Good morning, and welcome to another Shitbox Showdown! Grab your parkas and mittens, because today we’re headed north. But before we bundle up, let’s finish up with our two luxobarges from yesterday:
And there it is. I expected the Lincoln to win, but honestly, I expected it to win by a bigger margin. So I’m giving the Q an A for effort. But seriously, if you want a big cheap tough comfy car, a Panther is the answer.
Well, the nasty winter weather here in the Pacific Northwest has finally given way to our customary cold dreary rain, and I can’t tell you how relieved I am to be rid of the snow. But it got me thinking: I used to live someplace where the winters were orders of magnitude worse, a place where snowfall was measured with yardsticks, temperatures routinely stayed below zero for days on end, and summer was the nicest week of the year. For four years, while I attended the University of Wisconsin-Superior, I got to know what winters can really be like. There was the famous Halloween blizzard of 1991, of course, but lake-effect snows and subzero cold snaps happen all winter long, every winter.
Oddly, for a place that gets so much snow, not everyone bothers with four-wheel-drive, and studded tires are not allowed. Folks drive around the snow-covered streets in normal cars, crunching along over the deeply-frozen snow on regular winter tires, and sometimes not even that. (Snow is far less slippery when it’s really cold.) Towards the end of my time in Duluth-Superior, I got a 4WD Datsun truck, but most of my time there was spent behind the wheel of a VW Golf, just an ordinary little car, much like these two. Let’s check them out.
2008 Pontiac Torrent – $2,995
Engine/drivetrain: 3.4 liter overhead valve V6, five-speed automatic, FWD
Location: Ely, MN
Odometer reading: 192,000 miles
Pontiac aimed for the moon with their first crossover, the Aztek, and consumers more or less shot it down. So they replaced it with a far less interesting rebadged Chevy Equinox, called it the Torrent, and didn’t do much better. The Torrent is handsome, but forgettable. It’s just your average GM front-wheel-drive box on wheels, based on simple proven mechanicals, more or less reliable, and cheap to buy used. In other words, a great winter beater.
The Torrent was available with all wheel drive, but this one doesn’t have it. It’s powered by GM’s corporate 60-degree V6, 3.4 liters in this case, and by this point GM was fnally phasing out their old 4T60E transmission that had been in use since the Coolidge administration. The Torrent has a five-speed automatic courtesy of Aisin. The seller says it runs and drives well, but a check engine light is clearly visible in one photo. Minnesota doesn’t do emissions testing anymore, but it should still probably be checked out.
Otherwise it’s tidy, especially for approaching 200,000 miles. It has a new heater core to battle the frigid temperatures, and good enough tires to get by if you take it easy. The price feels a little steep to someone who used to buy winter beaters for $600 in St. Paul, but these days, a good running car for under three grand is not a bad deal at all.
One thing that has definitely improved from my Minnesota clunker days: rustproofing. This Torrent looks pretty good for fifteen years of Northland winters. There’s a little rust on the bottoms of the doors, but it still has its rocker panels, which is a big step up from some cars I had back in the day.
2012 Chevrolet Sonic – $3,200
Engine/drivetrain: Turbocharged 1.4 liter dual overhead cam inline 4, six-speed manual, FWD
Location: Superior, WI
Odometer reading: 159,000 miles
Runs/drives? Sure does!
Chevy’s little captive import hatchbacks have never been what you’d call “cool.” Efficient and practical, sure, but cool? The Sprint? The Aveo? Not exactly. But that changed, sort of, with the Aveo’s replacement, the Sonic. A turbocharged engine, a six-speed stick, and adorable tough-guy looks helped the Sonic immensely. And it did successfully complete the famous Spiral Jump stunt, putting it in rarefied company alongside AMC’s Javelin and Hornet. Cool is as cool does, and the Spiral Jump is pretty damned cool.
This Sonic isn’t likely to pull off any stunts like that, as it’s generally advisable to keep a car shiny-side-up in the snow. But it is orange, so you aren’t likely to lose it in a snowbank, and it’s got that great swoopy-pattern seat fabric. I miss fun fabric patterns in small economy cars.
This Sonic runs and drives well, and has had a long list of parts replaced. It also has a check engine light on, and is throwing a couple of codes, so all is not quite well. And it has a crack in the windshield. But it’s a manual, it’s turbocharged and it’s orange. I can forgive a lot for that.
This car currently sports winter tires on black steelies, but the seller says the original alloy wheels with summer tires are included, which sweetens the deal. And they might take high-end bicycles or canoes in trade, so depending on what’s collecting dust in your garage, it could be an even better bargain.
Winter isn’t over yet, and sometimes you find yourself in the unenviable position of needing to buy a car in March just to get through the last of the crud because your original winter beater didn’t quite make it. In that scenario, will it be the stocky crossover with some ground clearance for the snow, or the zippy hatchback that looks forward to sunnier days?
(Image credits: Craigslist sellers)
As a winter beater, I’d be the odd man out and pick the Torrent for one main reason: ground clearance.
