To test our assumptions in the flesh, we braved a crowded airport and jetted to San Francisco to spend the better part of an afternoon with the impressive Chevrolet B-segment five-door.
The hour-long flight gave us plenty of time to do our homework, pore over its specifications and set realistic expectations based on its price and performance. When it arrives later this year, it will have a base price of $20,995, meaning it will compete with loaded versions of the Ford Fiesta, Honda Fit and Hyundai Accent. More importantly, Chevrolet's RS (Rally Sport) badge means it gains an appearance package with minor mechanical upgrades – thus it should not to be lumped into the hot hatch category with more focused adversaries (we'd have to see an "SS" badge and hardware for that to happen).
Armed with the insight, we eagerly jumped behind the wheel of a bright-red RS and zipped around real estate north of the Bay Area for a few hours.
We arrived. We drove. We enjoyed.
The standard Chevrolet Sonic is offered in four-door sedan and five-door hatchback bodystyles in three different trim levels (LS, LT and LTZ). Under the hood is a naturally aspirated (NA) 1.8-liter four-cylinder developing 138 horsepower and 125 pound-feet of torque. It provides sufficient power, but optional on the higher-grade LT and LTZ is a turbocharged 1.4-liter four-cylinder making 138 horsepower (identical to the NA engine) but a more significant 148 pound-feet of torque. Both engines are offered with your choice of either a six-speed manual or a six-speed automatic transmission. Base prices start at $14,995 (including destination) for a Sonic Sedan LS manual transmission and top out at $19,975 (including destination) for a Sonic Hatchback LTZ automatic.
The gearing in the manual has been modified and the final drive ratio in the automatic is shorter – both will deliver sportier acceleration.
New for 2013 is this Sonic RS, a range-topping sportier derivative differentiated by a slew of upgrades all meant to increase its fun-to-drive potential.
While the standard Sonic is available in sedan or hatchback, the Sonic RS is only sold as a five-door. Under its hood, as standard equipment, is the optional turbocharged 1.4-liter engine with 138 horsepower and 148 pound-feet of torque. Transmission choices remain the same (six-speed manual or six- speed automatic), but the gearing in the manual has been modified and the final drive ratio in the automatic is shorter – both will deliver sportier acceleration despite the lack of engine upgrades.
Rounding out the mechanical tweaks, Chevrolet has lowered the vehicle a bit (10 mm) and stiffened its suspension with firmer dampers. In addition, four-wheel disc brakes have been fitted, making it the only Sonic with rotors at all four corners. The electromechanically assisted steering has been left untouched. Also standard are 17-inch alloy wheels wrapped in grand-touring all-season Hankook Optimo H428 tires (sized 205/50-17 on all four corners).
The exterior of the Sonic RS wears a new front fascia with a more aggressive front grille. There are new rocker moldings on each side and the mirrors have been gussied-up with special caps. The rear fascia is also enhanced with a roof-mounted spoiler, and it boasts a bright trapezoidal exhaust outlet.
Four-wheel disc brakes have been fitted, thus making it the only Sonic with rotors at all four corners.
Inside the cabin are unique sport bucket seats (synthetic suede and leather with an "RS" emblazoned on the back rest), a leather-wrapped sport steering wheel with red stitching, a new shift knob (6MT only), aluminum sport pedals and unique instruments in the motorcycle-inspired gauge cluster. In addition to the standard MyLink audio system, there are also a few obligatory decals and badges, but we didn't find them to be excessive or in poor taste. Overall, the RS package looks pretty darn good in any of its offered colors (Victory Red, Summit White, Cyber Gray Metallic and Black Granite Metallic).
We spent time in a blazing Victory Red Sonic RS 6MT. As there were no options, its price was a reasonable $20,995 (the Sonic RS 6AT starts at $22,280). As a recap, standard equipment on the RS includes all of the power accessories and convenience features found on the LTZ (air conditioning, power windows, power locks, power mirrors, cruise control, etc.). The RS package is also bundled with MyLink, adding a touchscreen infotainment interface and Bluetooth along with Stitcher and Pandora radio capability. However, with the arrival of MyLink, the CD player disappears (no worries, as fewer people seem to be listening to polycarbonate discs these days anyway).
