Home » Winter Beaters Of The Frozen North: 2008 Pontiac Torrent vs 2012 Chevy Sonic

Winter Beaters Of The Frozen North: 2008 Pontiac Torrent vs 2012 Chevy Sonic

Sbsd 3 10 2023
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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:

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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.

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2008 Pontiac Torrent – $2,995

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Engine/drivetrain: 3.4 liter overhead valve V6, five-speed automatic, FWD

Location: Ely, MN

Odometer reading: 192,000 miles

Runs/drives? Yep!

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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Engine/drivetrain: Turbocharged 1.4 liter dual overhead cam inline 4, six-speed manual, FWD

Location: Superior, WI

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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?

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(Image credits: Craigslist sellers)

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Canopysaurus
Canopysaurus
1 year ago

I picked Sonic because I like their tater tots.

Soso Tsundere
Soso Tsundere
1 year ago

That Torrent is surprisingly un-Tarnished!

But I can’t summon it with a whistle ring, so obviously I’m gonna go with a turbocharged manual hatchback.

Kyree
Kyree
1 year ago

The early 1.4 in the Sonic, Encore and gen. 1 Cruze was problematic, but I’d still rather contend with it and the Sonic—which is a charming car—than the Torrent. But I wouldn’t need a winter beater. It would be a toy. If I needed it and was strapped for cash, the mechanically simpler Torrent would be a better vote.

But for my situation, I’m gonna vote Sonic.

Michael Beranek
Michael Beranek
1 year ago

Duluth is a really cool town, and the summers are absolutely stunning. It’s also the American city that will be least-affected by climate change. Nearby Boundary Waters is probably the most beautiful place in the world.
But yeah, those winters. Might as well be Winnipeg.

Salaryman
Salaryman
1 year ago

That’s spelt Winterpeg.

MATTinMKE
MATTinMKE
1 year ago

Stick, orange, and 2 sets of wheels/tires? Vs a soul sucking crossover?

IRegertNothing, Esq.
IRegertNothing, Esq.
1 year ago

I think the Sonic is a better deal if you can handle a stick. I’m not paying $3,000 for a high mileage and dirty end-stage Pontiac. The Sonic will also be much more fun to drive, and cheaper to keep topped up on fuel.

XLEJim700
XLEJim700
1 year ago

Welp, the Sonic is orange. And with a li’l snow in the background you have 2/3 of the right color scheme for St. Patrick’s Day. It won’t be hard to find a little green on the 17th.

Between these two machines this is actually a decent basis for decision.

Nathan Gerdes
Nathan Gerdes
1 year ago

It warms my heart seeing a showdown from my old college area (I went to UMD, not UWS, but the Duluth-Superior metro holds a special place for me). I’d go to Superior, buy the Sonic, get it checked out/fixed up while I visited UMD friends, then drive it up some of MN’s best (and only, tbh) twisty roads to Ely to pick up some Zup’s and visit the Wolf Center. Primo Iron Range winter vacation right there.

TOSSABL
TOSSABL
1 year ago

Both are 2wd, so the turbocharged manual gets my vote.

Dogisbadob
Dogisbadob
1 year ago

The Sonic is a cooler color and manual and likely gets better mpg too, so I chose the orange car

Stig's Cousin
Stig's Cousin
1 year ago

If this is really about buying the better winter beater, the Torrent is the obvious choice. You can certainly drive small cars in snow (I drove a lowered Civic when I lived in Wisconsin), but something with better ground clearance is nice. The Sonic is clearly the better driver’s car here, but realistically, nothing is fun to drive when you are commuting in ice and snow.

Eric Czajka
Eric Czajka
1 year ago

Torrent all day. I live in MI and had a varied collection of vehicles at once–a Contour SVT, 2017 Corvette z06 (which I daily drove in MI year round for years!), a Cadillac ATS 2.0T, a 1991 GMC Sonoma, and yes, a Sonic LTZ.

