2012 Chevrolet Sonic vs. 2011 Mazda 2 Comparison Test

2012 Chevrolet Sonic Hatchback

(1.8L 4-cyl. 5-speed Manual)
  • 2012 Chevrolet Sonic Picture

    2012 Chevrolet Sonic Picture

    Subcompact cars aren't always cheap and dull. The Chevrolet Sonic and Mazda 2 are actually good to drive. | December 31, 2011

48 Photos

The Fun Subcompacts Are Back

  • Comparison Test
  • 2012 Chevrolet Sonic Specs and Performance
  • 2011 Mazda MAZDA2 Specs and Performance

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.

Vehicle
Model year2012
MakeChevrolet
ModelSonic
Year Make Model2012 Chevrolet Sonic LTZ 4dr Hatchback (1.4L 4cyl 6M)
Vehicle TypeFWD 5-passenger 4dr Hatchback
Base MSRP$17,995
Options on test vehicleEcotec Turbo 1.4-Liter Four-Cylinder Engine ($700 -- includes six-speed manual transmission and 3.65 final drive).
As-tested MSRP$18,695
Assembly locationOrion Township, MI
Drivetrain
ConfigurationTransverse, front-engine, front-wheel drive
Engine typeTurbocharged, port-injected inline-4, gasoline
Displacement (cc/cu-in)1,364/83.2
Block/head materialCast iron/cast aluminum
ValvetrainDOHC, 4 valves oer cylinder, variable intake + exhaust valve timing
Compression ratio (x:1)9.5
Redline, indicated (rpm)6,500
Horsepower (hp @ rpm)138 @ 4,900
Torque (lb-ft @ rpm)148 @ 2,500
Fuel type87-octane recommended
Transmission typeSix-speed manual
Transmission ratios (x:1)I = 3.82, II = 2.05, III = 1.30, IV = 0.96, V = 0.74, VII = 0.61, R = 3.54
Final-drive ratio (x:1)3.65
Chassis
Suspension, frontIndependent MacPherson struts, coil springs, twin-tube dampers, stabilizer bar
Suspension, rearSemi-independent twist beam-axle, coil springs, twin-tube dampers, integrated stabilizer bar
Steering typeElectric-assist, speed-proportional, rack-and-pinion power steering
Steering ratio (x:1)14.0
Tire make and modelHankook Optimo H428
Tire typeAll-season
Tire sizeP205/50R17 88H
Wheel size17-by-6.5 inches front and rear
Wheel materialCast-aluminum alloy
Brakes, front10.8-inch one-piece ventilated cast-iron disc with single-piston sliding caliper
Brakes, rear9-inch drum
Track Test Results
Acceleration, 0-30 mph (sec.)3.0
0-45 mph (sec.)5.7
0-60 mph (sec.)8.8
0-75 mph (sec.)13.4
1/4-mile (sec. @ mph)16.5 @ 84.2
0-60 with 1 foot of rollout (sec.)8.5
0-30 mph, trac ON (sec.)3.2
0-45 mph, trac ON (sec.)5.9
0-60 mph, trac ON (sec.)8.9
0-75 mph, trac ON (sec.)14.0
1/4-mile, trac ON (sec. @ mph)16.8 @ 83.9
0-60, trac ON with 1 foot of rollout (sec.)8.6
Braking, 30-0 mph (ft.)31
60-0 mph (ft.)123
Slalom, 6 x 100 ft. (mph)66.1
Slalom, 6 x 100 ft. (mph) ESC ON62.9
Skid pad, 200-ft. diameter (lateral g)0.84
Skid pad, 200-ft. diameter (lateral g) ESC ON0.80
Sound level @ idle (dB)44.0
@ Full throttle (dB)75.9
@ 70 mph cruise (dB)67.5
Engine speed @ 70 mph (rpm)2,050
Test Driver Ratings & Comments
Acceleration commentsWhat's the point of all this turbocharged torque if it's not available from a stop? Tried to launch (trac off) at 3,500 rpm, but electronics pull revs down. Squeezed throttle almost to the floor and got just 4,000 rpm. Let the clutch out quickly, but obvious torque-reduction measure(s) cause the car to bog, bog, bog no matter what I tried. Slip the clutch; bog. Get clutch out ASAP and go to WOT; bog. Infuriating. Must have a fragile drivetrain to be so heavily protected by software. Finally, there's some sort of shift-shock reduction happening between upshifts that encourages slow, smooth shifts and otherwise punishes by taking throttle away, then returning it -- long delay. So disappointing overall because of all the potential, but that's why we test on track -- to find limitations.
Braking commentsCompletely normal, adequate brakes without a hint of fade in distance or pedal feel. Like the Mazda 2 (tested the same day), it also jacks the rear up, then "falls" back to level after I release the brake.
