Test Driven: Chevrolet Sonic LTZ Turbo (9/10)

Chevy Sonic LTZ Turbo

The Chevy Sonic comes from a line of shamelessly terrible econo-boxes. The first generation Aveo made car lovers cringe every time they saw one, and the Sonic is its replacement. So, things don’t look good for the Sonic if its family tree is anything to go by, but thankfully it seems the Sonic was adopted. Up front I will tell you that this car is a vast improvement, and tangible evidence of GM’s improvement over the last few years. I had seen the Sonic at a few car shows, and I thought it was pretty cool for what it was, but other than that I never gave it too much consideration. Then I recently started seeing comparison tests in magazines pitting the Sonic against the Fiat 500 Abarth and the Mini Cooper S, which peaked my interest big time.  

As it turns out, Chevy offers an optional 1.4L turbocharged engine for the Sonic. It produces the same 138hp as the normal 1.8L motor, but has 150ft/lbs of torque over the 1.8Ls 126ft/lbs, a big difference in a car this size. This is still a bit short compared to the Abarth and the Mini, but the fact that the magazines felt it was worthy to take them on was enough cause for me to go try one out for myself. I got to the dealer and chose to drive a white one loaded with options. The color really shows off the Sonic’s lines that are very interesting and somewhat striking for a car in this segment. It is a sharp little car, and a breath of fresh air compared to dull, generic designs from most of its competitors.

Upon getting in the car I found that the interior was most impressive. The seats were full leather (or leatherette), it had connectivity for all the modern gadgets, and everything was laid out in a nice ergonomic fashion (there is a fantastic armrest in the middle). The interior was also visually attractive, with interesting textures and designs that hide the cheap quality materials. This is a massive improvement over the Sonic’s predecessors that felt vulgarly cheap inside. The back seat has great room for a car this size, on par with a Civic or Corolla. The hatchback allows for some decent trunk space with the rear seats up, or loads of space with them folded. The Sonic is a solid practical package in hatchback form, and the car has some options that really do make it a nice place to sit.

Once we got moving I found the controls to be surprisingly good. The steering was very light and very quick with decent road feel coming through. The clutch was light, but had good feel in the pedal, letting me know where the clutch was in its engagement well. The gearbox was easy to operate and precise to use, but felt just a bit mushy in its action; a short shifter would be a must for someone like me. Overall though, the Sonic’s controls were good from a driver’s standpoint, better in fact than the HHR SS I drove a while back.

I lucked out on this drive. The salesman told me I could go anywhere I wished, so I took the car over to a few of my favorite roads in the area. The Sonic is very composed in corners, giving a good sense of the chassis’ limits as it is pushed harder. The car responds to inputs quickly, and after a little roll the chassis settles into the turn well. It was a blast to drive on these back roads, a surprisingly capable corner carver from a segment that is usually uninspired. The Sonic was able to put a big smile on my face on roads I have attacked in much faster cars, so as far as I’m concerned its handling gets a thumbs up overall.

The real party piece of this car is the turbocharged inline four though. I cannot emphasize enough how much it adds to the car over the standard naturally aspirated 1.8L engine. The turbo gives the car a huge power band, allowing substantial pull from 2700rpm on upward. The mid range is the real sweet spot though, right around 4k-5krpm is where you get the most out of it (and you aren’t even straining the motor). By comparison, the 1.8L would have to be winded out to near its redline to deliver all of its power, and it would never pull as hard because it lacks torque. The transmission also has rather long gearing for a small hatch like this as well, and the turbo’s large power band lets you take full advantage of it. This makes the Sonic seem a good bit faster than its 138hp would suggest. Merging was no problem and I even saw 95mph without trying too hard on the highway. While cruising at 70mph in 6th gear the car was reading just 2000rpm, so that is where its 40mpg highway figure comes from (30 city/ 40 hwy). It is a really fun and energetic car to drive, and it is just awesome that a car capable of that sort of fuel economy is also this fun to drive.

So how does it really compare to the Mini and Abarth? Well, to start off just remember that the turbo motor is just an optional extra on the Sonic, whereas the Cooper S and Abarth are both genuine high performance variants of the cars they are based on. There is no “Sonic SS” to match them directly (as of yet), so this LTZ Turbo is the best the Sonic line has to offer (the Sonic RS model comes out in 2013 with slight improvements). Honestly I would say that the Sonic LTZ is in the same league as those cars though, maybe not quite as good in some ways, but it surely holds its own. I’d say the handling is not too far off a Mini’s, and far better than a normal Fiat 500. However, if the Sonic is down on handling at all in a comparison then it makes up for it with its phenomenal ride quality. Large bumps were reduced to just minor thuds, very impressive for a small car that handles this well, and invaluable for day-to-day livability.

The Sonic RS is the hot version of the Sonic coming out for 2013. It will feature a different interior as well as a slightly better suspension, same 138hp though. It is just to market the car more like the hot hatch that it is.

There is also another way to look at this comparison, one that many Sonic LTZ Turbo buyers may pursue: modification. Little turbocharged cars have always been a hotbed for tuners and the Sonic is no exception. From what I have seen, stock dyno figures are 110-115whp, and just a simple intake and tune will get the Sonic up to around 150whp no problem. That puts it right in Abarth/Mini territory with just the most basic aftermarket modifications. There will also undoubtedly be a plethora of suspension parts available for the Sonic (if not already), which will improve the car’s already solid handling. Now take into account that a Sonic Turbo costs a good bit less than the Cooper S or Abarth, and you can see the Sonic’s appeal. The car I drove was listed at just under $20k, so I would be able to put a few grand into the Sonic before the prices would be matched. The performance of a well modded Sonic should be able to out run both the Cooper S and Abarth for the same end price; an intake and tune for 150whp, and some stiffer springs with better sway bars would likely do the trick.

So, overall I was thoroughly impressed with the Sonic LTZ Turbo. It is a huge improvement for GM in this segment, and sales would suggest that people have noticed. The Sonic is a quality car in all regards, and the turbo engine enhances every aspect of the car (in my mind it should be standard, forget the 1.8L). It is a genuinely fun car to drive, one that is also extremely practical and economical. The Sonic can also easily be made even more fun with simple modifications should owners desire. It is an extremely solid package, a good middle ground between fun and economy that the average person will enjoy. I was thoroughly impressed with the Sonic LTZ Turbo, and as an enthusiast I can honestly say that I would consider it worthy to be my daily driver.

WoM Score: Chevy Sonic LTZ Turbo

Primary Function: Practicality: 2
Secondary Functions: Performance(2), Luxury(1), MPG(2): 2
Visual Appeal: 2
Build Quality: 1
Value for Money: 2

Final Score: 9/10

-Nick Walker

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