2012 Yaris versus 2012 Chevrolet Sonic: Petrol misers, budget winners

Let the fuel sipper wars commence
By Imthishan Giado

Want a lot of car, but don’t have a lot of money? Crave a big V8, but pounding up and down the highways likely to leave the wallet sore? Then one of these two munchkin automobiles will be right up your alley. But which one is best – the new grownup Yaris, trying desperately to shed its bullied-rental car status, or the Fresh Prince trying-so-hard Chevy Sonic? Only one way to find out.

Any of you ever watch that movie Freaky Friday? It’s the one with Barbara Harris and Jodie Foster. No wait, it’s the one with Lindsay Lohan and Jamie Lee Curtis. Whichever one you’re old enough to remember, the premise was the same: a mother and daughter magically swap personalities for a day to understand how the other half lives, and at the end when they swap back, they understand each other’s quirks and personal trials a little better.

In essence, that’s what we have here: two cars entering into the toughiest, bloodiest part of the market – budget hatches. Turns out what they really want to do, is swap places. And as a result, it becomes difficult for either to land a killer, decisive blow.

How They Look: Age Versus Experience

Yaris drivers in particular understand only all too well the importance of changing your image. Despite being the most easily recognised silhouette on UAE roads, it commands no respect on the road, its bargain status seemingly a constant source of humiliation to owners and renters alike. Built to cover millions of miles with soulless efficiency, its tiny 1.3-litre four cylinder engine revving its guts out just to maintain pace with traffic while being cut off by bigger cars (read: everything else) and flashed out of the fast lane with ruthless disdain, the previous Yaris – despite being built to fulfil exactly its purpose – is the pair of keys you’d dread picking up at the rental counter.

So Toyota was left with a tricky problem. How do you improve the styling of a car that everyone can recognise, but no one wants to be seen driving in? Answer: go butch, big time.

Yes, the new Yaris has sobered up its act considerably. Gone are the blobby styling touches and in comes angular styling, geometric headlights and trendy side creases. This isn’t the your first car, this isn’t the pauper’s ride – this is a grownup hatch for grownup people who have to go places and do important things. Sadly, what it isn’t is noteworthy – it has achieved the notable goal of not being as polarising as the old car, but it’s been too successful; now it’s just dull. Even in our retina-searing red paintjob, the Yaris was the car I kept losing in carparks.

No, if it’s looks you want, the Sonic is your man. And man’s car this definitely is; never have I seen such aggressive styling flourishes in a car marketed at, let’s be honest, the budget end of the spectrum. Dead-on front or three quarters is the best angle – with its flared arches, hooded headlights and that mono nostril, this car is a pint-sized Tony Montana, all outsize aggression and swagger.

Pity the style kinda peters out toward the flat rear, and that the alloys aren’t more interesting. That’s what the aftermarket will come in; you can easily picture 17-inch rims filling those wheel wheels. I’d definitely swap out those taillights as well, maybe add a roof spoiler…wait, I’m already talking about doing modifications? Those are not things you can imagine anyone ever doing to the poor unloved Yaris, except the terminally misguided.

So the style battle goes pretty conclusively to the Sonic. It’s the one you wouldn’t looking at every day in your driveway, while the Yaris is the one your flat-sharing neighbours will accidentally try to blip open each morning.

The Inside Affair

At first glance, things don’t go much better for the Yaris once we open the doors. Yes, the universally-heated central instruments have now been banished and replaced by a traditional driver-facing console, but that was the Yaris’s signature touch of insanity. Without that, it could be the interior from any Toyota released in the past five years. Improvements have been made in the quality of plastics and while there’s no soft-touch stuff to be found anywhere, the dimple-effect surface feels like it could withstand a million spilt coffees. Ditto for the seats, which are flat but strangely supportive.

And beige as this car may feel, there’s a benefit to being a generic Toyota interior – it’s exceptionally easy to use. The oversized switchgear may look like they was designed for a short sighted pensioner, but that only means they’re easy to operate and always fall easy to hand. No exaggeration to suggest that you can jump into this car and be comfortable in seconds – which if you think of it, makes sense in a car that will spend the rest of its life fighting through rush hour traffic. You don’t want quirks, you want to make your driving experience as painless as possible.

Choose to go all the way up to our fully-loaded tester and you’ll get everything you need and nothing you don’t – so there’s leather for steering wheel, fog lamps and those unremarkable alloys, but oddly no tachometer. Even the base model, however gets Bluetooth connectivity and a great stereo which plays music wirelessly, so it really makes you wonder why’d you shell out. For those still clinging to their USBs, relax – there’s a dash port for that as well. Honestly, this would make quite a good mobile office.

Surprise, surprise, the Sonic has the more interesting interior. From the motorcycle-style tach to the deep-set to the silver-ringed climate controls, this is unquestionable the nicer car to spend your time in, filled with funky details and interesting touches. Clearly, GM has attempted to make this car more than just a commuter killjoy and they’ve succeeded, with clever use of the GM parts bin; witness the steering wheel from the Camaro, or the stereo from the Malibu. Despite being almost the same size, it feels like a much more sizeable, substantial car to sit in than the Yaris.