Handling commentsSkid pad: Plenty of grip, but with so little off-throttle engine braking, it's less responsive to steering with the throttle. Mild understeer at the limit is met with throttle closure first, then brake check (that remains on for much longer than it should). Heavy-handed ESC. Steering weight is appropriate and offers some sense of pending understeer. Slalom: The suspension was apparently tuned to have an aptitude for predictable oversteer in a single corner/event... not for six quick transitions. By the 3-4 cone mark, the rear of the car is feeling like a caboose that's close to coming off the rails. A perfect run, catching the rear with opposite lock at each and every cone might be possible, but the sun might go down first. ESC is heavy-handed and long-lingering. I do like the steering.
Testing Conditions
Test date10/11/2011
Test locationCalifornia Speedway
Elevation (ft.)1,121
Temperature (F)82.2
Relative humidity (%)24.1
Barometric pressure (in. Hg)28.77
Wind (mph, direction)2.9, headwind
Odometer (mi.)2,129
Fuel used for test91-octane gasoline
As-tested tire pressures, f/r (psi)35/35
Fuel Consumption
EPA fuel economy (mpg)29 city/40 highway
Edmunds observed (mpg)29.3
Fuel tank capacity (U.S. gal.)12.2
Driving range (mi.)427
Audio and Advanced Technology
Stereo descriptionAM/FM/CD stereo with six speakers
iPod/digital media compatibilityStandard auxiliary and USB ports
Satellite radioStandard XM (three-month trial subscription)
Bluetooth phone connectivityStandard, includes audio streaming capability
Navigation systemNot available
Telematics (OnStar, etc.)Standard, 6-month trial subscription
Smart entry/StartNot available
Dimensions & Capacities
Curb weight, mfr. claim (lbs.)2,743
Curb weight, as tested (lbs.)2,775
Weight distribution, as tested, f/r (%)62.9/37.1
Length (in.)159.0
Width (in.)68.3
Height (in.)59.7
Wheelbase (in.)99.4
Track, front (in.)59.4
Track, rear (in.)59.4
Turning circle (ft.)36.1
Legroom, front (in.)41.8
Legroom, rear (in.)34.6
Headroom, front (in.)38.7
Headroom, rear (in.)38.1
Shoulder room, front (in.)53.4
Shoulder room, rear (in.)53.0
Seating capacity5
Max cargo volume behind 1st row (cu-ft)30.7
behind 2nd row (cu-ft)19.0
GVWR (lbs.)3,644
Warranty
Bumper-to-bumper3 years/36,000 miles
Powertrain5 years/100,000 miles
Corrosion6 years/100,000 miles
Roadside assistance5 years/100,000 miles
Vehicle
Model year2011
MakeMazda
ModelMAZDA2
Year Make Model2011 Mazda 2 Touring 4dr Hatchback (1.5L 4cyl 5M)
Vehicle TypeFWD 5-passenger 4dr Hatchback
Base MSRP$16,185
Options on test vehicleCrystal White Pearl Paint ($200); LEV Emissions Equipment (No charge -- Required in CA, CT, MA, MD, ME, NJ, NM, NY, OR, PA, RI, VT and WA).
As-tested MSRP$16,385 (2011, tested). $17,690 (2012)
Assembly locationHiroshima, Japan
North American parts content (%)0
Drivetrain
ConfigurationTransverse, front-engine, front-wheel drive
Engine typeNaturally aspirated, port-injected inline-4, gasoline
Displacement (cc/cu-in)1,498/91
ValvetrainDOHC, 4 valves per cylinder, variable intake-valve timing
Compression ratio (x:1)10.0
Horsepower (hp @ rpm)100 @ 6,000
Torque (lb-ft @ rpm)98 @ 4,000
Fuel typeRegular unleaded
Transmission typeFive-speed manual
Transmission ratios (x:1)I = 3.42, II = 1.84, III = 1.29, IV = 0.97, V = 0.77, R = 3.21
Final-drive ratio (x:1)3.85
Chassis
Suspension, frontIndependent MacPherson struts, coil springs, twin-tube dampers, lower control arms, stabilizer bar
Suspension, rearSemi-independent twist-beam axle, coil springs, monotube dampers, integrated stabilizer bar
Steering typeElectric-assist, speed-proportional rack-and-pinion power steering
Steering ratio (x:1)15.0
Tire make and modelYokohama Avid S34
Tire typeAll-season
Tire sizeP185/55R15 82V
Wheel size15-by-6 inches
Wheel materialCast aluminum alloy
Brakes, front10.5-inch ventilated disc with single-piston sliding caliper
Brakes, rear8-inch drum
Track Test Results
Acceleration, 0-30 mph (sec.)3.2
0-45 mph (sec.)6.2
0-60 mph (sec.)9.9
0-75 mph (sec.)15.2