The Sonic was a 6 speed manual. I picked it up because I wanted a ‘fun’ little car to take to work that required less attention to our potholed roads than my z06 did (RIP many rims and tires). I previously owned a 2011 Cruze Eco with a manual, so I was a bit familiar with the powertrain. But WOW, the Sonic drove far different than the Cruze and had a severe lack of power. Driving through any measurable snow fall would send it into limp mode, too. The traction control would not go fully off (tried all the normal tricks to get it fully off), so that wasn’t ideal in slippery conditions because the traction control from the factory is far too conservative. Not to mention the Sonic had next to no power until it was wrung out past 4,500 RPM.

The car drove so poorly in bad weather and gave me so many issues, I ended up getting fed up and sold it to one of those online brokers (this is pre-pandemic, pre-Carvana). I’ve never been happier to take a few thousand dollar loss on a car and happily drove it to Manheim Auto Auction to have it shipped and never looked back.

Rollin Hand
Rollin Hand
1 year ago

I have an absurd love for those little Sonics, so it got my vote. It would be fun to hop one up so it handled like a Mini, but with cheap parts.

Arrest-me Red
Arrest-me Red
1 year ago

As a beater go for the cheapest runner you can find.

The Sonic almost yes due to 3 pedal’s, however the initial list of issues for a higher price put it in the loss column.

ExAutoJourno
ExAutoJourno
1 year ago

I have to boom the Sonic, simply for the manual transmission. Oh, and because I actually prefer small cars. They meet the transportation needs of small towns, one of which I live in.

Don’t know much about the perils of owning either, so I’d just happily jump in and let the parts and fluids fall where they may.

My only experience with a CEL — on a brand-new car, no less — was a loose gas cap. Heck, even I could repair that!

Gilbert Wham
Gilbert Wham
1 year ago
Reply to  ExAutoJourno

The exception that proves the rule, you are. In my experience, much like the first result when you Google your flu symptoms, the first result is you have a terminal disease, when you Google your car’s symptoms, the first result is to check the gas cap. It’s never been the gas cap, it’s ALWAYS been something expensive. I’m jealous.

Taargus Taargus
Taargus Taargus
1 year ago

My father-in-law has a Sonic sedan. It’s honestly one of the best small-car efforts GM has ever made (not saying much, but still). It’s pretty nice, rides well, and is shockingly quiet inside. Normally I’d go on for a paragraph about how bad the GM interior plastics are, but in this case they used competitive and appropriate materials for the class. The only issues I have with it are that it should be a hatch, and have a stick. This one solves both issues.

The Torrent, while probably fine, feels like some real sadness on wheels. It’s gray, the interior is definitely worse than the Sonic, and it just gives me nothing to be excited about at all. I’d take the Sonic.

NewBalanceExtraWide
NewBalanceExtraWide
1 year ago

I’ve got a Sonic hatch (but the 1.8 and an auto). I am pretty happy with it, all things considered… Little economy hatchbacks are my jam.

Max Headbolts
Max Headbolts
1 year ago

As a former 1.4/6 Speed Sonic owner that’s where my vote went, with good snow tires they are tanks in the snow, and I know the problems I’m getting into; the CEL is likely the PCV, which is part of the freakin valve cover, or the #4 ignition coil, which thank’s to GM’s design means four new coils. Even a full rebuild isn’t hard here, and while long-blocks may be hard to find, rebuild kits aren’t; with proper valve train upgrades these things can do 250-300 WHP, the transmission will probably be grumpy about it though.

Still aside from back-wrenching seats it’s a lot more fun to hoon around in the snow, and with a decent tune can score 40MPGs while doing it.

Boxing Pistons
Boxing Pistons
1 year ago
Reply to  Max Headbolts

A guy at work had a super high-mileage Cruze with the 1.4T. He had the same handful of issues you noted as well as some goofy issue with the turbo, but all-in-all it was very manageable to maintain. I went Sonic, too.

10001010
10001010
1 year ago

The concept of “winter beater” is a bit lost on those of us south of I-10 so I voted for the one that looks like it’s the most fun to drive, and you all know which one that is.

MP81
MP81
1 year ago

Sonic, hands down.

The 1.4T is quite tunable, but also it comes with tires literally made for winter beaters: winter tires, along with the stock wheels and presumably all-seasons for the other three seasons.

Done deal right there.

