Driven: 2012 Chevrolet Sonic LTZ Turbo

By Brandon Turkus

January 02, 2012

—Lake Orion, Michigan
 
If you read our review of the Chevrolet Sonic, you’ll know we were pretty impressed by GM’s newest small car, except for two areas: the engine and the interior. That powerplant, a 1.8-liter Ecotec four-cylinder produced 138 horsepower and 125 pound-feet of torque. That’s more than the majority of the competition, but it’s still not a great deal of punch, especially when considering our last 1.8 Sonic sedan tipped the scales at a portly (for its class) curb weight of 2721 pounds.
 
Fortunately, Chevrolet sent us a Sonic with the Chevy Cruze’s 1.4-liter turbocharged four-pot last week, and we’re pleased to report that the blown powertrain is markedly better than the 1.8.
 
[Check out the upcoming Chevrolet Sonic RS]
 
So what makes this 1.4-liter plant better than the bigger 1.8? It still makes the same 138 horsepower, but that amount is supplemented by an extra 23 pound-feet of torque, giving the turbocharged Sonic 148 pound-feet of torque compared to 125. We know, 23 pound-feet is really nothing to get excited about.
 
What is exciting is the way the 1.4 goes about delivering its force-induced punch. In the 1.8, peak power comes on at a lofty 6300 rpm, while peak torque doesn’t arrive until 3800 rpm. Considering the 1.8’s redline is 6500 rpm, you are forced to run it ragged trying to get moving. The turbo improves things considerably, as peak power and torque both arrive much earlier in the rev range, with horsepower hitting its stride at 4900 rpm, while all 148 pound-feet of torque come on at an low 2500 rpm.
 
What all that mumbo-jumbo means is that the turbocharged Sonic is far more usable in day-to-day driving. Low- and mid-range power is much improved, although once you get into the higher parts of the rev range, power tapers off quickly. The other big characteristic of this engine is its quick-revving nature. After a slight amount of turbo lag, it climbed the rev range almost too quickly, making for a truly entertaining and engaging driving experience.
 
We also enjoyed the engine note on offer here, as it was decidedly more sporty than the 1.8-liter of our last tester. It still doesn’t have the acoustic presence of the Honda Fit or Ford Fiesta, but it certainly sounds like it means business, especially between 2000 and 5000 rpm.
 
The other notable change that comes with ticking the box for the turbocharged engine is a standard six-speed manual transmission (as opposed to the five-speed that comes with the 1.8). There is no automatic option, which we find strange considering the 1.4 features a six-speed auto as an optional extra in most trims, and a standard item in the top-spec LTZ. Like the five-speed, the throws on this transmission are a bit on the long side. We also noticed a spongy-feeling clutch with a high catchpoint, although the sponginess could be due to the 4000 miles of abuse testing that our car had been subjected to before we got it. On a comfort note, the addition of a sixth gear does a fine job of controlling engine drone on the highway.
 
The turbocharged Sonic addressed our biggest complaints from our original review, namely the lack of power. Despite weighing almost 200 pounds more than the competition, the Chevy would be our choice in a drag race. What’s truly remarkable, though, is the transformative effect it had on the car’s overall character. With the 1.8, there’s a noticeable economy feel in the way the car accelerates, sounds, and drives. The addition of the 1.4-liter turbo has made this an engaging, not-quite-hot hatchback, that asks for you to drive it and have fun in it.
 
VS: Honda Fit Sport
 
The Fit outdoes the Sonic in a few areas, namely shift quality, interior appearance, and steering feel and feedback. That being said, straight-line power is far more impressive in the torquier, turbocharged Chevy. It may weigh more than the Fit, but with around 40 more pound-feet of torque coming in much lower in the rev range, usable power is far more available in the Sonic.
 
Outright handling ability is a closer contest, as the lighter Fit feels better planted. The overall character of the Sonic is one that seems more willing and fun to throw around the bends. Overall, we’d call the driving experience a draw here, with a slight plus to the Sonic for its extra power.
 
VS: Ford Fiesta
 
In terms of acceleration, this isn’t even fair. The Sonic blows the Ford clear out of the water. Despite weighing around 200 pounds more, there’s just so much more usable power, and the gearing (the Ford’s weak spot) is much better suited to hard driving.
 
As we said with our last Sonic, it is also a more engaging vehicle to throw around on a twisty road, and not much has changed here, as the Chevy just delivers a better overall experience.
 
Chevrolet Sonic Turbo
Engine: Turbocharged inline-four, 1.4 liters, 16v
Output: 138 hp/148 lb-ft
Weight: 2743 lb
Fuel Economy, City/Hwy: 29/40 mpg
Base Price: $17,235
As Tested: $18,890