After decades of driving manual-transmission cars, I like to think I know when to shift up. But the 2012 Chevy Sonic LTZ turbo had other ideas. As I drove this six-speed-manual-equipped car down a coastal highway, the up arrow icon on the instrument cluster lit up consistently before what I felt was the right time to take a higher gear. By 50 mph the Sonic LTZ turbo wanted to be in top gear.
In this new era when automakers try to eke every bit of fuel economy out of their cars, even the driver is not safe from efficiency engineering. On a flat road, the Sonic's shift suggestions were perfectly reasonable, but on any ascent the small engine just did not have the oomph to idle uphill. Despite what the car might think, downshifts were necessary.
The standard engine for the Sonic is a naturally aspirated 1.8-liter four-cylinder, but Chevy makes a turbo coupled with a 1.4-liter engine as an option. This turbocharged engine leads to a 5 mpg increase in EPA numbers, at 29 mpg city and 40 mpg highway. And those numbers are realistic, as CNET's Sonic managed 32.8 mpg in a mix of city, freeway, and highway driving.
The miracle of the turbocharger means that this smaller engine produces more torque than the 1.8-liter. The turbocharged engine matches the bigger one with 138 horsepower, yet produces 148 pound-feet of torque, 23 more pound-feet than the 1.8-liter.
The Sonic's engine only displaces 1.4 liters, but the turbo keeps the power more than equivalent to a 1.8-liter engine.
But finding that power required open defiance of the instrument cluster's upshift light. With the engine wound up so the tachometer pointed northwest (north is beyond redline), the Sonic stepped forward in a lively manner, and I could just about get the front wheels to squeal.
Getting this small engine up to speed from a stop took some anticipation, so much so that I actually stalled it a time or two. And dealing with San Francisco's steep hills, it was occasionally necessary to downshift all the way to first gear, as second gear couldn't cut it. Because the engine isn't that suitable for driving on hills, Chevy equipped the car with a hill-hold feature, a necessary bit of safety tech to keep from either stalling while pointing up at the sky or rolling backward into a looming SUV.
Modular instrument cluster
The instrument cluster pod, where the shift light appears, is a unique bit of design, a big tachometer with a digital display hanging off its right side. Escaping the confines of the dashboard, this informative module sits by itself above the steering column.
Chevy says this funky little instrument cluster was inspired by motorcycle design.
With the manual transmission, the tachometer is a very useful gauge, and I did not miss an analog speedometer; the digital readout was perfectly suitable, especially given the Sonic's small amount of power. The monochrome display also showed average fuel economy, but did not include any sort of Eco indicator, like the digital driving coaches appearing in so many other cars.
When I cranked the wheel around while stopped, a whirring sound indicating electric power steering became audible. Chevy overboosted this power steering in the Sonic a bit, making it almost too easy to turn. And it doesn't communicate a lot of road feedback, although I assume that's by design.
The Sonic is no sports car, but rather a competent economy car. The steering was easy when stopped and relaxed enough at speed that I did not have to constantly correct. The suspension is very similar, contributing to a comfortably damped ride, with no harsh jolts from expansion joints or potholes.
At worst, the ride seemed a little springy, the car bouncing jack-in-the-box style over repeated road faults. But it pulled itself together quickly so there was no continued oscillation when the road smoothed. Likewise, driving on curvy roads, the Sonic proved a competent car, able to lean without wallowing, traction and stability control always at the ready to correct for mistakes.
Limited cabin tech
If the Sonic does go off the road, it has OnStar at the ready, the familiar blue button on the rearview mirror frame. The OnStar hardware includes a GPS chip and data connection. But while an OnStar operator can detect if the car crashes or send it turn-by-turn directions to whatever destination the driver requests, Chevy does not take advantage of this data pipe into the car to offer in-dash weather forecasts, gas prices, or other useful information.
The Blue OnStar button connects the driver with an operator for safety and navigation services.
OnStar is the only navigation option available in the Sonic from the factory, as there is no option for onboard navigation. However, in the LTZ trim, a Bluetooth phone system comes standard. Although operated by voice command, the radio display shows some feedback from the phone system, such as the number dialed.
It was disappointing to find that the Bluetooth phone system did not make my paired phone's contact list available through voice command, because I certainly don't know any of the actual numbers. This system does have an option for creating voice tags for numbers, but that would require much more setup than the phone systems in theor .
However, the Sonic LTZ turbo did include a USB port. And while I prefer to see these ports mounted in a car's console, making them accessible from the driver seat, Chevy included a convenient upper glove compartment very suitable for portable electronics. The USB port was in this upper hatch, and there was plenty of room for an iPod.
The 2-line radio display shows iPod music libraries and other information.
As there isn't an LCD in the dashboard, the monochrome radio display served for music selection from satellite radio, iPod, or USB drive. Using the menu knob on the right side of the radio controls, I found it easy to select categories on my iPod for album, artist, and genre. With a USB drive plugged into this system, the display only showed folders and files. Voice command offered only minimal control over the audio system.
Being the top trim of Chevy's least expensive car did not mean much of an audio system upgrade. Where a base Sonic only gets a four-speaker system, the LTZ turbo gets six speakers. The additional tweeters make for mediocre sound quality when compared with other offerings in the automotive world, and Chevy does not offer any optional premium system or subwoofer.
Music reproduction, while mostly adequate, was flat, with the more delicate tones buried among the more audacious sounds. Heavy bass did not rattle door panels, which shows the car's build quality, but neither was it inspiring. Trilling high notes were a lost cause, sounding distant if they came through at all.
The 2012 Chevy Sonic LTZ turbo proved very drivable, once I adapted to getting its small engine revved up appropriately. The six-speed transmission shifted easily and it delivered on its promised fuel economy. The ride quality felt well-engineered so as to deliver comfort without a lot of bouncing around.
The cabin features some clever design. I particularly liked the minimalism of the instrument cluster. Cabin tech doesn't seem to have been much of a priority for Chevy. Although it included the de rigueur Bluetooth phone system and USB port for music, youthful buyers will probably be attracted to the more robust music and phone systems in competitor's cars.
|Model||2012 Chevrolet Sonic|
|Power train||Turbocharged 1.4-liter 4-cylinder engine, 6-speed manual transmission|
|EPA fuel economy||29 mpg city/40 mpg highway|
|Observed fuel economy||32.6 mpg|
|Bluetooth phone support||Standard|
|Disc player||MP3-compatible single-CD|
|MP3 player support||iPhone integration|
|Other digital audio||USB drive, auxiliary input, satellite radio|
|Audio system||6-speaker system|
|Price as tested||$17,995|