Fun subcompact cars are a perpetually endangered species. If they don't go extinct (RIP, dear old CRX), they move upmarket and out of reach of the practically minded car guys who actually want to drive them.
That's why you should get into a 2012 Chevrolet Sonic or a 2011 Mazda 2 while you can. Both of these budget hatchbacks have some skills on back roads, yet unlike many of their forbears, they also offer enough comforts to make them bearable in the daily grind.
The Mazda and the Chevy remind you that a hard $20,000 spending limit needn't be a dead end or a pity party. There are still cheap new cars that are good to drive. You just have to know where to look.
Make a New List
The 2012 Chevrolet Sonic and 2011 Mazda 2 probably aren't even on your list. No surprise there, as the Sonic is the successor to the forgettable Aveo, while the 2 is the less flashy (but slightly more expensive) cousin of the Ford Fiesta. But as we're about to prove, these aren't the runts of the budget-hatchback litter.
We weren't aiming for absolute pricing parity with this test. Instead, we've put the most performance-focused 2012 Chevrolet Sonic hatchback up against the most capable 2011 Mazda 2 and let the dollars fall where they may, so long as they land under $20K.
This strategy led us to a top-shelf 2012 Sonic LTZ hatch and its optional 138-horsepower, turbocharged, 1.4-liter inline four-cylinder engine, which is an upgrade over the standard naturally aspirated, 1.8-liter inline-4 that makes the same hp but nowhere near as much torque — 125 pound-feet at 3,800 rpm versus the turbo engine's 148 lb-ft at 2,500 revs.
Of course, we could have saved $1,000 and optioned a midrange Sonic LT with the 1.4-liter turbo, but we prefer the LTZ model's lower-profile 205/50R17 tires. Nor do we mind the LTZ's handsome leatherette upholstery and heated seats, and its leather-wrapped steering wheel feels good in our hands.
You get all that, plus Bluetooth (with audio streaming) and a USB input, for $18,695. Had we chosen the less useful Sonic LTZ sedan and equipped it the same, it would have cost $17,995.
Hope You Like Three Pedals
One thing you can't get on a Chevy Sonic with the turbocharged 1.4-liter is an automatic transmission. A six-speed manual gearbox is mandatory with this engine.
Informally, the same is true of the Mazda 2. Sure, you can have a four-speed automatic instead of our car's five-speed manual, but with so few forward ratios, plus tall gearing, this automatic amounts to car-guy repellent. Remember, the 2 only comes with a naturally aspirated 1.5-liter rated at 100 hp and 98 lb-ft of torque.
Mazda also takes a sparer approach to equipping the 2. Our high-line Touring model has cloth upholstery (it's high quality, at least), a leather-wrapped wheel and an auxiliary jack, but no Bluetooth or USB input. Its wheels are alloys, but its 185/55R15 tires are comparatively puny.
Then again, the 2011 Mazda 2's price tag is punier, too, at $16,385. There are no changes for 2012, but a series of price increases has bumped an equivalent 2012 model to $17,690. So effectively, the gap between the 2 and Sonic is $1,000.
The Chevy Is Quick
That's a big difference at the bottom end of the market, but any guilt we have about setting up this comparison test fades when we floor the throttle in the Sonic LTZ. This car feels fast — fast enough to make small-car nerds like your author stop petitioning for a Fiesta ST. We already have something close to a Sonic SS here.
You don't have to plan your moves in traffic, because the turbo Sonic has ample grunt to get you moving and a nice, fat midrange that we honestly never noticed in our long-term Cruze, probably because it was so darn heavy (475 pounds heavier than this Sonic). You'll never remember how this engine sounds (it's not that inspiring), but the power comes on so readily that you want to run it hard every time.
The six-speed gearbox driving the front wheels is a nice piece, too. The clutch engages a touch high in the pedal travel, but the take-up is precise and the shifter is slick through the gates. Smooth upshifts come easily.
We can't stop looking for opportunities to rip off heel-and-toe downshifts, and that's why we'd struggle to hit the turbo Sonic's 29 city/40 highway mpg ratings if we owned this car.
For pure enjoyment, though, there's not a better manual gearbox in this price range. And for long-haul highway travel, the Chevy should still be more efficient than our Mazda 2 (29/35) or a base-engine Sonic (26/35).
During this test of mixed driving, our loaner Sonic produced 29.3 mpg over 1,071 miles, while the Mazda earned 30.8 mpg over a similar distance.
Except Under the Gun
As potent as the Sonic feels, it's unable to put up acceleration numbers that reflect this. We suspect Chevrolet pinched pennies on the drivetrain hardware, as our instrumented testing reveals an omniscient (and undefeatable) parental hand that prohibits hard launches and cuts the throttle during redline upshifts.
No, you won't damage your Chevy, but you also won't get to 60 mph any sooner than 8.8 seconds (or 8.5 seconds with 1 foot of rollout as on a drag strip). The quarter-mile takes 16.5 seconds at 84.2 mph. It's still the quickest car in this class (unless you're going to cheat and count the Mini Cooper S), but it would demolish the competition if it weren't hobbling down the drag strip in an electronic potato sack.
