Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Test Drive: 2013 Chevrolet Sonic LT Turbo

Update: See how the Sonic performed against the competition in our Subcompact Showdown.

MSRP: $17,520
As Tested Price: $19,860

Just as with Ford's products of old, I was never a fan of General Motors products, with the lone exception of the Corvette. But also just like Ford, General Motors has made a marked improvement over the last few years with their vehicles. Quality and reliability, two of GM's biggest complaints, have improved to the point that the automotive press actually considers some of GM's current crop of vehicles genuine competitors to their Japanese and German counterparts.

GM, like many automotive manufacturers, have recently begun introducing subcompact cars into their vehicle line ups. Subcompacts are becoming especially popular amongst young adults and small families looking for a practical vehicle that does not drink gasoline like an SUV. The Sonic, Chevrolet's entry to United States subcompact market, replaces the aging Chevrolet Aveo as Chevrolet's subcompact entry (the Sonic is, however, still marketed as the Chevrolet Aveo in other markets). Competition in the subcompact segment has gotten much more aggressive over the past few years, especially with constantly rising gas prices. Does the Chevrolet Sonic have what it takes to be a true competitor in the subcompact market, or will it crumble under the weight of its competitors?

West Brother's Review

I went into this test drive not really knowing what to expect. Besides the Express cargo vans and now dead Chevrolet Astro, I had never driven any other Chevrolet vehicles ever. My first impression of the Sonic ended up being one of shock, and not in a particularly good way. It is not that the Sonic is an ugly car, but the color left me a bit shocked. The color, "Inferno Orange Metallic," was one of those "please write me a ticket, officer" type colors that American manufacturers seem to enjoy using these days. It did not quite stand out as much as the "Tangerine Scream" color the Focus ST I tested, or the neon green two cars down, but it was still pretty out there. As it turns out, the Inferno Orange Metallic is an optional color, meaning the standard color choices will be far more tame. Unfortunately, being an optional color also means that you will be paying a hefty sum for a color that stands out to police like a sore thumb.

Once the shock of the extremely bright color wore off, I noticed that the Sonic is actually not that bad looking of a car. It certainly stands out more than the other cars I tested in this segment, with its chrome trimmed lights and giant grill opening. This car definitely falls on the more aggressive looking side of the subcompact spectrum. The small 15 inch wheels looked quite small for the car, but adding the 16 inch wheels, or upgrading to the LTZ or RS package would have taken this car well over $20,000. If there is one thing I would change, I would ease up a bit on the chrome.

Getting inside the car, the first thing I noticed was the "MyLink" touch screen at the center of the car. The system is actually quite clean and responds very quickly. It boggled my mind as I tried to wrap my head around the fact that a $19,000 Sonic had a better touch system than a $40,000 Cadillac. As I was admiring the fact that a sub $20,000 car would have an option like this, I began to notice how cheap the plastic surrounding the screen looked. As I looked around some more, it dawned on me that Chevrolet had used some pretty cheap looking and feeling plastic for nearly everything in the car. All of the plastic surfaces had a hard, hollow feeling to them, and this was especially apparent of the plastic surrounding the touch screen, the HVAC controls, and the instrument cluster. I am not totally certain what Chevrolet was trying to do here, but it almost looks as if they tried to attach a motorcycle instrument panel to the car, and it also looks like it could be easily removed like a portable GPS. Even as I write this, I still cannot make up my mind about whether the dash is cool or tacky.

Thankfully, the rest of the car was much better. Cargo space with the seats up is decent at 19.0 cu.ft., and is great with the seats down at 47.7 cu.ft. Rear seat room is actually quite good for a subcompact car, and the seating surfaces are lined in a reasonably soft touch cloth material. The front seats, while comfortable, suffer from not being bolstered quite enough. During the test drive, I could feel myself sliding around in the seat as I accelerated out of a turn. I cannot remember the last time I had to brace myself against the door with my leg while driving a car.

