Driven: 2013 Chevrolet Sonic RS

By Brandon Turkus

October 04, 2012

—San Francisco, California
When a small child is learning to ride a bike, good parents fit training wheels (bad parents push him down a hill and hope for the best, trial by fire we guess). It gives them the feel of what it’s like to ride a bike, build up their confidence, and limit trips to the emergency room. That is what the Chevrolet Sonic RS is, a pair of training wheels. Only instead of giving a youngster an idea of what it’s like to ride a big kid bike, it gives adults an idea of what a proper, full-bore hot hatch is like.
See, the Sonic RS typifies what we refer to as warm hatches. It is slower, less maneuverable, and less likely to result in jail time/trips to the body shop than a Mazdaspeed3, Ford Focus ST, or Volkswagen GTI. That’s not to say it’s not a good vehicle. Quite the opposite, actually.
[Click here to read our review of the 2013 Chevrolet Spark]
See, we had really high praise for the standard, turbocharged Sonic. It’s just a genuinely fun small car that happens to be rather efficient, affordable, and spacious. So naturally, the stiffened, lowered Sonic RS, with its more aggressive gearing across the board, really appealed to our inner hatch enthusiast.Driven: 2013 Chevrolet Sonic RS
First, it’s important to temper expectations regarding the Sonic RS. It is not an SS. That fact was made abundantly clear in our tech briefing before we drove. It’s also not some willy-nilly styling package, like RS models of old (or new, if you count the RS packs on the Cruze and Camaro). Instead, this Sonic occupies a little-used middle ground in the Chevrolet lineup, bridging the gap between a regular Sonic hatch and something…else (possibly a Sonic SS that the Chevrolet PR people denied ad infinitum).
So as we said, there is some performance cred to that little RS badge. The ride height has been dropped 10 millimeters, or .4 inches (trust us, it looks more impressive than it sounds) and the dampers have been firmed up for a more aggressive handling profile. The rear drum brakes are gone, meaning the RS boasts discs at all four corners. Meanwhile, the gearing has been tweaked for a greater performance profile. It all adds up to a compelling little hatchback. Of course, being an RS, there is no shortage of styling changes.
Most noticeable are the unique seventeen-inch wheels, finished in a sinister black. Besides looking cool, their low profile accentuates the lower ride height of the revised suspension. A new front and rear fascia, along with a revised front grille, rear spoiler, and rocker moldings constitute the remainder of the exterior tweaks.
The interior sports a leather-wrapped, flat-bottom steering wheel that’s easier to grasp and far better looking than the standard Sonic’s tiller. The new seats are finished in softish leather with suede inserts. Although we didn’t notice any huge changes in the level of support available, the newer materials did give them a more sporting look. We’d like a wider range of vertical adjustments, but were still rather comfy. The MyLink infotainment system is standard, and makes for a decidedly more upscale center stack as well, with a few touch-capacitive controls below the screen feeling quite expensive.
Our on-road time was split between Marin County outside of San Francisco and the city itself. On the gently curving roads on the other side of the bridge, the most impressive aspect of the RS was its ride. It felt far more poised and composed than a car this small should, managing to tackle bumps and imperfections without shattering its occupants’ backsides, an impressive feat among cars of this size.
Despite this composure, the Sonic’s ride is full of verve. On the tight city streets of San Francisco, this little hatch proved quite nimble and was more than willing to push hard around the sharp city corners. Its tight handling delivered a surprising level of feedback. Body roll came on quite progressively, and did a good job informing of lateral grip levels. Still, we’d have really liked to get the Sonic RS onto an autocross or track to fully gauge the suspension improvements. Our opinion, based on our drive time is that the RS is going to be a favorite of the daily-drive/weekend-autocross owner’s club.
The powertrain tweaks were limited, consisting mainly of more aggressive gearing for the standard six-speed manual box (a six-speed automatic is available for $1285, but why?). The clutch on our newer Sonic RS felt quite good, with a nice level of travel and a predictable catchpoint. The throws were still on the long side, but they terminated in a mostly satisfying feeling in each gate. A slight rubberiness at the gate was the only downside.
Driven: 2013 Chevrolet Sonic RSThe effects of the gearing on the 138-horsepower, 148 pound-foot, turbocharged four-cylinder didn’t feel especially aggressive. This was a quick enough car, but a Fiat 500 Abarth or Mini Cooper S would have left it in the dust. It was toughest in the low end, where the turbo deposited peak torque at a mere 2500 rpm. The torque curve itself was fairly broad, but at the higher reaches the Sonic RS felt out of breath. Kept on the boil, though, this was a punchy little powerplant that was more than willing to be worked hard.
We can’t be certain what the revised gearing of the Sonic RS’s manual box will do to economy numbers (the EPA hasn’t published anything, and our 40-mile route was barely enough to get an accurate figure). A standard turbocharged Sonic hatch will see 29 miles per gallon in the city and 40 mpg on the highway. It’s reasonable to assume that the Sonic RS will see nearly identical numbers, with no more than a 1-mpg drop (if that).
At the beginning of this story, we called the Sonic RS a warm hatch, rather than a proper hot hatch. From a performance standpoint, this makes a lot of sense. The troubles come when we look at price. In a vacuum, its $20,995 (includes $795 for destination) seems reasonable for a fun-to-drive small car. After all, it packs a touchscreen infotainment system, a turbocharged engine, and some sporty trimmings. The problem comes when we look at competitors for this 138-horsepower Chevy.
On the high end, we have the Fiat 500 Abarth and Hyundai Veloster Turbo, both of which start at just over $1000 more than the Chevy, and pack 22- and 62-horsepower advantages, respectively, along with being far more overtly sporty in their executions. On the lower end, the standard Mini Cooper, with its $20,400 starting price is still a better handling vehicle. It takes a hit on power and torque, and doesn’t come quite so well equipped, but is arguably a more dynamic vehicle than the Sonic RS.
The pricing argument, though, is a weak one. Each vehicle above offers some level of compromise compared to this Sonic. The Fiat lacks space, the Veloster Turbo isn’t as sharp, and the Mini will get expensive fast. While the Sonic RS may not meet this class’ performance expectations, its blend of size, usable power, and style give it the jack-of-all-trades character we look for in a hot hatch. There’s probably a more potent Sonic in the works, but in the meantime, we’re quite happy with this latest Chevy.
2013 Chevrolet Sonic RS 6MT
Engine: Turbocharged inline-four, 1.4 liters, 16v
Output: 138 hp/148 lb-ft
Weight: 2811 lb
0-60 MPH: 8.1 sec (est)
Fuel Economy, City/Hwy: 29/39 mpg (est)
Base Price: $20,200
On Sale: December 2012