I’ve had a litany of winter cars. Before my current one, I had a stick-shift Toyota Echo. Fantastic car. Reliable as the sunrise. But drug its chin on the snow and plow hills.
I have since replaced that car with *drumroll* a Buick Rendezvous CX+ FWD with the 3400 V6. Pretty similar to the Torrent. Its not a good car for enthusiasts. But its nearly rust-free, has almost 300k miles and still starts with the flick of the key, and has more space inside for the family. As well as GROUND CLEARANCE. Those plow hills and small drifts that would beach the Toyota are no problem for the Buick. And its much more comfortable.
They’re both crap for different reasons. But at least the Sonic will use less fuel and be more fun to drive.
So I’m voting for the Sonic… even though I would never buy one for myself.
I loved my Aveo5, except for it being arguably the loudest vehicle inside that I ever personally owned (driving 45mph with a stiff headwind made the door seals shriek horribly), but it was a good little car. Drove the hell out of it until it died in a wreck on the Indiana interstate, victim of a gal on Oxy and a lot of rubberneckers.
Anyway, that sweet little 4-door hatch was enough to get me to look into the turbo(!) Spark, and if it weren’t for this pesky economy, I might have had one by now. Course, my EJ22 AWD pre-Outback Legacy wagon is vastly superior (heh) in the snow…
This has to be the most mismatched Shitbox Showdown ever. The Sonic pushes way more enthusiast buttons – small/lightweight, manual, an actual color, near the top of its’ class when new – on top of being 5 years and 50,000 miles younger for $200 more.
I’ll take the Sonic.
1.4L DOHC Turbo
138hp with a 148lb-ft.
Center mounted tack
6 Speed Manual transmission
Un-Limited slip differential
Faster than a ‘NB’ Miata
55MPG highway on 87
Slow car fast
I think that Sonic might actually be my brother’s old car. Age, color, options, geographic location all could work. He traded it for an Abarth.
The Sonic was fun. I always thought it would have been an awesome hot hatch if they put the Cobalt SS engine in it, but oh well.
I love the little motorcycle gauge cluster on the Sonics.
Winter car: Correct tires, correct transmission for winter control, a colour you can see in a blizzard. The answer writes itself.
Comments surprise me on this one. I recently took ownership of a POS Cruze with this engine, but the awful automatic, and I absolutely hate it. There is no power for anything, and despite a meticulous maintenance history and being a 1 owner, it has a litany of issues for the CEL and I have so far had to replace the turbo and cat and still going. I bought it as I blew the engine in my other car and just needed a beater until I can get it back on the road, but wow. It is quite possibly my least favorite car I have ever owned. And I have had more than my fair share of shitboxes over the years.
Tune it. Seriously. That sidesteps a lot of cooling related issues and fixes the transmission. Trifecta and Vermont Tuning were big in that space. The 2011’s and early 2012’s had transmission programming issues that were fixed later. They also changed gearing after 2011 to improve fuel efficiency.
Also, if it’s run on 87 in weather above 70*F or so, it’ll be a dog. Warm weather on the factory flash means 89 or better.
I think that Sonic qualifies as more than a winter beater. That looks like a pretty decent deal.
I’d pick the Sonic. I daily drive a 2015 Chevy Cruze I bought new that now has 150K miles on it, and the 1.4L Turbo has treated me very well. Other than the valve cover and PCV (both replaced under warranty) and a new water pump and water outlet, the thing has required nothing more than brakes, tires and oil changes. Plus it’s a surprisingly fun car to drive; it’s not a speed demon but it’s a lot quicker than you’d expect from an American 4-cylinder econobox.
Honorable mention to the Torrent; I actually know a guy whose parents bought one new and gifted it to him later in life. Think he recently sold it, but it was approaching 250K miles with the original engine and transmission. Bankruptcy-era GM cars get a lot of hate, but that thing was a tank. In the end though, I think that the Sonic being newer, lower miles and better in better aesthetic condition for a mere $200 more wins out here. Plus, it comes with a set of winter tires and wheels!
Sonic all day long. I know that powertrain very well. Swap the transmission with a Cruze box for better gears (seriously, my Cruze Eco is faster 0-60 than this Sonic), toss in 2.5 quarts of Amsoil Synchromesh, fix what ails the LUJ and drive it. At that mileage it’s either needing the integrated PCV system replaced or the turbo may be cracked around the wastegate.
There’s good aftermarket support too. A tune will wake up the LUJ for 20 hp and 50 ft/lbs plus more under the curve. The stock clutch can handle the power if not abused. So this little rollerskate can get warmed up and scoot right along while making some decent noises that aren’t obnoxiously loud.
I had a Sonic LTZ turbo as a rental and I liked it so much I would buy one.
The sonic wins here. The 1.4l turbo is suprisingly fun for 140hp/150lb/ft torque. Put some stiffer suspension on it, better wheels because really who wants steelies, and you have a decently fun get around car.
I picked the Sonic, I had one as a rental for a month or so and it was a decent little car! And not entirely dull to drive either. If I’m going to be driving something all winter, I would prefer it to be at least moderately interesting to drive.