Having given Shadow, our 2003 Pontiac Vibe, to a family member, I was now in the market for a new car just a little over a year after purchasing Mica, our 2013 Mazda CX-5. Now that both of my children were out of daycare and my wife was working full time, our financial situation had improved dramatically. The Mazda was already paid off, and we had quite a bit saved up to purchase another car. As you may have already figured out, I didn’t go in the expected direction.
When you think about it, the situation was almost comical. Taken from the perspective of a dealer finance manager, based on the cash we had to contribute, debt-to-income ratio, and credit score, we literally could have walked into almost any dealer and driven away in any car on the lot. However, I’m the type of person who prefers earning interest to paying it. We already had one car that was roomy enough for the family and our stuff. So, I could see no reason why we needed two. In addition, I was weaned on small cars, and they’re what I feel most comfortable driving. All I really wanted was a fun commuter just big enough to fit me and my two kids when performing drop-off and/or pick-up duty. I could put a hefty down payment on a top-trim three-row crossover that I didn’t need, or since I’m not trying to impress anybody, buy a small, less expensive car outright. I also chose to go with an automatic transmission since the bulk of my driving is in the city.
I love hatchbacks, and the choices had improved tremendously since 2002. Rather than drive from lot to lot, I took the family to the Connecticut Auto Show. I found the Honda Fit to be just as uncomfortable as every Honda I’ve ever sat in. The Toyota Yaris felt cheap inside and was saddled with an obsolete 4-speed automatic. I was intrigued by the Prius C, but my wife just said, “I don’t see us owning this car.” The Mini Countryman was too expensive, and I wasn’t confident in its reliability. I’d heard nothing good about the PowerShift in the Ford Fiesta, and I just didn’t like the look of the Nissan Versa Note. That left the Chevrolet Sonic, which had started at the top of my list anyway. I did look at the Buick Encore, which is based on the same platform, and even went as far as a test drive. It was slower, less efficient, not much roomier, and wallowed like an old Buick (my wife’s description). In our opinion, the Encore wasn’t worth the $6,000 premium over the Sonic (the Chevrolet Trax was not yet on sale in the U.S.).
The Sonic was introduced for the 2012 model year as a more-stylish, more-powerful, better-engineered replacement for the Aveo. Instead of a wheezy 1.6-liter, the Sonic had the same powertrain as the larger, heavier Cruze: a standard 1.8-liter, four-cylinder engine or an optional turbocharged 1.4-liter. Both engines made 138 horsepower, but the 1.8 made it at a lofty 6,300 RPM, while the turbo peaks at 4,900. More importantly, while the 1.8 only made 125 lb. ft. of torque at 3,800 RPM, the turbo makes 148 lb. ft. at a nice, low 1,850 with the 6-speed automatic. While this may not sound like a big difference, it is. In addition, the turbo is more efficient than the old 1.8 (27/37 vs. 25/35).
One of the main reasons why the Sonic was at the top of my list was due to how well Charlie, our 2011 Chevrolet Cruze protected me and my 6-year-old son in a horrible side-impact collision. While I would actually have liked another Cruze, my wife wasn’t comfortable in the low-to-the-ground seating. Like that Cruze, the Sonic is several hundred pounds heavier than it has any right to be. At over 2,800, it’s as heavy as the Vibe even though it’s 12 inches shorter. Being an all-new design, it incorporated all of the modern safety features for the time, including ten airbags. I felt comfortable that the Sonic would protect us in an accident, even if the car itself ends up looking like a bowl of mush.
Having driven the CX-5 for almost a year at this point, my wife was now sold on crossovers. While clearly not one, the Sonic is two inches taller than the Cruze and has a higher seating position. To be on the safe side, I had my wife sit in a Cruze to remember how much she hated it, then I had her sit in a Sonic. “This isn’t bad at all,” she said. On a later test drive, the relatively smooth, well-controlled ride belied it’s tiny 99.4-inch wheelbase.
Since I was shopping near the bottom rung of the Chevy ladder, it was the perfect opportunity to be choosy. Not being a fan of leather seats, I crossed the LTZ and RS off my list, which left the mid-level LT. The LT was already well equipped: power windows with auto up/down driver’s side, power locks and mirrors, air conditioning, tilt and telescoping steering column, remote start, variable intermittent wipers, rear wiper/washer, automatic on/off head lamps, multi-function display, cruise control and steering wheel audio controls with Bluetooth.
To solve for the awkward-looking standard 15″ wheels, I chose the optional “Wheel & Fog Lamp Package” with its Camaro-aping 16″ wheels and fog lamps that nicely dress up the front end. Another must have was the “Fun & Sun Package,” which grouped the turbo engine with a power moon roof for a surprisingly affordable $995. I also selected the MyLink 7″ touch screen in combination with a backup camera. You might not think that a backup camera is necessary for a small, squared-off hatchback where the rear window is not that far from your head, but it’s still helpful. Finally, I added forward collision and lane departure warnings. I found Topaz Blue Metallic to be the most attractive of the available colors, and it gives the funky little hatchback a mature look more befitting its middle-aged owner. For the inside, I opted for the pewter interior over the ubiquitous black.