While the interior of the Sonic is not exactly great, the way the car drives is an entirely different story. The Sonic LT comes standard with a 1.8 liter inline-4 making 138hp and 125lb./ft. of torque. Instead of the standard engine though, the Sonic LT we drove came equipped with the optional 1.4 liter, turbocharged inline-4, which makes the same 138hp, but makes 148lb./ft. of torque. For a small turbocharged engine, this thing pulls quite well. Turbo lag is almost unnoticeable, and power feels good across the entire rev range. The EPA estimated 27 city and 34 highway miles per gallon is pretty impressive for a turbocharged engine. Though it does raise the cost quite a bit, making this car the most expensive subcompact we tested, I would say this engine is worth it.

It is too bad that the transmission leaves something to be desired though. The Sonic's six-speed automatic, while decent, is nothing to write home about. Up shifts are reasonably smooth, just like any other automatic transmission available today. It is this transmission's down shifts that bother me. Because there seems to be no throttle blip programmed into the automatic's down shifting, the car has a tendency to jerk during down shifts. What also bothers me about the transmission is the strange way the manual shift mode is set up. Most automatic transmissions with a manual shift mode either have you put the lever into a manual gate, where you then either push up or down to shift, or have steering or column mounted paddle shifters. The Sonic has you shift the car into manual mode, which is one shift below "D," and change gears using a "+/-" button located on the left side of the shift knob. I understand the need to be different in order to stand out, but like they say, "if it ain't broke, don't fix it!"

Thankfully, the Sonic's handling kept my mind off the mediocre transmission. Even though we did not drive the top of the line RS model, the LT still held its own quite well. The car did exhibit some understeer during hard cornering, due largely in part to the skinny 195 mm width tires, but it was not unmanageable. Handling duties were made a lot easier thanks to this car's well weighted and surprisingly communicative steering wheel. Being able to feel what the tires were doing through the wheel certainly helped correct the Sonic's minor understeer. Braking was also quite good, with a good initial bite and a solid brake feel that carries all the way to a stop. Body roll was surprisingly minimal despite the car's height. It certainly is not the best handling subcompact on the market, but it seems like the car could definitely hold its own around twisty roads.

The Chevrolet Sonic LT is a decent little car that offers good power, good gas mileage, pretty good handling, and a great amount of cargo space. If a chintzy interior and clunky downshifts do not bother you, it is a car worth considering. The optional 1.4 liter turbocharged engine is a must for people looking for that extra bit of power without sacrificing a lot of MPG, and the "MyLink" touch screen infotainment system is surprisingly good. While the turbo engine and touch screen infotainment system do make the Sonic LT one of the more expensive subcompacts in the segment, it does create a car worth considering.  

My Fiancee's Review

My first impression of the Sonic LT was that it was a very sporty looking car. Compared to the other subcompacts we have looked at thus far, this car is easily the most aggressive looking of the group. Despite the sporty look, it could not hide the cheap plastic tacked on to the exterior of the car. One example are the cheap, plastic door handles at the rear of the car.. This cheapness seems to transfer to the inside of the car too, where the trim and arm rests on the doors look hard and brittle. Plastics throughout the rest of the car look extremely cheap as well. The oddest and cheapest looking part of the car has to be that odd looking dash. It looks like Chevy tried to combine a motorcycle dash with a portable navigation, and built it with toy grade plastic.

Luckily for the Sonic, it drives very well. The car seemed to have good acceleration and felt quite powerful even though it had a very small engine. Brakes on the car were very good too. It feels like the brakes grab very hard without having to use much force on the brake pedal. Handling is also very good and feels very sporty without being too rough. The steering wheel has very good response too, and does not feel too heavy.

There are some other small quirks that I enjoyed about the Sonic. I like that the USB port is hidden in its own compartment, much like my own Fit. The touch screen radio was pretty cool and was not too difficult to use. While the trunk looks small, its actual size is not bad. I think the included cargo cover makes it look a lot smaller than it actually is.

Overall, the Sonic LT is a decent car. It has a very aggressive look and has a lot of neat touches to it, like the optional touch screen radio. While it drives and handles very well, a lot of the materials used in the car are very cheap. If Chevrolet had used better materials to build the car, I feel like this would have been a car I would have looked at when I was looking to replace my old car.


*Special thanks to Martin Chevrolet for letting us test drive their vehicle!*

**Find out how the Sonic LT fared in our Subcompact Showdown