Mini Review of Four Used Cars — 2013 Chevrolet Cruz Turbo 1LT — 2012 Fiat 500 Sport — 2012 Chevy Sonic Turbo Hatchback — 2012 Ford Focus SES Sedan — Substituting a Small Car for a Pickup Truck — a Surprising Refutation of Favorable Reviews from an Arthritic Geezer’s Perspective

© 2012 Peter Free


12 August 2013



This essay falls into the “who woulda thunk it” category


It is intended to serve as a caveat for people, who are in the process of downsizing vehicles.


Car reviews made the cars listed in the title sound like good downsizing possibilities.  But once I drove them, I found that all but one were laughably bad for my purposes.



What I was trying to do


Two years ago, my wife’s military career landed us solidly in an urban environment, which made my full size pickup usually irrelevant and often difficult to park.  Driving solo in a sizeable chunk of mostly unused steel seemed excessive.


Because my wife’s next assignment will likely also be urban, I began thinking about substituting a smaller car for the pickup.  Hence, a trip to a local dealership that had all the above cars on its used car lot.



A geezer’s requirements


I am in my arthritic mid-sixties.


That condition makes car seats the single most important attribute of vehicle shopping.  And because I have owned a ridiculous number of cars and pickup trucks, I actually know a fair amount about how excellent vehicles distinguish themselves from also-rans.



Biases that readers may not share


I am too old to be interested in horsepower and out-machoing other males.  I also prefer the bottom of the model line to those with expensive add-ons.  And I abhor bad engineering design.


I expect a car to track straight, without significant driver effort.  And I don’t want it wallow in corners.


I expect to be able to discern what does what on the dashboard, without having to resort to the owner’s manual every time I want to accomplish something.



Drive test conditions


Colorado Springs at about 6,000 feet altitude.


With one exception, each of these vehicles was so inferior to my full size Dodge pickup’s drivability — not to mention my wife’s last two Subarus — that a few miles of urban and Interstate driving was enough to dump three from my list.





Keep in mind that all of these cars were used.  Consequently, they may not reflect the virtues of a new one.  Or, alternatively, they may reflect how easily the new version gets worn down into crap.



2013 Chevrolet Cruz 1.4 liter turbo 1Lt — 4-door, automatic sedan — 6,000 miles


This Certified Program car had less than 6,000 miles on it.  It was in new condition and the original floor mats were still in their factory wrapping inside the trunk.


The Chevrolet Ecotec 1.4 liter turbo engine is impressively willing, but its turbo boost makes throttle response a bit less fluidly linear than I like.  I could have lived with that, even though (overall) it seemed twitchier than the turbo assist I had on a 1980 Saab 900 years ago.  That one lagged, but it didn’t come “on and off” to the degree the Chevy does.


More concerning, the test car was subject to a surprising amount of torque steer, even in very mild Interstate merge acceleration.


This trait, coupled with a mushy, wallowing front end, made for a distinctly “American” feel that I have always detested.  The car required constant minor corrections to travel in a straight line.  And, with the combination of the slightly twitchy turbo and the less than stellar suspension, it entered and exited urban turns in noticeably less than fluid fashion.


Perhaps I am too German in my vehicle tastes to like this car.  Certainly, it is comfortable and pragmatically sized.  A perfect rental car.



2012 Chevrolet Sonic 1.4 liter turbo — hatchback, automatic — 14,000 miles


This car was so atrociously Americanized, that I drove three blocks and returned it to the dealership.


It is a mushmobile and wallows, even at 25 mph in urban driving.  The engine is as good as that in the Cruz, although it exhibits the same mild turbo on or off character.  Torque steer was noticeably less pronounced.


Other irritations included the digital speedometer, which indicates speed in one large number — rather than via an analog dial.  I prefer the dial because it gives drivers an impression of where they are in the big speed picture.


The Sonic might be adequate for practically minded drivers, given its comfort and interior room, but the sample I drove lacked the kind of taut competence that I expect in a small car.  I shudder even thinking about its driving characteristics.



2012 Ford Focus SES — 4-door sedan, automatic — 20,000 miles


This car had a better suspension than the Cruz (not to mention the forsaken Sonic), but it has a genuinely horrible driver’s seat.


After just 3 minutes, I was silently begging for mercy.  There is no lumbar support whatsoever.  And, for some reason, the combination of the seat and its back stress the very lumbar vertebrae that I and my sales representative both have difficulties with.


The car engine’s works well and seems more pleasantly drivable than the Cruz.  However, sports-minded drivers will undoubtedly much prefer the Chevrolet’s noticeable zip.


My only objection to the Focus’ ride is its long-time Ford tendency to “thump” over pavement unevenness.  People with a good deal of Ford experience (both trucks and cars) will know what I mean.  Although Subarus do much the same thing, Subaru manages to make the driver believe that the car’s suspension can do this all day — whereas the Ford makes the impacts feel more crudely engineered.


It is a subtle distinction, but I noticed it immediately.


The Ford’s dashboard is a confusing mess. It was the only car in this group that it took me a few seconds to figure out how to turn the radio off.  And forget about the rest of its features.



2012 Fiat 500 Sport — 2-door hatchback, automatic — 42,000 miles


This tiny car had worn out tires on it and by far the highest number of miles.  It should have sucked in comparison to the others.  But it came out best, even though it has an underpowered engine.


The 500 has by far the most competent suspension of this group of four vehicles.


The 6-speed automatic is surprisingly well mated to the engine’s power delivery.  The car buzzes along in a straight, but slightly twitchy line — which may have been the result of the worn-out Continental tires on it.


The Fiat had no trouble merging onto a 65 mph Interstate.  But once at that speed, it has trouble accelerating noticeably, without shifting down.  The manual version would probably be preferable.


The dashboard is simple looking, but it takes a while to figure out where many of the controls are.


However, it was the only car in this group that I felt reasonably at home with, almost immediately.  That’s class engineering at work.


The car is probably too tiny for most buyers.  It has surprisingly good room in the front seats, but little in the back.  Cargo room with the back seats up or down is also small.  But I think my 29er mountain bike would fit, provided that I took both its wheels off.


The Fiat 500 put a smile on my face and left it there.  The other three made me frown.


That said, the Fiat's minimal 4.1 inch ground clearance is cause for concern for folks (like me) who drive Colorado's rough and rutted Forest Service roads.



Going home in my Ram 1500


Perhaps the best test of one’s current vehicle is to this kind of test drive outing and then return home in one’s daily driver.


My 2010 Dodge long bed made me recognize (again) just how well engineered it is.  Smooth, linear power delivery.  Straight line and corner driving, both without surprises.  Simple dashboard.  Crank windows.  “Get the job done” elegance.


American trucks are popular because they do what they do so well.


The Fiat might be a fun and economical “A to B” alternative to my work truck — but none of the other cars is.  That surprised me, especially after reading the laudatory reviews of each.



The moral? — Maybe it is easier to build a good truck, than a small economy car


Only the Fiat stood out in this group.  The rest are still “econoboxes”.  In fact, I preferred Datsun’s (now Nissan) crude original 510 to the latter three.  That car had smile-making spunk, just like the Fiat.