The cabin of the Sonic RS is more pleasing than its sticker would suggest. We found the upgraded sport seats comfortable and the rest of the cabin was nicely configured with decent switchgear and intuitive ergonomics. The motorcycle-style primary gauge cluster is odd at first, but we acclimated quickly and found the large digital speedometer quite handy. Outward visibility wasn't a problem either, thanks to the tall greenhouse and well-positioned exterior mirrors (with integrated blind spot discs on each).
Don't expect an exhaust note, as it doesn't exist.
With a twist of the key in its column-mounted slot, the petite four spun to life and settled to a comfortable idle buzzing contently on the other side of the front firewall – don't expect an exhaust note, as it doesn't exist. The clutch is light but not numb, and we didn't have any issues making a clean launch on our first attempt (the 6MT is equipped with electronic hill hold feature that will keep the RS stationary for about three seconds on inclines).
Horsepower is something of a moot point, but 148 pound-feet of motivating torque is more than adequate to move the 2,800-pound Sonic RS off the line. Run it through the gears quickly and most will inadvertently hit the electronic limiter the first few times (redline is about 6,250 rpm), reeling in the fun. Keep in mind that gearing on the manual box is short. First gear is only good to about 25 mph and second is extinguished before 50 mph. It takes a shift to third gear to hit the benchmark of 60 mph, and by that time about eight full seconds will have passed. That's enough to make it is quick for its segment as long you resist lumping it in with larger and more focused hot hatches.
It takes a shift to third gear to hit the benchmark of 60 mph, and by that time about eight full seconds will have passed.
Playing around with the engine's throttle response at a standstill, primarily interested to hear how it sounded running around the tachometer without road noise, we noticed that the engineers have artificially limited the engine speed to less than 4,000 rpm unless the vehicle is moving. Finding it a bit odd, we asked several people at Chevrolet why. Nobody knew the specific reason, but protecting the engine (and clutch) from the occasional overzealous owner seemed to be the common thread.
While quite a bit of energy is expended rowing the gears (not necessarily a bad thing), the turbocharged torque ensures the engine is flexible and able when a naturally aspirated powerplant would fall flat on its face. While it needs to get spinning to become most effective, we lugged, short-shifted and tortured it, and it just kept pulling.
It was the all-season tires that threw in the towel first as the open tread block lost grip and moaned in protest.
The lowered chassis and upgraded sport dampers did prove their worth. We flung the little red hatchback into a few corners just to see what would happen. Even though the Sonic's center of gravity is about a foot too tall for ideal canyon carving, the suspension tuning and minor chassis lowering helped keep body roll in check, and so it never felt unstable. Interestingly enough, it was the all-season tires that threw in the towel first as the open tread block lost grip and moaned in protest – that's an easy fix in the aftermarket.
Most of the time, upgraded brakes significantly improve stopping capability. Yet exchanging the Sonic's standard rear drums for single-piston sliding-caliper rear discs (the same design of brake is on the front, but slightly larger) only brings it on par with nearly every other vehicle on the road. The four-wheel discs on the RS feel just fine, and stop well even in spirited driving, but they aren't going to take more than above average abuse.
Chevrolet and the EPA have yet to release fuel economy figures for the 2013 Sonic RS, but they should match or fall just slightly lower than those of the standard LTZ with the optional 1.4-liter engine. We'd estimate high-20s in the city, and maybe high-30s on the highway. With a 12.2-gallon fuel tank, cruising range should be close to 400 miles (keep in mind that those numbers will drop rather quickly with a heavy right foot goosing the turbocharged engine).
Chevrolet's hot little econo-hatch was not only frugal, but it kept us very entertained.
Overall, we had a lot of fun with the 2013 Sonic RS. It's the perfect example of what happens when an automaker fits a solid subcompact with a more powerful turbocharged engine and then properly tweaks the whole package. While this hatchback is far from a track or autocross star and it won't be winning many stoplight sprints against more expensive adversaries, Chevrolet's hot little econo-hatch kept us very entertained – and that's exactly the point.