There was exactly one Sonic in this configuration within 750 miles of me, about 80 miles away. It had everything except for the FCW and LDW, which I could live without. However, the salesman at that dealer had a customer coming in to look at it. Since I wasn’t in a hurry, I went ahead and put in a custom order at my local dealer. I didn’t know custom ordering a car was still possible. Very old school.
About a week later, I received a phone call from my dealer that the other guy wasn’t able to get financing, and the car was available if I was still interested. I told him I was, and thought to myself, “Dude, if even the dealer can’t get you approved to finance a Chevy Sonic, not only should you not be shopping for a new car, but there is something seriously wrong with your finances.” As far as I know, my dealer did not cancel the custom order, so somewhere out there is a Sonic that looks exactly like mine.
Since the company I work for has a supplier pricing deal with GM, the actual sales transaction was easy. With the then $1,000 rebate, “Eddie” was around $20,000 out the door. Yes, I know I probably could have bought a base Malibu for that price, but I neither wanted nor needed a Malibu (I’m looking at you, JPC).
Following the tradition we started with Shadow, we broke in Eddie with a road trip to visit my uncle in New Jersey for the weekend. A family of four taking a road trip in a subcompact might sound like the makings of a slapstick comedy, but it went surprisingly well. The Sonic is remarkably quiet and comfortable cruising on the highway, and the deep well in the hatch easily swallowed a full-sized piece of luggage and a few small bags. My uncle had just leased a new Encore, and it was fun to compare and contrast.
The trip, of course, was a one-time thing. Eddie’s main job is daily commuting, and that is where he shines. The Sonic handles pot-hole-infested downtown much better than the Vibe. More importantly, it is downtown commuting where all that low-down torque really comes into play. Need to make that green light or get in front of that bus before it pulls out? Power is immediately available, with no turbo lag. More often than not, the transmission doesn’t even need to kick down. It’s classic GM with a high-tech, modern twist. However, just like with every W-body powered by a 2.8- or 3.1-liter V6, there’s nothing left at highway speeds. The jump from 50 to 70 is accompanied by at least a 2-gear kick down, a lot of screaming, and not a lot of thrust. Like I mentioned above, it’s just fine on the highway, but you have to adjust your expectations.
Inside, everything is clear and within easy reach. The “motorcycle inspired” gauge cluster is more than just a gimmick. The large digital speedometer is so much easier to read than the CX-5’s cramped 160-MPH analog unit. Why don’t people like digital speedometers? The tachometer is analog, as it should be. The version of MyLink in the Sonic is a simplified version of the one available on Chevy’s larger cars, but meets all of my needs. There up to 35 presets available regardless of band, so you can have AM/FM/XM stations all mixed together based on preference. While people have noted that the interior is filled with too many hard plastics, at least they’re high quality with contrasting colors that add to the fun quotient. Also, with big, round knobs, I can adjust the climate control without even looking.
Even though the round headlights are part of the “motorcycle inspired” theme, I find they throw off a wider field of light. The thin blades on the Mazda, for example, have a sharp upper cutoff right in my field of vision.
What I enjoy most of all is the small size. In traffic, I can (carefully) dart in and out much easier than larger vehicles. In my parking garage, I can pull into a prime space most other drivers had to pass by because one or both of the surrounding cars are parked too close to the lines. A few months ago, some moron blocked my car while he worked something out at the front desk. The space next to me was empty. So, I turned my car around inside the two spaces and pulled out. OK, it did involve a bunch of K turns, but it would have been impossible with anything larger. In my own short garage, parking near the back of the bay leaves a good six feet between the door to the house and the front of the car for easier pedestrian traffic.
My only issue with the car is gas mileage. When people see my car, the first thing they say is, “Wow, it must get great gas mileage!” Uh, no. In the warmer months, I can just achieve the EPA estimate of 27 with a light foot. In winter, that can fall as low as 24. In my Liberty Mutual “Big Brother is Watching You” three-month monitoring period, I got up to 30 MPG by feather-footing it, but I can’t keep up that kind of driving. Overall, there are plenty of mid-sized cars, as well as our CX-5, that can match or beat that kind of real-world city mileage. However, when you only drive about 6,000 miles per year, gas mileage doesn’t matter that much. Also, I’m having way too much fun to care.
Six years on, I’m not regretting my decision at all. The Sonic is one of those great, under-appreciated cars that just isn’t on most people’s radars (hence, my wife’s reaction when I told her what I wanted). The 2017 update took away the funky gauge cluster and round headlamps, two features I feel make the car really stand out. Predictably, there doesn’t appear to be a next generation forthcoming. I’m glad we had the opportunity to purchase one, and my son already has his eye on it for when he gets his license in two years.
I hope you’ve enjoyed reading this series as much as I have enjoyed writing it. Finally, thanks go out to Paul for all of the un-compensated effort he puts into this site and for giving me the opportunity to share my story.