After driving a preproduction 2012 Chevrolet Sonic LTZ, we were looking forward to buying one of own to test. Unfortunately, living with our test car for a while revealed that something was lost in translation.
We had planned to buy a LTZ hatchback at the same time as our tested Sonic LT sedan. But the car with the powertrain we wanted was delayed for several weeks as various launch issues were worked out. Finally we found a car to test: a loaded LTZ hatchback with the 1.4-liter turbo and a six-speed manual. While we didn’t want other optional equipment, we took a car with the optional moonroof and an extra charge for special red paint. Those options pushed the price tag to a hefty $19,870—a lot for a very small hatchback, even if it does have heated leatherette seats.
Of course, many of the good traits we saw in that borrowed preproduction Sonic LTZ appeared in our production car. The Sonic feels solid to drive, with a relatively civilized ride and quiet interior for this class. It’s also a good-looking car in this form, with its large wheels and stubby, wide-track stance.
But the big problem is the powertrain. The LTZ is both the sportiest and the highest fuel-economy version of the Sonic. Sometimes that seemingly contradictory combination works, but here it falls flat. Power is good in the first three of the six gears. But the higher gears are tuned to maximize fuel economy. Sure, you expect to need to downshift in a sporty low-displacement car, but dropping two or three gears for a slight highway incline is crazy.
We enjoy driving manual-transmission cars. Downshifting would be more fun if the shifter was any good, but it isn’t. Throws are long, and the shifter manages to be both rubbery and stiff. That’s not a good combination. Add in steering that has vague feel on center and you wind up with a car that doesn’t meet its sporty pretentions. And in the end, you can get the same 30 mpg overall out of an automatic Kia Rio sedan, with no little turbo engine and no shifting.
We think the “normal” Sonic LT sedan with its 1.8-liter four and a six-speed automatic is one of the best subcompact sedans on the market. But if you want a small sporty car, you can buy a loaded Hyundai Veloster for only $400 more than the Sonic LTZ hatchback we tested; it not only has head-turning styling, but it gets one mpg better fuel economy. Our money would be on the funky asymmetrical car with the three doors.