On the Road Review: Chevy Sonic RS

Chevrolet, and by default GM, has an interesting history with small cars. Never shy about being innovative, the Corvair from the 1960s, or unusual, the Vega from the 1970s, Chevy has had mixed success through the years with sales numbers never quite telling the whole story.

Chevy can actually claim some very solid sales successes with the Cavalier and the Cobalt, yet neither car got much acclaim and neither model really ever challenged the perception that the Asian small car offerings were better. This stigma, real or perceived, has dogged Chevy’s, and GM’s, small car efforts ever since the Asian automakers established their 1970s beachhead here in America.

Along the way, GM purchased some small-car automakers, including Korean builder Daewoo. But it hasn’t been so much the engineering effort — GM after all builds a lot of very successful products across its global footprint — but apparently the combination of assets allocated, the bean counters’ limitations and the return on investment that has stymied many of GM’s small car efforts in a market that really doesn’t sell a lot of small cars compared to other markets. The prospect of making $12,000 per full-size SUV or $400 on a subcompact car really illustrates how difficult these decisions are.

But now, Chevy (and GM) has a really credible small car that is earning praise, honors and market recognition. The Chevy Sonic, available in four-door sedan or five-door hatchback, has been on sale for three years. Chevy has added features each year, keeping the car ‘fresh’ and current, and the Sonic has zoomed past every rival but one to rule the sub-compact segment in the United States.

Determining direct Sonic rivals is dependent upon whether you look at just size or vehicle price. If you select size, then VW’s Golf — really the benchmark for five-door hatchbacks — dominates performance, price, features, etc., but it costs $4,600 more than the Sonic — $18,995 compared to $14,245. An outlier on the other end of the scale is the Nissan Versa, which is often the least expensive new car in America, starting at $11,990 in base four-door sedan trim.

However, most small car shoppers will look at the Sonic through the prism of other similarly styled, sized, and priced rivals; cars such as the Honda Fit, $15,525, Ford Fiesta, $14,355, Hyundai Accent, $14,645, Kia Rio, $13,900 or Toyota Yaris, $14,845. The Sonic outsells every car listed here except the Versa and its hatchback sibling the Versa Note — two cars that vary in size compared to the one-size Sonic.

Throw out the Golf, really never considered a value-priced subcompact, and the Sonic offers the most horsepower in the segment — matching the two Korean offerings at 138 hp. The Sonic has the most innovative content — the only car here with a standard rear view camera and a 4G LTE Mobile Wi-Fi hotspot, plus the Sonic comes in four trim levels with more optional features than its rivals. In addition, the Sonic is the only sub-compact car built in America, outside Detroit, and the only subcompact car with a Five Star crash test rating. This is apparently a ‘big’ small car.

With sales of 93,000 units last year, the Sonic outsold Fiesta and Accent by 30,000 units, and Honda’s celebrated Fit by even more. The reason: there is a lot to like here and not much of it has to do with being small.

At first glance, the Sonic has great eye appeal, especially on our RS trim hatchback shown in extroverted Dragon Green Metallic Paint. Alloy wheels and judicious bright work around the clever headlamps and lower fog lamps add some glitz without being ostentatious. Open a door and a wide space welcomes you into seats for adults, not contortionists. However, close the door, and the first sign of the Sonic’s quality is revealed; each door closes with a quality-sounding thud, a solid, rugged note that this is not a tinny box.

RS trim, the top of the four available, denotes less than the RS trim you might have formerly associated with Chevy — Rally Sport — as the Sonic looks cool, but really adds no special performance improvements with the RS trim. Standard Sonic power comes from a 1.8-liter 138-hp four — the same engine as the Cruze uses. Optional power is supplied by a 1.4-liter Turbocharged four (the same engine as found in the Cruze too, as well as the Buick Encore) making the same 138 horses, but with a modest boost in midrange grunt via a higher torque output rating. A five-speed manual is on base model sedans while six-speed manuals and automatics fill in all other applications.

In the cabin, the Sonic RS gives buyers a leather-covered steering wheel with the appropriate red stitching detail, a tilt-and-telescoping wheel, too, while aluminum pedals — three here — and an easy to use six-speed manual complete the sporty illusion. Clutch effort is light, gears are easy to row, and the analog tachometer mirrors your right foot excitement with a motorcycle-like digital speedometer along for the ride.

In full RS regalia, you get suede inserts with the leather seating, heated of course, plus the latest electronics: Chevy MyLink with access to Pandora and other apps, Bluetooth streaming, XM radio, as well as the first-in-class Wi-Fi hotspot. Compatible i-phones can stream Siri through the Sonic, plus, GM’s OnStar is standard. Available driving aids include forward collision assist and lane-keeping assist. In LT or LTZ trim, buyers can even select two-tone interior designs with complimenting premium contrasts through the seats and instrument panel.

Front space is user-friendly, as are the controls. The dash presentation is clear, concise and without the unnecessary drama that automakers think buyers want. Second row space is adequate for adults, plus the seatback easily splits to fold to expand the cargo hold with an almost flat load floor stem to stern.

With 10 airbags, the Sonic earns the class’s only Five Star crash rating. But true safety starts with the driver and how the driver controls the environment in which he/she operates. The Sonic supports that effort with the sportier responses of the RS chassis — slightly beefier than other models — while steering and braking responses are predictable and commensurate with daily driving. First gear is short in the RS, but once rolling, drivers will detect a bump in output around the torque peak of 2,500 RPMs and another bump in performance as the tach swings past 4,000 RPMs. You won’t be racing Camaros, but that’s not the point in the Sonic.

With a taller drive ratio, the RS delivers slightly lower fuel economy than some Sonic models; 27/34/30-mpg here as opposed to 29/40-mpg on other Sonic models. Again, four trim levels, two powertrains, two transmissions and two body styles let you tailor your Sonic experience to your own tastes.

Lest you think that the Sonic is a flash in the pan, Chevy will offer a subcompact crossover wagon based on the Sonic this spring. Called the Trax, this five-door wagon will share some mechanicals with the Buick Encore but wear the Chevy Bow-tie and add AWD to the list of features.

Sonic hits: the unique exterior styling, the tasteful premium-look interior, the solid construction throughout, plus the features list make the roomy Sonic a pleasant surprise. This car packs a lot more punch than you might expect and it all works well.

Wow, a small Chevy that the critics can’t complain about. Finally, a small car from GM that the masses can admire not because of the ‘deal’ but because it beats the competition.

Tim Plouff

Tim Plouff

Columnist at The Ellsworth American
Tim Plouff has been reviewing automobiles in the pages of The Ellsworth American weekly for nearly two decades.
Tim Plouff

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