By Zack Klapman.
If you are a fan of crossovers, then thank the hatchback, for they are the original combination of car-like handling and SUV practicality.
The Mini Cooper has been a hatch hero since 1961, and now it’s the darling of shopping districts and track days alike. It provides incredible driving fun (notably the S and JCW models), and has the amazing ability to swallow cargo like a vacuum-bag. “That won’t all fit.” Oh, but it did.
We all know the names GTI, Mini, and Civic, (or maybe Geo Metro), but Chevy Sonic has entered the ring with the Sonic, a slightly bigger and cheaper adversary. It’s the old guard meeting the new kid on the block.
The Mini Cooper is the standard by which hatches are based. It was winning races before the VW Rabbit even existed.
The “hot” Minis (Cooper S and JCW) are amazing, but cost a lot, and much of the world doesn’t have $30-40k to spend on a 3-door car. So, the regular 2012 Mini Cooper: starting at $20,100 (our tester cost about $23,000). Its cute face is recognizable from Mars. It’s hard to find such brand recognition so cheap.
“Mini” means small, and it is. 146” long and weighing only 2,551lbs, it’s the pack mule cousin of the Lotus Elise. Amazingly, people way over 6 feet tall can sit in the front comfortably. The back seats aren’t bad either, as long as you’re not behind said tall person. The trunk has a minute 6 cu. ft. of space, but put the back seats down and there’s 23 cu. ft. of cargo hold; enough to hold several large camera cases and a week’s luggage. Two people will rarely need more room. (Key word: two.)
The cabin looks cool. Toggle switches, the giant speedo; it’s like a cabin of vintage airplane parts. It definitely has more character than most cars, but hard plastics feel cheap, and that speedo is useless to the driver; Imagine looking at your radio every time you wanted to check your speed. Annoying. Long windows make the cabin feel big, and points are given for looking different. Sitting low, you feel like a mouse running through a kitchen. Other vehicles are merely obstacles in your way.
The 1.6-liter 4-banger’s 121hp/114tq. means you won’t pass trucks uphill without moving the 6-speed shifter around (that’s what it’s for), but it still beats the more powerful LTZ to 60 by .2 seconds, thanks to its lightweight. “Zippy” would be your grandma’ descriptor. As I hoped, on the road it feels extremely stable and solid, receiving a .89g skidpad score, confident at speed-extremely!
The handling and storage abilities are what made Minis great, and their face has curb appeal equal to the finest marques. Parts of it feel cheap, and not the window sticker, but the money goes into how good it is as a car: Practical and fun and its cred is well earned.
The underdog looks like it could eat the champion. The face of the Sonic LTZ is that of me after 10 cups of coffee, no food, and sitting in traffic. The 4 lights say, “Move, or I will move you.” The profile could be mistaken for an Mk5 GTI at night this is a good-looking car. It’s a 5-door, but our test car’s black paint hid the rear door handles, keeping that easy ingress/egress a secret. This might not get the recognition of the Mini, but passengers will be a lot happier.
In the city or on a highway, the Chevy Sonic rides more comfortably. It felt exactly like a VW GTI, and that’s a big compliment. The Mini is like putting your hands on the road, and although softer, the Sonic is very sticky and capable. Add some left-foot braking to spool the turbo, and on a canyon run, I wasn’t too far behind a Subaru STI. It’s just a shame seat bolstering is absent because I was worried I’d be flung out the window. The turbo-charged 1.8L feels more powerful than its 138hp implies, probably because the torque hits at only 1,850RPM. It isn’t fast, but your butt will think different. MPG is very good, thanks to 6th gear being as tall as the Sears Tower; 29 city, 40 highway, with a turbo- bravo!
The Mini’s interior was super cool when it came out, but as for user-friendly, the Sonic wins. It has tons of storage space, the motorcycle-like gauge in front of you is perfect for quick-glance diagnostics, and (though also suffering from hardis plasticus) it looked great with a two-tone job. And because the Sonic is 13” longer than the Mini, it has 8 more feet of storage space (with the seats down) and a crazy 13 feet more with them up. Our car cost only $19,545, but it had Bluetooth, XM, power locks, and A/C. Everything I want in a car for less than the base Mini.
Dear Goliath, I regret to inform you…
I have zero brand loyalty. Some people will buy a Mini because it’s a Mini, and they are missing out. The Sonic LTZ is cheaper, more powerful, roomier, and nicer to drive. The Mini feels as tight as a repressed politician, but that’s not that fun on a 600-mile road trip, trust me. The media system isn’t the easiest to use (thanks to the small, orange, screen), and cargo space is tiny with passengers present.
The Chevy Sonic has none of these problems. It doesn’t feel as kart-like as the Mini, and it won’t get the same attention, but that shouldn’t matter. In the end, you’re trading your money for a car, and it needs to do things, and the Sonic does it for less. How well it attracts the approval of passing strangers shouldn’t be one of them.