fuel economy is good, at 31 mpg for my time in the car trying my best to get the worst. Which was easy, as the Sonic, at least in turbocharged LTZ from, is a very entertaining car to drive, with power and road manners that put it at or near the top of the class. And note that that 31 mpg was with minimal highway driving and maximum use of the willing and able engine. The car is rated 29/40 by the EPA, and more conservative driving could easily best my mileage.
Watch the Chevy Sonic design video
As with many competitors, Chevy's Sonic is offered in sedan and five-door hatchback form, with the hatch considered upscale of the sedan. Trim levels are LS, LT, and LTZ. LS and LT models are powered by a 1.8-liter, 138-horsepower four-cylinder engine driving the front wheels via a five-speed manual or six-speed automatic. The LTZ gets a 1.4-liter turbo four also with 138 horsepower, matched to a six-speed manual.
Smaller engine, same horsepower, more money? Does not (seem to) compute -- until you look at the torque spec. The 1.8 had 125 lb-ft (at 3800 rpm) while the 1.4 turbo has 148 lb-ft, peaking at 2500 rpm. Result: useful power is developed at lower engine speeds, for better efficiency. And better driveability. Complement that with a suspension that was, according to Chevy's PR materials, developed by engineers who also work on the Corvette, and the result is something completely surprising from GM -- a world-class subcompact.
Remembering earlier Chevy subcompacts, I was prepared to be unimpressed by the Sonic LTZ. I was wrong. The engine and gearbox were winners right from the start. The suspension did seem overly soft at first, but when I pushed the car harder on a poorly-paved rural road, it made sense. Yes, there can be plenty of body roll, but there's also excellent compliance on poor surfaces and surprisingly good handling. Acceleration was also a surprise. This is one fun car, with the potential for good fuel economy as well. Viva la Turbo Hedgehog!
APPEARANCE: In line with other manufacturers, Chevrolet had a unified design language for its sedans. The largest, the Malibu, gets adult proportions. The smaller Cruze is adolescent, and the Sonic, being the smallest, is the baby, with a relatively huge passenger cabin and a short hood and rear deck. Quad round headlights, under separate fairings and capped with overhanging sheetmetal, flank the hexagonal, horizontally split grille. Add the protruding lower fascia and the result is a pugnacious look at the front. A rising character line that starts at the top of the front wheel arch and defines the chamfer around the trunk dominates the sides. Prominent vertically-stacked taillights reprise the headlight motif. The LTZ gets chrome door handles and a small "turbo" badge on the rear panel. All models have alloy wheels as standard equipment.
COMFORT: If the large passenger cabin works against "sporty" exterior proportions, it also works in favor of interior space. Which is very good considering the size of the car. Equipment level is high for all models, with air conditioning with filtration, a rear window defogger, power door locks, remote keyless entry, a driver information center, floor mats, driver's seat cushion height adjustability, auto on/off headlights, and intermittent wipers standard in all. The LS has roll-up windows; the LT and LTZ get power. The LTZ gets upscale trim for the budget subcompact class, with leatherette upholstery, heated front seats, and a leather-rimmed steering wheel with tilt and telescope adjustment and cruise and auxiliary audio controls on the spokes. The interior design seems to be inspired by video game controllers, with a small instrument cluster featuring an analog tach and digital speedometer and information display. Textured hard plastics are the material for the interior panels, but they look good and fit together well. There's no console box, but it's not missed as there are multiple small storage spaces in the instrument panel and faux glovebox above the real one that has a minijack and USB port for audio players. The LTZ get the top audio system, with AM, FM, and Sirius satellite radio and an MP3/WMA-capable CD player. Front seat comfort is very good, not just for a subcompact, with plenty of room. Ditto for the rear seat, although (narrow) width means that's really best for two. The rear seatback folds 6/40 if the trunk isn't big enough. That should be a rare occurrence.
SAFETY: Sonic safety features include a strong unibody structure with a safety cage around passenger, ten standard airbags, the Stabilitrak electronic stability control system, a tire-pressure monitoring system, and four-channel antilock brakes with electronic brake-force distribution.
RIDE AND HANDLING: Corvette engineers were involved with suspension development, but don't expect aluminum control arms and composite leaf springs. Suspension design is typical for the class, MacPherson struts with a stabilizer bar in front and a semi-independent torsion beam axle with coil springs and compound-link location in the rear. But careful attention to spring and damping rates results in a softish tuning that give good ride comfort and also allows spirited driving, with good tire contact on poor surfaces. Yes, it feels like it wants to corner on its door handles. But it works well doing so. Brakes are antilock disc/drum, again standard fare for the class. They're fine in everyday use, and even for sportier driving in the real world.
PERFORMANCE: Both engines available in the Sonic are dual overhead cam, 16-valve designs with continuously-variable cam phasing on both cams. Of the two, the 1.4-liter turbo is the one to get. Its 138 horsepower (at 4900 rpm) makes it one of the strongest in the subcompact class, but its 148 lb-ft of torque (peaking at a low 2500 rpm) is what makes it stand out. It doesn't need to be revved in order to develop good power -- at least in the lower gears -- and the six-speed manual gearbox can use wider ratios because of that torque. So low lower gears allow quick acceleration and country-road fun, while high higher gears -- 4th through 6th -- allow good highway fuel economy. Shift linkage is smooth and pleasant, adding to driving enjoyment. Still, you will need to downshift one or more gears for acceleration at highway speeds, and climbing a long, steep grade at speed is best done in fourth or fifth. Real power starts about 3000 rpm, and there is a noticeable dropoff at 6000, before the 6500 rev limit. So there is no need to get acquainted with the rev limiter. Around town in first through third, there is plenty of torque to allow short-shifting at 2000 or even below, all the better for fuel economy. Mileage is going to be directly related to driving style.
CONCLUSIONS: With the Chevrolet Sonic LTZ, General Motors has shown that it can make a competitive and sporty subcompact sedan.
2012 Chevrolet Sonic LTZ Sedan
Base Price $ 16,535 Price As Tested $ not available Engine Type turbocharged DOHC 16-valve inline 4-cylinder with variable cam phasing on both cams Engine Size 1.4 liters / 83 cu. in. Horsepower 138 @ 4900 rpm Torque (lb-ft) 148 @ 2500 rpm Transmission 6-speed manual Wheelbase / Length 99.4 in. / 173.1 in. Curb Weight 2862 lbs. Pounds Per Horsepower 20.7 Fuel Capacity 12.2 gal. Fuel Requirement 87 octane unleaded regular gasoline Tires P205/50R17 88H Hankook Optimo H428 Brakes, front/rear vented disc / drum, ABS, EBD, and Stabilitrak stability control standard Suspension, front/rear independent MacPherson strut / semi-independent torsion beam axle Drivetrain transverse front engine, front-wheel drive PERFORMANCE EPA Fuel Economy - miles per gallon city / highway / observed 29 / 40 / 31 0 to 60 mph 7.9 sec OPTIONS AND CHARGES (optional equipment information for this car not available)