(This week, Jodi Lai and Nick Tragianis get to spend some time zipping around in the new Chevrolet sonic RS.)
JL:There was a time long ago, in the beginning of my career as an auto journalist, that I refused to drive anything with a Chevrolet badge because I was convinced I'd hate it. I believe that if you can't say anything nice, don't say it at all. I'm forced to admit defeat, though, because after we tested the Cruze Diesel and the new Sonic RS, I came away impressed and with many nice things to say.
NT:It's like Chevrolet is a completely different automaker when you look at the cars sold today versus the pre-bailout years. To put it mildly, the Aveo wasn't the most competitive or prettiest car in its segment. Take one look at the Sonic, much less the top-line RS, and you will realize just how much Chevy has stepped up its subcompact game.
The Sonic RS is powered by the same 1.4-litre turbocharged four-cylinder engine as the LTZ model. It pumps 138 horsepower and 148 pound-feet of torque, a pair of respectable numbers that better the likes of the Honda Fit, the Ford Fiesta and the Toyota Yaris. Heck, it even has more horsepower and torque than some larger cars, such as the 2014 Corolla. Power is sent to the front wheels via a six-speed manual transmission, a requirement for any small car since automatic gearboxes suck the life out of them.
JL:It's interesting you mention the Honda Fit. A while ago, the Fit Sport would have been the obvious choice, because Honda was miles ahead of Chevy in terms of quality (and everything else, actually). But after having driven both, I have to say that I enjoyed the Sonic more. It's better-looking, feels sportier and has a higher-quality interior. Sitting in the Fit Sport, you are unfortunately reminded at every step that you are sitting in a budget subcompact. In the Sonic, however, it feels richer than its budget price would suggest. I even like its transmission more than the Fit's. It is a slick shifter that feels like it comes from a much more expensive car.
NT:I'm with you on that; it isn't as laser-precise as the Mazda2, but the Sonic RS manual gearbox is pretty accurate. There is a bit of turbo lag off the line, but as long as you don't use the RS in drag races for pink slips, you probably won't ask for more kick, because 138 horsepower is plenty to make a subcompact zippy. One thing I think GM should work on is the steering: it's well-weighted, but some more feedback would be nice. I mean, you can barely feel anything through that steering wheel.
The Accent, Rio and Fiesta target luxury while the Fit and Yaris do practicality best. So naturally, that leaves the Sonic RS (and the 500 Turbo and Mazda2) to fill in the sporty side of the subcompact segment. The RS doesn't look much different from the rest of the members of the Sonic family from the outside, but the interior is jazzed up with nice touches that include red stitching, a bunch of RS badges, faux-suede trim on the seats and -- my personal favourite -- a thick flat-bottom steering wheel. It's a little bit like a baby Camaro RS that has to grow up before it can be a hooligan.
JL:To be clear, the Sonic RS is not a hot hatch; it is a budget hatch with a sporty feel. The driving dynamics are adequate, and although it feels a bit squishy, the performance and power are more than enough for people shopping this car (as a bonus, the RS even sits ultra low to the ground and has a stiffer suspension and sport-tuned dampers).
For its price range, however, I'm perfectly OK with that, especially because the interior is such a nice place. It's logical, the dash layout is uncluttered, nothing rattles, and the materials feel richer than I'm used to in a Chevy. I also like the interface of the infotainment system -- it takes Apple's minimalist approach to design with clean fonts and is easy to navigate.
The whole thing adds up to give the Sonic RS a very youthful feel. "Youthful" was once a euphemism for "bargain basement" but Chevy has done a lot to change this; youthful now means fun and packed with value.
The Sonic RS feels much richer than its price suggests and as a youthful buyer, that's exactly what I'd be looking for.
-- Postmedia Network Inc. 2013