revisiting the 2012 Sonic LT Turbo at 55k Miles

2012 Chevy Sonic Long-Term, 55,000 Miles…

Back in April of 2012, I typed a positive piece about our trip to Florida in a nearly new Chevy Sonic Turbo (2,200 Miles in a Sonic Turbo… April 18, 2012). December of 2014 will mark three years and 55,000 miles with the Sonic, so I decided it would be a good time for a long-term evaluation of the car. Is the car as much fun as new? As tight and rattle-free? Would I buy one again? I dug out the repair logs, looked over the car and put fingers to keyboard (wow, that statement will just never have the same flourish as “pen to paper”)

As indicated by the mileage, this Sonic has been used quite a bit. Largely due to its incredibly fun and frugal nature, the Sonic is usually the car picked for… well, just about everything. Trips back and forth to college with Son, trips to the store for project materials, trips on vacation, shuttling daughter to school, everyday commuting- you name it. With the ability to fold seats as needed, there have been very few times I needed a bigger vehicle to haul project items. Four adults fit (reasonably) comfortably, and we’ve even packed in a fifth adult on several occasions. The Sonic makes no attempt at being a luxury car, but it’s done all we’ve asked of it, and done it well. The interior has held up nicely and still looks great, seats still as comfortable as new, and there are ZERO thunks and rattles. The icing? The combined gas mileage since new has averaged over 35 mpg- and I drive it like the hot-hatch it tries to be! Unfortunately, all has not been perfect with the Sonic, but let’s look at the positives and a few upgrades I’ve done to the car, before digging into the negatives.

First up, I added set of Eibach lowering springs, which were slightly stiffer and dropped the car about an inch all around. Two hours of work made such a difference in looks and handling. The car felt tighter and less “spongy” without destroying the comfortable ride, and the rise and dive under acceleration and braking was completely gone- a terrific first upgrade. New springs required a front end alignment due to changing the geometry slightly, so I opted for a degree and a half of negative camber (still within factory spec) up front to improve turn-in and “stick”. I followed up with a DDM rear axle brace, which basically worked like a larger/ stiffer rear sway bar. On a front wheel drive car, this helps control some of the built-in understeer, and makes the rear of the car a little more lively and involved in the handling. A couple of small changes made enormous differences in the way the Sonic responded to driver inputs, and made for a MUCH more entertaining car to drive. The downside? The car capabilities now far exceeded the abilities of the basic high-mileage all-season tires, but they were getting close to needing replacement anyway.

I’ve got to be honest- I bought the Sonic as a daily-driver, “winter beater” and commuter to use when the weather was less than accommodating for my motorcycles or modified Mustang. I did not expect to be selling the Mustang and several motorbikes, and I did not expect to enjoy driving the Sonic as much as I do. If I had known the car would feel so much like my early VW GTIs (very high praise), I would have stepped up a bit and opted for the 16” or 17” (awesome looking, IMO) wheels. I bought the cheapest Sonic I could with the 6-speed and turbo, which meant a desperately undersized looking set of 15” wheels. Such a strange sentiment, when I remember all my small cars having 12-13” wheels, and upgrading to the 14×6 made standard by the GTI/GLIs of the 80s. 15-inchers would have been HUGE, yet now they look lost in the wheel wells! Anyway, I know the aftermarket offers plenty of options in wheels, as does the used / take-off market. Problem is, it’s always an added cost when already scrambling for replacement tires, and by 20k miles and several tire plugs, I hated the stock Hancooks. I stuck with the 15’ tires, but upped the size to 225-50-15 Falken performance All-Season tires on the stock wheels. They looked awesome, and on dry pavement they were just about perfect with the suspension upgrades. Problem was, when it got wet (or snowy), they were a complete handful. With the stiffened suspension, light weight and fat contact patch, the Sonic actually had too much treadwidth, and hydroplaned at the slightest provocation. I sold the tires to a friend with an early Fox-body Mustang (much heavier car, same width tire came stock- that says something right there) and stepped back to a 205-55-15. The aggressive stance of the Sonic took a hit, but the slightly narrower tires were a much better compromise in all conditions and the car became much more predictable when NEOhio weather took its usual turn for the worst- much more important than looks.

The changes I made to the Sonic were inexpensive and were worth it to MY (and my wife’s) enjoyment of the car, but they might not be for everyone. The Sonic is actually a pretty well sorted car to begin with, but the racer (track days/ Autocross/ etc.) and enthusiast in me is always thinking of just how much better any vehicle could be- and the tinkering begins. The bummer (for me) about the Sonic is, if I could have waited a few more months, the Sonic RS addressed most of my upgrades as a complete package, with a slightly cooler body and much cooler interior- and all for just a bit more money. Ah, well, it’s all about the timing…

I think that takes care of the good things about the Sonic, and the few things I felt needed tweaking. So how about the negatives? There are a few, and two are significant. But before discussing the issues, I need to start this whole section by stating this: Chevrolet Customer Service has been outstanding. A few issues required a few visits to get the dealership and Chevy warranty and tech on the same page, but all the problems were resolved under warranty, and done well. The first problem was minor, and, in my opinion, stupid and unacceptable. By the time we returned from our Florida trip in 2012, there was a groan from the front end (this was before any mods, incidentally). A trip to the dealer indicated worn sway bar end links, which were replaced under warranty- and again three more times! This is indicative of a part that is not up to the service requirements of the vehicle. When I installed the Eibach springs around 25k miles, I was done having these replaced, so, after research on the performance boards, I found that Cobalt SS end links (a completely different design) were a bit shorter but would work. Turns out that they work even better with the lowered springs as they locate the sway bar better at rest. 3k miles later, still the same SS end links- the problem seems to be solved, easily and inexpensively. The next problem was fairly simple as well, and I believe fairly widespread.

