Once upon a time Matt Hardigree made a stupid joke about the Chevy Sonic and got into a twitter argument with their PR person. When said PR guy challenged him to a race Matt agreed and, amazingly, he convinced Hyundai to loan us an Accent to take on the little Chevy.
Pro tip #1: If you agree to a race you can't win, send someone else.
Pro tip #2: Don't be "someone else."
Annoyingly, I lost, but it was closer than you might think. And maybe it gives us an inkling into the direction small cars are now headed.
I told Matt coming into this challenge that I don't like to lose. But lose is what I expected to do, in all honesty. Not because the Accent is a bad car — far from it — but because the Sonic RS is clearly a vehicle with sportiness in mind, rather than the comfort minded Hyundai.
A standard Sonic would probably have been a more comparable battle, but that became an irrelevance, as we were at Gingerman Raceway in Michigan ready to hit the asphalt. It dawned on me that the only realistic chance we had of victory was if I could outdrive my opposition. And that would be no easy task as their driver (lead development engineer on the Sonic — John Buttermore) is no slouch himself.
I figured what would be, would be and decided to just enjoy my time thrashing an Accent around a racetrack. And I'd get the chance to sample the Sonic RS on track too. So… all in all, not a bad way to spend a Monday afternoon.
Our plan was to partake in an Indy 500-type qualifying time attack. We would complete four timed laps with the average of the four determining who would be heading home wearing a smug grin and who would be exercising their Oscar-style loser's face. I had already been practicing my Judy Dench-like gracious smile.
I was up first in our 2013 Accent hatchback that produces 138 horsepower and 123 lb-ft torque from its 1.6L direct injection motor. I decided to take my fuel-efficient partner for a few laps around the parking lot, prior to hitting the racetrack. Its six-speed manual felt reasonably crisp and the length of the throws was decent. The chassis provided a feel of comfort and poise and its interior was clean and functional, too. I already liked this car.
As I hit the track and began our run, I hustled every ounce of speed available from the shoe-sized machine. It's worth reiterating that this is an Accent straight from the fleet. No sporty upgrades, just rock hard, low rolling resistance tires. As one would expect from a front-wheel-drive machine, understeer was the biggest handling imbalance I had to overcome. The little wheels spun frantically as I punished its slippery tires. Braking was good and the platform of the car was surprisingly solid.
For a comfortable car the level of roll was minimal. The only real problem I encountered was the rev drop from 2nd to 3rd gear. It was a momentum killer with each and every shift, but what would you expect from a car that is designed with fuel mileage numbers in mind, rather than lap times? Despite that, it genuinely handled well. I have always said that low horsepower cars are the most fun to drive and this reaffirmed that statement.
After my run I jumped out and a guy wearing a white shirt handed me my time sheet, then promptly left. I looked it over and saw I had a four-lap average of 1:49.748. I was happy with my run and felt I got the most out of the Accent, so with the satisfaction of at least knowing I held up my side of the challenge, and didn't destroy a press vehicle, I was ready to watch John complete his laps in the Chevy.
The Sonic RS produces the same 138-horsepower as the Accent but does so with a 1.4L turbo engine. It produces more lb-ft of torque than the Accent –- at 148 — but it also comes in a few hundred pounds heavier in curb weight. The key to the RS model is that the six-speed manual gearbox receives more aggressive ratios, compared to the standard Sonic, and its suspension has been stiffened. Rear disc brakes are now installed and the car has been lowered 10mm. And while you would never say the Sonic RS was built for the track, compared to the Accent, it certainly seemed more at home.
I did some laps in the RS and it handled brilliantly. As with the Accent, understeer was the main issue but the grip level was far superior to our challenger. Even the interior felt more expensive and sporty, with its leather seats and flat bottomed steering wheel and, although pricing for the RS hasn't yet been released, expect it to cost close to $5,000 more than the Accent. So it should be better, really.
And it was. John's four-lap average was a stout 1:48.476. That's over a second quicker than the Accent. But what was interesting is at the end of our on-track session the Sonic RS's tires were junk. As I was leaving for the day the wheels were being switched to a set that were capable of being driven home, whereas the Accent's rubber (despite my best efforts) looked barely used at all.
So it would be fair to say that perhaps tires played a large role in our times, making the little Hyundai even more impressive. John's final two laps also fell off badly. His first two were extremely quick mid 1:47's but the last two dropped to an Accent-like 1:49.3. Again, maybe this is a product of the super sticky RS tires fading over the duration of the stint.
So the Sonic RS won, and we lost. I smiled and shook hands with my opposition and congratulated them on a wonderful car. John Buttermore and the crew at Chevy truly did a great job with the RS. It felt like a proper little racer — a Greyhound puppy, if you will. The Accent felt more like a 4-lb Yorkshire Terrier. While its little legs whirl around at an inconceivably fast pace, in terms of forward propulsion, it doesn't go very quickly.
But it'll "woof" loudly and dart around with a dog twice its size. It certainly won't be scared and cower in the corner of the room – much like Hyundai didn't when Matt asked them to participate in this race, when it was clear that victory was going to be tough.
So what have we learned through all this? Well, not much really. Sure the Sonic RS is faster and sportier than an Accent, but all you need is a working pair of eyes to know that. Perhaps we learned that driving tiny hatchbacks on a racetrack is a ton of fun? But I'm sure if I were given a school bus to drive I would have had a ball, too — that is, prior to tipping up and killing myself, of course.
I was extremely impressed with how well both cars lapped in a scene more accustomed to hosting sports cars, than subcompacts. And I can say with most certainty that I have perfected my dignified losers face and admitted defeat like a gentleman. The subtly nodding head and slow applause, mixed with a smile portraying the distinct lack of egoism, seemed to work extremely well. Thanks for the tips, Judy.
But if there is one thing I learnt more than anything else it would be this: Next time, let Matt settle his own bets.
(Full Disclosure: Chevy provided the track, Sonic RS, some photos and B-Roll. Hyundai provided the Accent and stopped by to observe. Thanks to both for playing along, especially Hyundai for having the nuts to provide us a random car.)
Music Credit: 8Bit Dungeon Boss/http://incompetech.com