Remember the Chevy Aveo? You probably wish that you didn't. Chevy also hopes you don't. That's why they brought out this, the Sonic RS. Compared to the Aveo, it's the greatest car in the world.
The Sonic is the car tasked with remedying generations of small car disappointments from Chevy. On paper, they did a lot right. It has aggressive styling and, on the RS model, a pretty staggering list of standard equipment. But is that enough to make people forget the Aveo, Citation, Chevette, Vega, and pretty much every other small car to come from Chevy?
(Full Disclosure: Chevy wanted me to drive the Sonic RS so bad that they just gave it to me. Seriously. It was that easy.)
I'm not joking when I say that there hasn't really been a great small car competitor from Chevrolet in ages. That's why the Sonic is so important; this is one car that GM needs to compete around the world. In terms of sales, it's vastly more important than the Corvette.
The RS is the sportiest ride in the Sonic lineup. That means it has four-wheel disc brakes, a six-speed manual trans, and a 1.4-liter turbocharged I4 with 138 manic horsepower. It also gets some anthracite wheels and some "grrr look at me I'm angry" bits to drive home that performance feel. It's not a "hot hatch" in the truest sense of the phrase, so I do think it qualifies as a sporty economy car.
And that's all well and good IF the car is good. And it isn't bad. It isn't bad at all.
The Sonic is a small package with a lot of big, bold features. Chevy's corporate grille is huge and the lights are sizable as well. Instead of bland styling, you get something that, whether you like it or not, really makes a statement.
Around back you have lights that would look at home on an older Honda Civic. I believe the kids call them Altezzas. And that sums up the Sonic RS pretty well, because it has a very "boy racer" aesthetic about it.
I'm not totally crazy about the "in your face-ness" of the front end. Honestly, it looks a bit like a parrot fish.
Compared to something like a Bentley Continental GT, this interior really isn't all that great. But for a $21,000 hatchback, it's quite good. The RS has leather and Alcantara seats that are really comfortable. There are a number of places to store your various techie things (you darn millennials!) as well as a cool motorcycle inspired dash.
But there are a couple issues. There is only one arm rest, and it's for the driver. The center console is tightly packaged, which actually makes it very tough to buckle a seatbelt… and I'm not a chunky fellow.
The Sonic RS has 138 horsepower and 148 pound feet of torque. That gets the 2,810 pound RS to 60 in eight seconds. Honestly, that's not bad at all. I did find the power to be slightly anemic, as I found the power band to be fairly narrow and peaky.
When you're in the sweet spot the RS is responsive and fun, I just wanted a broader power band. Compared to a Fiat 500 Abarth (which does cost a good bit more), there just isn't enough meat across the rev range. Peak torque in the RS is at 2,500, peak horsepower at 4,900, so a motor that you'd think would love to rev really doesn't. Once you're above 4,900, you're out of thrust.
The RS is the only Sonic with disc brakes at all four corners (the others have rear drums and I believe the base model comes with a rope you throw out the window to lasso poles to slow it down). Even though I haven't driven the base Sonic, I have to imagine these brakes are a vast improvement.
Bite isn't really as aggressive as I'd like, but the pedal feel isn't awful. I know y'all hate it when I say "they're brakes, I didn't hit anything, I guess they work," but that is kind of the case here. They aren't spectacular, but they get the job done in a slightly better than average way. Sorry?
If you're looking for a hard core, raucous ride, you're looking in the wrong place. The RS is quite comfortable, but it might be a bit too comfortable. It's compliant over bumps and on the highway, but it's also a little too soft on back roads.
I didn't feel totally disconnected from the road, but I would like a bit more of an aggressive setup to give me a better idea of what was actually going on down there.
I bet you looked at this narrow, tall hatchback and thought to yourself "that thing looks like it handles better than the McLaren 12C." I hate to burst your bubble, but you'd be way off.
That's not to say the Sonic is awful. The issue is that the softer springs and the tall narrowness makes it feel a bit wallow-y (technical phrase, look it up) in corners. On certain bends, I'd feel that lean and wouldn't have the confidence to throw it in and know that I'd make it out the other side with the shiny side up.
When I did go for it, the Sonic greeted me with some understeer on entry and then some chatter from the traction control since, somehow, it torque steers a little bit. I do imagine that a few small suspension mods (sway bars, shocks, and springs) would make the Sonic a lot more composed and probably a lot of fun in an autocross. It's definitely faster around a track than a Hyundai Accent.
A solid feeling clutch is mated to a six-speed manual. The clutch has a very well defined engagement point which was easy to get used to. I went back and forth on the gearbox itself.
At first I said to myself "these throws are short and direct, I like that." But that was in traffic in Manhattan. Then I got on the open road and started driving aggressively. I missed a shift and got all angry. Overall, it's a solid gearbox. I would like a little better definition in the gates but I can't really complain. It's middle of the pack with a swell clutch.
It has a little turbo four. That means you're expecting a bit of a warble and some character. Instead, you have utter silence. It sounds like a quiet Dustbusters. And Dustbusters are not known for their evocative exhaust notes.
Inside, you have a pretty decent stereo. Kokomo sounded excellent. That's where I want to go.
You're looking at this 7 and thinking I'm a psychopath for giving this little car such a high score. Well, let me explain.
The RS I drove had no options. None. It came with steering wheel controls, cruise control, XM radio, heated seats, bluetooth audio, tire pressure monitor, stability control, and MyLink which can support Pandora, Stitcher, and nav apps off your phone. That's more than I've seen in cars costing three times as much. Kudos Chevy.
But FYI: You forgot to give it a turbo boost gauge. Oh, and a temperature gauge. Cars need the second one.
Don't look at the RS as a hot hatch. It doesn't handle like one. It doesn't go in a straight line like one. Instead, think of it as a little hatchback with some more power and character.
The exterior styling is polarizing, you like it or hate it. But the interior is really pretty good for the class, especially the seats. And all the little toys you're getting make it a great deal in that class. If I were looking for a $20,000 car, I'd have a tough choice between the Sonic RS and Fiat 500t. But the six-speed trans and extra tech goodies of the Sonic RS might just be enough to make me go that way.
Chevy has finally built a small car that doesn't immediately engender hatred in the public. That's worth celebrating in itself.
- Engine: 1.4L Turbocharged I4
- Power: 138 HP at 4,900 RPM/ 148 LB-FT at 2,500 RPM
- Transmission: Six-Speed Manual
- 0-60 Time: 8.0 seconds
- Top Speed: 125ish mph
- Drivetrain: Front-Wheel Drive
- Curb Weight: 2,810 LBS (est.)
- Seating: 5
- MPG: 27 City/34 Highway/30 Combined
- MSRP: $20,995