1/4-mile (sec. @ mph)17.2 @ 79.9
0-60 with 1 foot of rollout (sec.)9.6
0-30 mph, trac ON (sec.)3.7
0-45 mph, trac ON (sec.)6.7
0-60 mph, trac ON (sec.)10.4
0-75 mph, trac ON (sec.)15.8
1/4-mile, trac ON (sec. @ mph)17.6 @ 79.5
0-60, trac ON with 1 foot of rollout (sec.)10.0
Braking, 30-0 mph (ft.)33
60-0 mph (ft.)132
Slalom, 6 x 100 ft. (mph)67.4
Slalom, 6 x 100 ft. (mph) ESC ON65.8
Skid pad, 200-ft. diameter (lateral g)0.84
Skid pad, 200-ft. diameter (lateral g) ESC ON0.83
Sound level @ idle (dB)43.9
@ Full throttle (dB)75.2
@ 70 mph cruise (dB)68.1
Engine speed @ 70 mph (rpm)3,000
Test Driver Ratings & Comments
Acceleration commentsTypical low-torque, front-wheel-drive car launch: Gotta zing the revs up to get some wheelspin, then tires grip and car wants to bog. Tricky but not impossible. Still, with so little power, every shift can add/subtract a tenth or two. The 1-2 shift "crunched" once, but this car has nearly 15K on the odo. Also, 60 mph arrives tantalizingly close to the top of 2nd gear but you'll need to go to 3rd.
Braking commentsConsistently average performance with negligible fade over four stops and at the end of the quarter-mile. No complaints. Interesting artifact of combo of twist-beam rear suspension is how the rear jacks up at a full stop and remains up until the brake is released.
Handling commentsSkid pad: Very slight understeer at the limit -- mostly neutral, though, so steering with the throttle is intuitive. Steering doesn't load up much at this speed, but I prefer it "friction-free" like this rather than artificially syrupy. ESC intrusion is minimal (throttle closure) right at the moment of understeer. Well done. Slalom: I had forgotten how playful and capable the Mazda 2 is here. Turn-in is immediate, transitions are quick, steering is precise and while the rear can step out, it's easily controlled with "a dab of oppo" and going back to the throttle. What fun! ESC is tuned to quell understeer but is quick to return control back to the driver. Well done.
Testing Conditions
Test date10/11/2011
Test locationCalifornia Speedway
Elevation (ft.)1,121
Temperature (F)81.7
Relative humidity (%)23.7
Barometric pressure (in. Hg)28.8
Wind (mph, direction)2.4, headwind
Odometer (mi.)14,854
Fuel used for test91-octane gasoline
As-tested tire pressures, f/r (psi)32/30
Fuel Consumption
EPA fuel economy (mpg)29 city/35 highway/32 combined
Edmunds observed (mpg)30.8 (during this test), 32 (over lifetime of long-term car)
Fuel tank capacity (U.S. gal.)11.3
Driving range (mi.)395.5
Audio and Advanced Technology
Stereo descriptionAM/FM/CD/MP3 stereo with six speakers
iPod/digital media compatibilityStandard auxiliary input
Satellite radioNot available
Hard-drive music storage capacity (Gb)Not available
Bluetooth phone connectivityNot available (dealer-accessory Motorola unit clips to sunshade but isn't fully integrated)
Navigation systemNot available
Telematics (OnStar, etc.)Not available
Smart entry/StartNot available
Dimensions & Capacities
Curb weight, mfr. claim (lbs.)2,306
Curb weight, as tested (lbs.)2,276
Weight distribution, as tested, f/r (%)61.9/38.1
Length (in.)155.5
Width (in.)66.7
Height (in.)58.1
Wheelbase (in.)98.0
Track, front (in.)58.1
Track, rear (in.)57.7
Turning circle (ft.)32.2
Legroom, front (in.)42.6
Legroom, rear (in.)33.0
Headroom, front (in.)39.1
Headroom, rear (in.)37.0
Shoulder room, front (in.)52.8
Shoulder room, rear (in.)51.2
Seating capacity5
Max cargo volume behind 1st row (cu-ft)27.8
behind 2nd row (cu-ft)13.3
GVWR (lbs.)3,263
Ground clearance (in.)5.1
Warranty
Bumper-to-bumper3 years/36,000 miles
Powertrain5 years/60,000 miles
Corrosion5 years/Unlimited miles
Roadside assistance3 years/36,000 miles

Research Models

ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT

Edmunds Insurance Estimator

The Edmunds TCO® estimated monthly insurance payment for a 2012 Chevrolet Sonic in VA is:

$151 per month*
* Explanation
ADVERTISEMENT