Robot Turds
Robot Turds
1 year ago

I cannot believe both of these made it past 150k. Both have god-awful engines. The Torrent has an engine that has a nasty tendency to stretch its timing chain which leads to the engine self-destructing. If I had to be forced to take one I guess I’d go with the Torrent anyway because the engine in the Sonic is even worse.

Unclewolverine
Unclewolverine
1 year ago
Reply to  Robot Turds

Really? I’ve changed untold amounts of intake gaskets in this engine family and they are starting to lose head gaskets at an alarming rate but I’ve never seen one with a timing chain issue.

Kyree
Kyree
1 year ago
Reply to  Unclewolverine

Right. I’m pretty sure it was actually the corporate 3.6 that had the chain-stretching issues, and that’s a different engine Family.

Unclewolverine
Unclewolverine
1 year ago
Reply to  Kyree

That’s got to be what they are thinking about. That 3.6 is hot garbage. The old 3.1/3.4 family is a good, reliable motor as long as you update the intake gaskets.

A. Barth
A. Barth
1 year ago

“And they might take high-end bicycles or canoes in trade”

No and yes. 🙂 What the seller said is this:

“$3,200 or potential trades for Enduro Bikes, or higher quality canoes etc”

Enduro bikes – also called dual-purpose bikes – are motorcycles that are designed to be ridden off-road as well as on. They will have more suspension travel, less bodywork, and more aggressive tires than a street-only bike. The Honda XR150L that Mercedes wrote about the other day would be a modern example.

Re: the cars, this is a tough one. The Sonic wins by a slight margin because of the 6MT, the maintenance work that’s been done, and the nice condition of the interior.

Gubbin
Gubbin
1 year ago
Reply to  Mark Tucker

Mercedes can fix that!

XLEJim700
XLEJim700
1 year ago
Reply to  Mark Tucker

Oh, there’s lingo to be learned: especially when you’re 22, know nothing, but go out and buy a ’72 Yamaha 360 Enduro (2 stroke). Then you go and dumbly kick start it (see “know nothing”) and it kicks you.

Enough lingo for the whole neighborhood!

A. Barth
A. Barth
1 year ago
Reply to  Mark Tucker

We all bring something different to the table. 🙂

SnackAttack
SnackAttack
1 year ago
Reply to  A. Barth

FYI Enduro is actually a subset of mountain biking as well. Given the canoe option and the price of enduro bikes (https://www.specialized.com/us/en/shop/bikes/mountain-bikes/trail-bikes/enduro/c/enduro) it’s tough to know which they meant for sure.

Sonic all the way

A. Barth
A. Barth
1 year ago
Reply to  SnackAttack

I learned something today. Thanks, Mack!

FloridaNative
FloridaNative
1 year ago

“But it’s a manual, it’s turbocharged and it’s orange. I can forgive a lot for that.”

Me too.

Stig's Cousin
Stig's Cousin
1 year ago
Reply to  FloridaNative

No offense, but is a person with the username “FloridaNative” really qualified to judge which vehicle is a better winter beater???

Justin Short
Justin Short
1 year ago
Reply to  Stig's Cousin

As an exercise in mental self-stimulation, that’s a resounding YES!
I know what makes a good winter beater, I just don’t need it!

But that Sonic is perfect for me as a daily driver

BunkyTheMelon
BunkyTheMelon
1 year ago

I went with the Torrent. It’s far uglier, but has more basic mechanicals. That little turbo-4 won’t last forever while that 3400 might

Richard O
Richard O
1 year ago

The Sonic is probably a better value, but I just won’t drive little crap-cans. My wife loves them, but she’s not voting here. I’m voting Torrent.

JDE
JDE
1 year ago

Turbocharged is not a positive in this case. the hear number of 1.4 failures has made getting replacement engines(because that is what is needed when they fail) a 6-11 month wait ordeal. with the head gasket replaced, that suggests overheating which is a known issue with these when they start drinking oil, so it is likely other parts were messed up at the time of gasket replacement. the 3.4 has the known intake gasket issue so it would be a good idea to know if the improved intake gasket was installed, but the engines themselves are pretty basic and easy to repair. still I would have trouble considering either of these for anything I would want to drive.

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