I grew up around big cars. BIG ones. I learned to drive on a V6 Ford Econoline. My parents drove huge vehicles. They encouraged their children to buy large cars, too. I went in another direction.
I not-so-fondly remember my mother telling one of my older brothers that the sensible Honda Accord he wanted to buy was “too damn small” for his 6’2” frame. She said that he needed to get something much bigger, like a Chevy Caprice or a pickup truck.
Some of us obeyed her advice. My older brothers ended up in some sort of beat-up GM big-body iron, or a light truck of some sort. One ended up in a Ford Tempo, but boy did my family never let him live that down! His next car ended up being a Pontiac Grand Prix, which was not a small car.
Me, however, I was rebellious. The idea of owning a small car felt like eating forbidden fruit. In a household of GM C-bodies and large Chevy G-vans or Ford E-series vans a Honda Civic seemed exotic, if not alien.
I wanted something small, and economical, and modern. So at age 17 I scrounged up $1,200 dollars I made working at a now-defunct K-Mart and purchased a 1996 Plymouth (not Dodge!) Neon. That car was crap. It had a head gasket leak and broken air conditioning. It was a miserly trimmed base model, including such amenities as manual locks and windows, integrated headrests, and 14-inch wheels. On the passenger side, there was a plastic trim piece where you’d expect to see a mirror.
The Neon was the anthesis of what my parents drove. It was small, only had four cylinders, and most importantly, had a manual transmission.
That Neon didn’t last very long. I mean, it was only a $1,200 car. Next was a manual Ford Focus sedan. That Focus was sold, and then I bought my first “big boy” car, a manual Toyota Yaris sedan. I ran that Yaris into the back of a Toyota Highlander, and I replaced it with another Yaris, this time a Yaris Hatchback.
The Yaris hatchback was… fine. I liked how spacious it was for how small of a car it was, and it was dead reliable, and pretty economical on fuel. It was a two-door hatchback, and I wanted another set of doors. I hated having to move the seat to let people clamber into the back seat.
Worst of all, the Yaris was boring to drive. The steering was vague, the suspension was soft, with not great road-holding. I’ve described that car as “clumsy” to people who ask me what it’s like to drive one. Still though, the Yaris was reliable. I also respected that it was a basic, easily serviceable car, that I could modify using the multitude of aftermarket parts that are out there for them. Did I ever modify the Yaris? No, aside from some cheap $200 wheels I found from Craigslist.
When I owned my first Yaris, I had left my job at K-Mart and started working at a Chevrolet dealer. This was around 2012, when GM had finally started putting effort into small cars. Well, at least before it decided to stop making them. Anyway, the lackluster Cobalt and Aveo had just been replaced with the desirable Cruze and Sonic.
I adored the Sonic. It’s a sharp-looking car, light years better than the truck-nose on a small car style of the old Aveo. I think GM had some leftover Tahoe grilles that they needed to get rid of so they stuck them on the Aveo facelift. It did not work.
Whenever I could, I’d take a Sonic out for my dealership’s errands. I loved driving the thing, and I wanted one so very badly. I kept spec-ing one out in my head – turbo, hatchback, manual, leather. Back then, that would have been a $18,000 car, something way out of the price range of a dealership lot jockey.
After five years of driving around in my Yaris(es), I got tired of them. I got tired of the bland steering, and the lack of features. I felt like I was forced to stay driving the Yaris because it was reliable and easy to service. It never broke. It never did anything. That’s the problem, it never gave me a reason to replace it!
After saving for a bit, I decided to fulfill my dream and buy a Chevy Sonic in 2016. Sure, maybe the Sonic wouldn’t be as reliable as the Yaris was. But I wanted a vehicle that actually liked! It took me a short while to find one that had the options I wanted and was in my price range. After about two months of searching – the perfect car came up.
It was a 2012, still in warranty. Only 44,000 miles. Six-speed manual, turbocharged. It was an LTZ, so it had heated leather seats, and chunky 17-inch wheels. It was a little boy-racery – the gold bowties were wrapped black, the rear spoiler was from an RS model, and the hood was made of carbon fiber, which was real. In March 2016, I picked up the car.
Since then, Sonic ownership has been… mediocre. As a former rideshare driver, my car has far more miles than average with about 208,000 on the clock now. The Check Engine Light is intermittently on for a loose wire somewhere in the wiring harness. My heated seats haven’t worked since last year. There’s a rust bubble starting to form on the drivers’ side rear wheel well. The front ball joints are creaking again, and I need new tires very soon. I’ve spent a fair amount on little wear-related repairs on this car, but that comes with the territory when driving for companies like Uber and Lyft.
I still love driving the Sonic, though. In my opinion, the steering is best in class, it’s got a quick ratio paired with great heft in the wheel. The shifter is really pleasurable to use, hefty and solid shifts – reminiscent of a more expensive European car. Sonics are geared very tall, so in sixth gear at 70 mph, the car is at a very low 2,500 RPM. That’s unheard of in a small car, my old Yaris was at least 1,000 RPM higher at those speeds. The Sonic corners reasonably flat, but still has a well-resolved ride. This car would hold its own on a canyon road, but also just as comfortable eating up miles on a long freeway drive. Well, at least for what type of car it is. I tell people it’s like driving a slow GTI.
I love the balance of comfort, and performance that the Sonic offered. I looked at the Honda Fit, and although it is very practical and good handling, I didn’t like how uncomfortable it felt on the road. The Fit is outright loud, letting in all sorts of road noise, and it’s got uncomfortable front seats. The Ford Fiesta is a sharp driving small car, with a big-car ride, but the interior packaging is really bad. The Fiesta is like driving a phone booth. It’s narrow, with very little rear legroom. The Mazda 2 was also a consideration, but it’s lack of power (nearly 40 HP fewer than the Sonic) turned me away. I didn’t like the way the Hyundai Accent looked. The Rio hatchback is a sharp-looking car, but manual transmission cars only came on base models, with no options, not even power windows or locks.
Despite its problems, I love my Sonic. At more than 200,000 miles, it still starts up every day and gets me from A to B, with a little fun on the side. I know the high-mileage and other nagging problems are telling me that the Sonic’s demise is coming sooner, rather than later.
Too bad GM decided to not make a follow up to this great car. I probably would have bought another one, if it was going to be as good as the one I had.