Complaints? Well, the digital dash is nice, if perhaps a little too reminiscent of the calculator I used this morning, but perhaps a tad overstyled. I spent the better part of my first few hours trying to switch the instrumentation back into metric mode, and likewise for the stereo – it’s cool to look at, but not a patch on the Yaris when you’re trying to pair a Blackberry to it in the midst of a huge traffic jam. Once you get it all set up, there are few further problems, although it must be noted that the stereo doesn’t kick quite as hard or as crisply as the Yaris, and the Bluetooth quality isn’t as clear either. Still, as you’re about to find out, you aren’t paying very much for this car at all.

Drive Time: This is a Yaris?!

So far, things have not been looking for the Yaris, which has been widely trounced in the looks stakes, and you’d now expect the Sonic to claim the driver’s crown as well. Actually, this is where the Toyota stages its fightback.

On paper things look bad. It may only have a mere 87hp from that unchanged 1.3-litre four cylinder. It may only have four speeds in its automatic gearbox. But in the real world none of those things matter, because simply put, the Yaris is a hoot to drive, the engine revving up like a little sportbike. Off idle, there’s a useful slug of torque and then the power builds in a linear fashion, with the engine never feeling quite as breathless as you’d imagine.

Considering those dinky 15 inch tyres, the car rides surprisingly well, with most bumps soaked up by the compliant suspension. In the corners, it understeers safely, but you can actually carry a nice turn of speed if you don’t drive like an idiot. Chalk it up to the excellently responsive power steering, the front end sniffs out corners like a terrier. If anything, the Yaris is a little too lively; at high speeds over 120kph, the steering feels fidgety, with too much feedback from every bump on the road. It’s almost like driving a chihuahua; fun in short doses, but tiring in long ones.

The Sonic? Not so much. Despite having 115 horsepower from its bigger 1.6-litre four cylinder and a six-speed auto – first in this class – the Sonic wants nothing to do with fun and resists most attempts to be driven in a spirited fashion. Explore the upper reaches of the rev range and you get more noise than forward motion, with the automatic always eager to slip into another fuel saving gear once you’ve got over your burst of enthusiasm. The ride isn’t as good, either; too many road bumps are transmitted through to the cabin. I reckon the bigger 16-inch wheels have something to do with it. Style must have its due, but if you go a size down, this would be a much more comfortable car on the daily commute.

The handling isn’t anything to write home about either. It can actually keep up quite easily with the Yaris in the bends, but it’s clearly not having any fun doing so and the steering feels utterly bereft of anything approaching feel – good brakes, however.

Competency is the name of the day; the Sonic will go everywhere, but oddly it’s clearly set up to be even more a commuter than the Yaris is. Which is at odd with those super-stylish looks – remember that Freaky Friday reference.

Verdict

If there’s one thing I’ve realised, it’s that the budget hatch segment has become extraordinarily competitive. It’s genuinely hard to choose between these two cars, so closely do they follow each other, and neither really scores a decisive win in any one category. The Yaris looks all sober and restrained, but underneath it all, there’s a hyperactive five-year old who wants nothing more than to go for a good play on a stretch of grass. The Sonic also pulls a bait and switch; it arrives on the scene full of attitude like a New York breakdancer. But take it home to your parents, and it’s a serene, gentle cruiser that wouldn’t ruffle a single feather.

So hard to choose; actually hang on, it’s not. Styles aside, these car sell on one thing first and foremost – price. Sonic pricing starts at AED43,000while the Yaris kicks off nearly 10k more at AED51,000 – a huge gap in the world of budget cars. Never mind that their top prices are nearly the same at 56,000 and 57,000 respectively – no one’s likely to spend that much on a small cheap hatch. No, in this war, the Sonic strikes decisively early and ticks all the boxes that commuters will need. Sure, the Yaris is comprehensively better to drive, but does that really matter in this segment?

No. Except to a committed few, it doesn’t, so the Sonic takes home the prize today. Still, spec the Yaris with a manual gearbox, and we might have a whole other result….

Specs:

Chevrolet Sonic

Price: AED 43,000/$11,680
Engine: 1600cc four-cylinder, 115bhp @ 6000rpm, 114lb ft @ 4000rpm
Performance: 11.3secs 0-100kph, 189kph max, 6.6L/100
Transmission: Six-speed auto, front-wheel drive

Verdict: The best for cool cruisers and customisers

Toyota Yaris

Price: AED51,000/$13,850
Engine: 1299cc four cylinder, 84bhp @ 6000rpm, 89lb ft @ 4400rpm
Performance: 12 sec (est) 0-100kph, 175kph (est)
Transmission: four-speed auto, front-wheel drive

Verdict: Thrill seekers, this is your cheap car

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