Car Wars: 2012 Chevrolet Sonic vs 2012 Ford Fiesta
Which of these subcompact cars should you buy?
A year after Ford entered the subcompact market with Fiesta, Chevrolet introduced the Sonic for model year 2012. As such, they revived the traditional “Chevy vs. Ford” battle in a class otherwise dominated by foreign nameplates.
Much more than an “econobox,” Ford’s Fiesta is a sporty, upscale subcompact with a long list of optional equipment, including leather upholstery and voice-activated controls (neither of which are offered on Sonic). The Chevrolet Sonic is a refined subcompact that delivers surprisingly sound driving dynamics. Also, it is the only entry in its class with an optional turbocharged engine (available on the LT and LTZ trims).
Both the Fiesta and Sonic are available as 4-door sedans and 4-door hatchbacks. Fiesta’s sole engine (4-cylinder) comes standard with a 5-speed manual transmission. Optional on all Fiesta models is a 6-speed automated-manual transmission that behaves much like an automatic. Sonic’s standard 4-cylinder engine can be paired with a 5-speed manual transmission or a 6-speed automatic transmission. Sonic’s optional turbocharged 4-cylinder engine is mated with a 6-speed manual or, available midway through the 2012 model year, a 6-speed automatic.
Fiesta’s base model comes with four features that Sonic’s base model does not offer as standard: height-adjustable driver seat, center console, power mirrors, and rear defogger. But Sonic’s base model has more than a dozen standard features that Fiesta’s base model lacks, most notably rear side airbags, an OnStar assistance system, remote keyless entry, and alloy wheels.
Sonic: LS, LT, LTZ
Fiesta: S, SE, SEL, SES
Base Price MSRP (incl. destination fee)
2012 Chevrolet Sonic LS: $ 14,495
2012 Ford Fiesta S: $ 13,995
With Automatic Transmission
Sonic LS: $ 15,565
Fiesta S: $ 15,090
Models compared are the 2012 Chevrolet Sonic LT sedan with the standard 1.8-liter engine and optional automatic transmission ($ 16,765), and the 2012 Ford Fiesta SEL sedan with an automatic transmission ($ 18,490). Note that the Fiesta SEL’s higher price (by $ 1,725) is reflected in its higher level of equipment that includes cruise control, heated power mirrors, and Ford’s Sync system. Rating numbers reflect these two models, but the comments refer to other Sonic and Fiesta models as well.
Acceleration: Sonic 4, Fiesta 4
With its 138-horsepower 1.8-liter 4-cylinder engine, Sonic has decent pep from a stop, but highway passing and merging require some forethought. The automatic transmission works well, with crisp, timely shifts. The optional 138-horsepower 1.4-liter turbocharged engine has to rev high to deliver adequate power and costs $ 700 extra. The standard manual transmission is fun to shift, with a meaty, solid feel you wouldn’t expect from an economy car.
Fiesta’s 120-horsepower 1.6-liter 4-cylinder engine offers adequate acceleration regardless of transmission, but passing punch is lacking. The automated-manual (automatic) transmission has a tendency to get caught in too high a gear at low speeds. It then suffers from a noticeable delay when called upon to downshift for more power. With the manual transmission, both the clutch and shifter actions are impressively smooth and precise.
Fuel Economy: Sonic 8, Fiesta 10
According to EPA estimates, a Sonic with the 1.8-liter engine and automatic transmission gets 25 mpg in the city and 35 on the highway. The 1.4-liter turbo/automatic combination had not yet been rated by the EPA at the time of this writing, but with manual transmission, the turbo’s rating is 4-5 mpg higher than with the 1.8. A Fiesta with automatic is rated at 29 city, 40 highway.
Ride Quality: Sonic 5, Fiesta 6
Sonic rides firmly for the class. Due to its solid body structure, however, there’s no harshness or undue motions. All Fiestas deliver a firm ride, but most bumps are absorbed well.
Steering/Handling/Braking: Sonic 6, Fiesta 6
Sonic has sharp steering and great grip. Body lean is noticeable in very fast cornering, but the car is otherwise well composed. With the Fiesta, crisp turn-in, good steering and brake feel, and minimal body lean in fast corners give it sportier moves than most cars in its class.
Quietness: Sonic 5, Fiesta 5
On the Sonic, both the 1.8- and 1.4-liter engines can be heard during acceleration, but they fade away at cruising speeds. Wind noise is apparent from around the exterior mirrors, and the tires rumble somewhat loudly on coarse pavement. Fiesta suffers from some wind noise at highway speeds and a fair amount of tire noise. The engine gets buzzy at high rpm, but it settles down nicely on the highway.
Controls: Sonic 7, Fiesta 5
Most of Sonic’s controls are simple and handy. The unconventional instrument panel takes some of its design cues from motorcycles, with an analog tachometer and a digital speedometer. Fiesta’s audio controls are unconventional. They’re mounted high on the dash, with some being just out of easy reach. Some functions are counter intuitive, taking more time to master than necessary.
Details: Sonic 5, Fiesta 5
Sonic’s interior looks decent at a distance, but closer inspection reveals apparent cost cutting. Most of the door and dashboard panels are fashioned from nicely textured hard plastic. Fiesta’s details fair just a bit better. Part of the dashboard is padded, as are the door armrests. The remaining hard plastic doesn’t look cheap, and silver-painted plastic trim adds some class to the design.
Room/Comfort/Driver Seating (front): Sonic 6, Fiesta 5
Sonic has plenty of headroom and legroom, and the seats are comfortable. Only the driver gets an inboard armrest. Visibility is decent, but the view to the rear corners is partially obscured by thick roof pillars. Fiesta offers plenty of headroom, but taller drivers might yearn for more legroom. A tilt/telescopic steering wheel and height-adjustable driver seat help tailor the driving position, but no center armrest is offered. The seats themselves are comfortable. Visibility is good in the sedan, less so in the hatchback.
Room/Comfort (rear): Sonic 3, Fiesta 3
On Sonic, legroom is fine for an adult of about 5’9″ sitting behind another of similar stature. Headroom is plentiful in the hatchback, but the sedan’s sloping roof line cuts into it a bit. With the Fiesta, an average-size adult can sit behind another average-size adult, but legroom almost completely disappears if the front seat is set all the way back. Headroom is adequate for 6-footers. Door openings are on the small side.
Cargo Room: Sonic 3, Fiesta 3
Sonic sedans have a surprisingly large trunk, and hatchbacks are pretty versatile. Both body styles have split-folding rear seat backs. In the LT and LTZ hatchback, the seat backs fold flat with the cargo floor, which covers a handy under-floor storage space. In the sedan and LS hatchback, the seat backs rest slightly above the cargo floor, which is lower because there’s no under-floor storage. The Fiesta hatchback’s cargo hold is somewhat narrow. Oddly enough, it’s better in the longer sedan, as there’s a section that widens behind the rear wheel wells. In both body styles, it can be cumbersome to fold the rear seat backs. Furthermore, the seat backs don’t lie flat, and they rest about 5 inches above the level of the cargo floor.
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