2013 Chevrolet Sonic RS review: 'Really slow' Sonic offers high-tech for small budgets

Ecotec 1.4L Turbo
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The turbocharged 1.4-liter is good for 148 pound-feet of torque, which is a perfectly adequate amount. James Martin/CNET

The turbocharged engine may put out the same amount of power as the naturally aspirated mill, but it does so at a slightly lower point in the tachometer's swing, which means that the grunt is more accessible to the driver. The 1.4-liter also has more torque, twisting its crank to the tune of 148 pound-feet.

In our tester, that torque passes through a six-speed manual transmission on its way to the front wheels, but a six-speed automatic transmission is available.

But make no mistake, this is not a "performance" engine, it's a "green" one. Power is adequate, but there's nothing hot about the way this hatch pulls away from a light. This is, course, the same eco-messaged 1.4L turbo that helped the 2012-model-year Sonic tickle the 40-mpg mark. In our 2013 RS model with its manual transmission, however, the EPA only estimates 34 highway mpg, 27 in the city, and 30 mpg combined. Output and torque don't seem to have changed, so we're not exactly sure where the extra 6 mpg went between this year and last.

I should note that I only got about 25 mpg out of our tester during the week, but that's because I spent quite a bit of time in the upper reaches of the engine's revs, searching for power and performance.

The RS stands for 'really slow'
As I stated before, the Sonic RS' turbocharged engine delivers an adequate amount of power. However, the power lives fairly high up in the engine's revolutions-per-minute range. This means that the Sonic RS is no drag racer and that gaining access to what power and torque is available and staying in the engine's sweet spot requires a lot of shifting.

Here's where things start to fall apart between the Sonic RS and I: the gearbox sucks and nearly sucks all of the fun out of this car with it. The throw of the shift lever is incredibly long; the gates are poorly defined; and the clutch pedal is squishy and has a vague take-up point. What's more, the six forward gears are spaced in a way that encourages efficient driving, not hijinks and hoonage. Additionally, the accelerator and brake pedals are poorly placed and shaped for heel and toe downshifts.

6-speed shifter
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The Sonic RS' manual transmission was vague, with oddly spaced gears. James Martin/CNET

Around town, particularly in stop-and-go traffic, I constantly found myself in an odd dead zone between first and second gear where the revs in first were so high that the ride was jerky, but too low in second gear to keep the engine from stalling. Find yourself on a clear off-ramp and it is possible to work good acceleration out of the Sonic RS with slow careful shifts, but compared with the Honda Fit or the Mazda2, the Chevy's gearbox feels like it came off of a minitruck.

So it's low on power and doesn't change gears very well. That doesn't mean that it's not possible to have a bit of fun. One thing that Chevrolet has done well is set up the Sonic RS' suspension.

Initial turn-in is good, after which the little hatchback settles in and delivers pretty good grip when rounding a bend. The electric-assisted power steering doesn't offer much road feel through the wheel, but the chassis gives better seat-of-the-pants feel than I expected. The steering and suspension feel responsive enough for this price point -- zippy enough to feel good, but not so unstable that the teens and young adults who will undoubtedly find themselves behind the wheel will get into too much trouble.

Driving the RS quickly (I say "quickly," not "fast") on a twisty back road becomes an exercise in conservation of momentum and management of expectations. You can't power out of a bend, so the challenge becomes how much speed can you maintain through it. You don't have gobs of grip anyway, so moderate speeds are probably best.

In sum
The 2013 Chevrolet Sonic RS does a lot of things right. Its standard MyLink cabin tech package checks many of the right boxes for not a lot of dough. The list of available audio sources covers the right bases, though owners of large CD collections will be disappointed by the lack of a disc drive. The styling, while a bit too Pep Boys aftermarket for my tastes, is still pretty good. As Chevrolet adds more app partners to its MyLink system, the infotainment system only stands to get better.

Headlamps, Chevrolet Sonic RS
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The Sonic RS is a handsome hatch, even in spite of its aftermarket-looking head and taillights. James Martin/CNET

However, the Sonic does a few things poorly as well. Even with the moderate amount of power on tap, this could be a genuinely fun little hatchback -- the handling is nearly there and the torque isn't bad for the size of the vehicle -- but the Achilles' heel of a transmission almost ruins the fun. You won't often hear me saying this, but I think I'd like to give the six-speed automatic a spin. Additionally, while the BringGo app mirroring is a neat trick, it's not very good navigation software. I'd like to see a partnership with a company like TomTom, which makes a much better app. I'd also like to see a premium audio option or at least a subwoofer made available.

That said, the Sonic is a bit of a diamond in the rough. It's got more power than the Honda Fit and better dashboard technology for about the same amount of money. When I was 16 years old, I'd have been more than happy with this level of performance. (No doubt, I would also be saving money for a shifter upgrade, better pedals, and the go-faster bits that will make up Chevrolet's B-Spec racing upgrade kit that will soon be available for the 2013 Sonic, but I digress.)

Our RS Manual model has an MSRP of $20,185 with $810 in destination charges. There are no options at this trim level aside from the $1,285 automatic transmission and the $850 power sunroof, which we didn't have. That brings our as-tested price to $20,995. Compared with the Honda Fit, the Chevy's price looks pretty good.

Drivers disappointed that the "RS" is more of an appearance and handling package should probably set their gaze instead on the upcoming Ford Fiesta ST, which looks to be a true B-segment hot hatch.

Tech specs
Model 2013 Chevrolet Sonic
Trim RS Manual
Power train 1.4L turbocharged, inline-4, 6-speed manual transmission, FWD
EPA fuel economy 27 city, 34 highway, 30 combined mpg
Observed fuel economy 25.4 mpg
Navigation optional BringGo navigation via smartphone app or OnStar turn-by-turn nav
Bluetooth phone support standard, Siri Eyes Free-compatible
Disc player none
MP3 player support standard analog 3.5mm auxiliary input, USB connection, Bluetooth audio streaming
Other digital audio SiriusXM satellite radio, Internet streaming via smartphone apps
Audio system 6 speakers
Driver aids none
Base price $20,185
Price as tested $20,995

What you'll pay

Pricing is currently unavailable.

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