Because Mazda allows a decent launch, the 2 comes within 0.7 second of the Sonic's quarter-mile time with a 17.2-second run at 79.9 mph (9.9-second 0-60).
But don't go getting the idea that the Mazda 2 is anything more than a momentum car. The 1.5-liter engine is happy at 4,000 rpm and above — and that's where it needs to be if you're serious about passing that box truck.
The engine's good-natured growl and the five-speed's short, well-defined throws take any drudgery out of working through the gears. However, the tricky clutch engagement can make you look clumsy easing away from stoplights.
Take the Back Roads
You never have to worry about looking foolish on back roads in either of these cars. Most subcompacts aren't set up for serious cornering, but that's exactly what the chassis engineers at GM and Mazda had in mind for the Sonic and 2.
These hatches pick up where the Ford Fiesta and Honda Fit leave off and crash head-on into your prejudices about cheap cars. Both turn in quickly with little body roll, and while you might not get through a track day on the stock brake pads, both have good pedal feel and adequate heat capacity for repeated hard stops. (Our lower-mileage Sonic tester stops shorter from 60 mph — 123 feet versus 132.)
If forced to choose, we'd rather drive the Sonic on our favorite road, even though it's 500 pounds heavier. Being able to accelerate out of slow corners is a huge part of the Chevy's appeal, but the near flawless steering calibration has plenty to do with it, too.
Assist is meted out so precisely that you're never second-guessing your inputs or wishing the car didn't have EPS — it's just steering and it's done right. There's actual steering feel, too, and that plus the information you get through the driver seat makes you confident about the Sonic's intentions. Instead of trying to piece together corners, you settle into a rhythm, and that's how any great drive begins.
The 2 Pwns the Cones
That's not to say that we don't like our 2011 Mazda 2's electric steering. This is still a solid setup with good precision and feel; it's just not quite as locked in as the Sonic's steering, especially on-center.
There's a lot to be said for the Mazda's low curb weight, too. It's the lightest car in this class (and actually weighs 150 pounds less than the smaller Fiat 500) and almost 500 pounds less than the Sonic (2,276 pounds vs. 2,775 pounds). It feels wonderfully unencumbered through turns. Just keep the engine revs up and you can string together a series of corners and have some fun with it. Still, you're always wishing it had more grunt.
Both cars use semi-independent twist-beam suspension in back, and the Mazda 2's is set up better for our slalom test. It's easier to maintain a neutral attitude through the cones, and that helps the 2 to a 67.4-mph run, quicker than everything save for a Mini.
The Sonic gets a little too loose in this test and as it passes the third cone, says our test driver, "The rear of the car is like a caboose that's close to coming off the rails." Its best run is 66.1 mph. Lateral grip is a wash between the two (0.84g), as the Sonic's resistance to being steered with the throttle keeps it from exploiting its wider tires.
Commuting Is Fun Again
Slalom speeds are always quotable, but in this test, we're more interested in how the cars feel on public roads. And not only is the turbocharged Chevrolet Sonic more fun on the twisty two-lanes, it's also more enjoyable as a commuter car.
Both cars have a surprising amount of compliance dialed into their suspensions, but the Sonic has a more composed and sophisticated ride, and its extra poundage undoubtedly contributes to that sense of solidity. Its cabin is better sealed off from road noise, and an extra overdrive gear has engine rpm down near 2,000 at 70 mph compared to 3,000 in the Mazda 2.
There's also no denying that the Sonic's cabin design is simply more practical. It's a slightly longer, wider car, and this yields more legroom and hiproom and makes it easier to accommodate the occasional rear passenger. And a telescoping steering wheel provides a much better driving position.
No one can touch the Fit's cargo capacity, but if you're not going to go for the Honda, the Chevy is the next best choice for hauling in this class. Its rear seats fold fully flat, resulting in the level load floor that we've always wished the Mazda had.
We're Buying This One
Maybe you object to this comparison test on the grounds that no one ever buys a subcompact hatchback because they like how it drives. Fair enough. But if a car isn't any fun the first day you have it, it's probably not worth buying in the first place.
Subcompacts aren't for the financially destitute anymore. If you're on the verge of having to take the bus, you're not shopping for an $18,000 car. Instead, the 2012 Chevrolet Sonic and 2011 Mazda 2 are for better-off people who know exactly what they need and what they don't.
What we need every now and then is a little fun, and if you keep your expectations realistic, both of these cars are capable of delivering it.
But with its optional turbocharged 1.4-liter engine, the Chevy Sonic comes through with much bigger helpings of fun. It's worth the extra money over the Mazda 2 and it's even good enough to talk you out of buying a Mini Cooper. Accordingly, we've just purchased a brand-new Sonic LTZ turbo for our Long-Term Road Test fleet.
The manufacturers provided Edmunds these vehicles for the purposes of evaluation.