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

It's not a very fast car, but with the 2013 Sonic RS, Chevrolet is betting that young drivers are more interested in hot apps than hot laps.

Antuan Goodwin Reviews Editor / Cars
Antuan Goodwin gained his automotive knowledge the old fashioned way, by turning wrenches in a driveway and picking up speeding tickets. From drivetrain tech and electrification to car audio installs and cabin tech, if it's on wheels, Antuan is knowledgeable.
Expertise Reviewing cars and car technology since 2008 focusing on electrification, driver assistance and infotainment Credentials
  • North American Car, Truck and SUV of the Year (NACTOY) Awards Juror
Antuan Goodwin
10 min read

The Chevrolet Sonic is a simple car. For a reasonable price, you get four seats and a hatchback, a reasonably powered engine, and a pretty good infotainment setup. On paper, there's not much to go wrong or terribly right either with this followup to the frankly dull Aveo hatchback with which we're familiar.


2013 Chevrolet Sonic RS

The Good

The standard MyLink infotainment system in the <b>2013 Chevrolet Sonic RS</b> offers a good array of digital audio sources and smartphone app integration. The RS' chassis and suspension are responsive, while the turbocharged engine supplies pretty good power.

The Bad

The six-speed manual transmission almost spoils the fun with its vagueness and oddly spaced gearing. Fuel economy is down from last year. We'd like a premium audio option and a volume knob.

The Bottom Line

The 2013 Chevrolet Sonic RS may not be a true hot hatchback, but it brings good, forward-thinking tech and great value to the B-segment.

Between you and me (and the rest of the Internet), I'm a huge fan of B-segment vehicles. There's something about the low entry cost, the cleverness of the packaging, and the potential for low-speed thrills that I just get. I'm more of a "drive a slow car fast" kind of guy.

As they say, the devil's in the details. Look more closely at our 2013 Chevrolet Sonic RS and you'll find a number of interesting gems: That reasonably powered engine is force-fed via a turbocharger. The hatchback design sits atop a sporty suspension. And the pretty-good infotainment system is remarkably cutting-edge in its own way, having more in common with an Android tablet or iPad Mini than your average dashboard stereo.

No one listens to CDs anymore
The Chevy Sonic is an interesting intersection of low-tech cost savings and high-tech thinking. Depending on the trim level and options chosen, the Sonic can be had with manual, crank windows and a 7-inch touch-screen infotainment system. This example would also be powered by GM's OnStar telematics system, which would let you unlock your doors from anywhere in the world, but you wouldn't be able to lower the rear windows from the driver's seat. How quaint.

Fortunately, the RS model that showed up in the garage has a fairly decent set amenities. We've got power windows, heated RS-style seats with leatherette trim, and cruise control -- features that most of you likely take for granted in a modern car.

MyLink by Chevrolet
The MyLink infotainment interface system reminds us of the Zune HD portable media player. We rather liked the Zune. James Martin/CNET

The infotainment system that is optional on the Sonic, but standard at our RS trim level, is the third infotainment system to use the MyLink name that we've tested this year. (The 2014 Cruze and Impala models that we tested use different software.)

The system is built around a 7-inch touch screen in the dashboard upon which you'll find a homescreen that isn't so much reminiscent of Microsoft's Zune interface as it looks exactly like it. The homescreen is dominated by large, thin sans-serif text indicating the different sections of the interface, such as audio sources, apps, and phone functions.

The available audio sources that feed the MyLink system and the Sonic's six-speaker stereo system include Bluetooth for audio and hands-free calling, AM/FM radio, SiriusXM satellite radio, and USB connectivity for MP3, WMA, and AAC playback and iPod interface. You can also view images and playback video from USB storage when the vehicle is parked. Supported video formats and extensions include AVI, MPG, MP4, DivX, XVID, and WMV.

You may or may not have noticed that CD playback is missing from the list of audio sources. That's because the Sonic's MyLink system doesn't have an optical disc drive. Chevy reckons that its younger target audience is more likely to carry music digitally, rather than on physical media. Welcome to the future.

With the exception of the climate control system, which involves a trio of knobs, the entire system is touch-controlled. There are capacitive keys beneath the screen for volume keys, home menu, and a power button that visually echo those that you'd see at the base of a tablet or smartphone. It's cool, but I'm not a fan. You can take away my CD player, but bring back the proper volume knob. I'd rather be able to quickly lower the volume with a flick of the wrist when needed, rather than being stuck tapping a downward-pointing arrow for seconds at a time.

MyLink with Pandora
There's no CD slot, so you'd better bring along a USB drive or smartphone loaded with music. James Martin/CNET

One of the most interesting tricks that this version of MyLink boasts is heavy integration with the apps installed on your smartphone. With no extra software needed, as long as your phone is connected to the car you can use MyLink to take command of Pandora, Stitcher, TuneIn, and BringGo.

Most of you will no doubt be familiar with the first three apps in that list: Pandora offers streaming Internet radio with custom-generated stations based on artists and songs that you like. MyLink gives you access to those stations to play through the car speakers and you can fine-tune the song choice on the touch screen by rating songs with a thumbs-up or thumbs-down. Stitcher is a podcast streaming app that MyLink is capable of tapping into to bring you your favorite serial content, while TuneIn streams local radio stations from around the world via your phone's data connection.

BringGo is probably a new name to most of you. This app supplies turn-by-turn navigation using your phone to store map and destination data and to do the heavy lifting of processing routes and traffic. We've already taken a deep dive into the BringGo app and found it to be serviceable for getting from points alpha to bravo, but its confusing interface kept us from recommending this $50-to-$60 app. That it can mirror its map and menu interface onto the MyLink touch screen and use the audio system for spoken turn-by-turn directions does place this app in the unique position of being the least expensive in-dash navigation option that I've ever tested. Inexpensive as it may be, the BringGo app frustrated me during my testing and I'd like more navigation app choices.

Four apps supported is nowhere near the number of apps that, say, Ford Sync AppLink offers, but there's plenty of space for growth on that app selection screen when more app partnerships are eventually added.

I did the bulk of my testing with an Android handset, but when paired with an Apple iPhone, the MyLink system gains one more very cool trick. Tapping the voice command button on the steering wheel activates the Siri assistant on the Apple device, so you can speak commands and requests to the software without looking at or touching the phone.

No matter the trim level, the Sonic comes equipped with GM's OnStar telematics system, which empowers the car with remote features such as door unlock, car finder, stolen vehicle recovery, and automatic 911 collision response. If you chose a model with an automatic transmission, you can add remote start to the list of features.

OnStar also gives the Sonic owner access to a service tier that includes turn-by-turn navigation. I hate to keep dissing BringGo, but I think I'd rather use OnStar for my directions, despite the fact that the telematics service will cost more over the long term than the app. Seriously consider this option during the six-month free trial of the service before rushing out and downloading the app.

Turbocharged engine
The standard Sonic is powered by an Ecotec 1.8-liter, four-cylinder engine that outputs 138 horsepower. Our hotted-up RS model is powered by an Ecotec 1.4-liter turbocharged four-banger that outputs, well, 138 horsepower. What gives?

Ecotec 1.4L Turbo
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
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
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


2013 Chevrolet Sonic RS

Score Breakdown

Cabin tech 7Performance tech 7Design 6


Trim levels RSAvailable Engine GasBody style Hatchback