I had a problem with the car trying to stall when I exited the highway and came to a stop at the bottom of the ramp. Typically it would keep running, but occasionally it would stall, throw a Check Engine Light (CEL) and not restart for a several seconds. When it restarted, the CEL would be solid (incident passed, still in memory) until finally clearing itself. Took to dealer when I could, turned out the valve cover has a form of PCV (Positive Crankcase Ventilation) valve built-in, and it had gone bad. 30 minutes later, changed, fixed and on my way. If only the problems were all that easy, but the next two were a bit more involved.

Early on I began noticing a persistent whine from the transmission while cruising the freeway in 6th gear. The whine was not there in 4th or 5th, just 6th, and just at cruise around 55-70mph. Several months back and forth with dealer, Chevy Customer Service (believe it or not, they monitor the Chevy Sonic and Cruz forums- very impressive!) and GM Tech finally led to complete transaxle replacement. Problem solved, but my own research leads me to believe it will happen again. There is a very small percentage of Sonics (any cars, actually) with manual transmissions in the US, so it’s not a high priority for GM to figure out. However, the same trans is used in many GMs worldwide, including the Cruz Turbo, and the problem is fairly common. Seems that the compact transaxle uses a very thin lubricant to limit frictional losses (and increase gas mileage), and, possibly, too little of the fluid to properly cover the end bearing for the 1-6 carrier shaft. Add to that the heat of extended freeway driving in the US and poor airflow to cool such a compact unit, and the fluid seems to be failing, then failing to properly lubricate the bearings which also fail. I will mention this is merely conjecture and hypothesis, but it’s a conclusion reached by some very bright engineering-type people who have torn down these transaxles in an attempt to determine cause of failure. Prevention seems to be better fluid, and half-quart more of it, but that remains to be verified. All I know for certain at this point is that replacing my transaxle returned my Sonic to the quiet freeway hauler I enjoyed when I bought it. While replacing the transaxle, however, the second major problem appeared, and due to the modular nature of new cars, it too was a fairly involved repair.

A glance at the stored CELs indicated a low-boost or “underboost” issue at some point in my travels. Turns out there’s a potential issue with “looseness” on the wastegate actuator (the wastegate controls the amount of boost from the turbo, averting damage to the engine), which prevents the turbo from making full boost on demand. Much like the transaxle being a “replace vs repair” modular component, the wastegate, turbo and exhaust manifold are replaced as a unit. Probably a better way to repair, avoiding hidden damage or fit issues, but it requires a bit more labor up front. A week of downtime for my Sonic (and a week of time spent in a fantastic new Chevy Impala loaner that I did not want to give back!), and all was good as new again and I was on my way.

As I stated at the beginning, I’ve been impressed with my dealerships (Classic Chevy Mentor, OH, as well as Classic Buick/ GMC in Painesville, OH) and Chevrolet’s Customer Service. This does not, however, ignore the fact these are engineering or manufacturing flaws that should not have developed in any modern car with less than 50,000, or even less than 100,000, miles on the odometer. My family has driven GMs for many years and several generations, and the cars and quality have improved in the proverbial “leaps and bounds”. The difference from my first Corvair through the less than stellar offerings of the 80s and 90s have been simply amazing. The ’02 Aztek (yeah, Aztek- bought it new, and we loved it) the Sonic replaced had over 150,000 miles on it, with only minor wear-and-tear issues through its life with us. When I sold it, it still looked and drove great, feeling like a much newer car than it actually was- which is why I feel we should expect better of an all-new design like the Sonic, especially in critical drivetrain items. I ordered my 2012 Sonic toward the end of 2011, so I understand it’s an early production car, but… Hopefully GM is learning from cars like mine, and improving the lot as they go. Perhaps a bit more time in development would mean less time in the dealership and much more loyal customers? just a thought, mind you.

Problems aside, would I buy another Sonic? Well, it’s not the Corvette I hope to own someday (then again, what is?), but yes, I probably would- though next time I’d start with the RS and tweak from there. My Sonic with over 50,000 miles is tight and rattle-free, still looks great (the Inferno Orange regularly evokes comments in parking lots) and still gets fantastic gas mileage. Long trips are always comfortable and entertaining, short trips fun and engaging. The front seats are quite comfortable and supportive, though not the most sporting design as far as bolstering- but hey, this is an economy car first. The Turbo 1.4 is much quicker than most would expect, and the 6-speed still shifts smoothly and reasonably precisely. There are a few changes I’d love to see in the next Sonic, and some may have already been addressed in later models. The back seats need storage in the doors, as well as a power outlet. The factory stereo needs a bit more power, and a way to dim the display further than the instrument cluster. The instrument cluster, while incredibly cool, could really use a boost gauge and a temperature gauge, at least on the Turbo/ performance models. Other than that, I think Chevy just about got the 2012 Sonic LT Turbo spot on. For the price, this is a surprisingly capable and good looking economy hatchback. Hard to believe it evolved from the lowly Aveo (though it still uses the Aveo name in many markets). A bit more development on GM’s part, and this car could compete with any subcompact on the market. A bit more care and excitement in that development, and the Sonic could be what it should be: a world-class “Hot Hatch”!

Thanks for reading, feel free to comment.


4 thoughts on “revisiting the 2012 Sonic LT Turbo at 55k Miles

  1. Anonymous

    Impressive record keeping.

    • Thanks, and thanks for taking the time to read my work!

  2. Jeff Mekinda

    Enjoyed reading this, well done.

    • Thank you, and thanks for taking the time to read it!

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