Among the best of its class, the Chevrolet Sonic is a newly designed subcompact built in the U.S. on a new General Motors global platform that offers refinement and sporty handling. Sonic comes in four-door sedan and five-door hatchback versions and offers a choice of four-cylinder engines.
Launched as a 2012 model, Sonic comes in LS, LT, and LTZ models. For 2013, a sporty Sonic RS model joins the lineup while the rest of the 2013 Sonic lineup benefits from technology upgrades and additional features.
The 2013 Chevrolet Sonic RS offers sportier handling and performance. Sonic RS comes with the top-of-the-line 1.4-liter turbocharged engine along with a sports suspension, four-wheel disc brakes, 17-inch alloy wheels, leather seating surfaces and special exterior and interior trim. Unique gear ratios for the 6-speed manual and a unique final drive ratio for the automatic give the Sonic RS more responsive acceleration at the price of fuel economy. Sonic RS is only available as a hatch.
The Chevrolet Sonic comes standard with a 1.8-liter engine rated at 26/35 miles per gallon City/Highway. The 1.8-liter delivers 138 horsepower at 6300 rpm and 125 pound-feet of torque at 3800 rpm. Those numbers are worth noting in comparisons with the optional turbocharged engine. We found the 1.8-liter engine offers sprightly performance and a wide powerband. For 2013, Sonic offers a PZEV (partial zero emissions vehicle) version of the 1.8-liter engine.
The optional 1.4-liter turbocharged engine is both more powerful and more fuel-efficient, however. The 1.4-liter turbo delivers 138 horsepower at 4900 rpm and puts out 148 pound-feet of torque that starts at way down at 1850 rpm and extends through 4900 rpm. Fuel economy is 29/40 mpg City/Highway with the standard 6-speed manual gearbox. Note that the turbocharged engine develops its horsepower at lower revs than does the 1.8-liter engine. Drivers find the Sonic zippier and more fun to drive with the 1.4-liter turbo, and they spend less money on gas. So we think the turbo is worth the extra money.
The 1.8-liter engine is available with a 5-speed manual or 6-speed automatic; the 1.4-liter turbo is available with a 6-speed manual or the 6-speed automatic. Sonic comes standard with a hill-hold feature on both transmissions, especially welcome on the manual gearbox on hilly terrain. When the driver is stopped and releases the brake pedal, the brakes electronically hold the car in place for two seconds, thanks to a sensor that detects the tilt of the body.
Newly designed, the Sonic looks fresh and new. The Sonic has an urban vibe, particularly the five-door hatch. Sharp creases, exposed headlamps and motorcycle-inspired design cues set it apart from other compacts, while good fit and finish and available forged alloy wheels keep it from looking cheap.
Sonic comes standard with 10 airbags, including seat-mounted thorax side-impact, head curtain and knee airbags. Other nice touches not often found standard on a sub-$15,000 car include a tilt-and-telescoping steering wheel and 60/40 folding rear seats.
We found the Sonic's handling to be good in general, not just for a low-priced subcompact. The body structure is quite stiff, which aids both handling and ride comfort. Corvette engineers helped tune the MacPherson strut front and torsion beam rear suspension for the U.S. market to strike a balance between fun and comfort. All but the RS model use front disc brakes and rear drums, the latter the norm for the class because they are less expensive than rear discs.
The interior is comparable for the class. While most of the interior materials are hard plastic, that's expected at these prices. Fit and finish in the Sonic is better than most, but some materials such as the headliner appear low grade. Chevrolet includes a new MyLink infotainment system with the 2013 Sonic LTZ and RS. Chevrolet MyLink features a seven-inch color screen with Bluetooth streaming audio. Access to apps is available. A MyLink navigation app called BringGo promises navigation for just 50 bucks.
2013 Sonic models get many minor upgrades, including revised OnStar buttons, blind-spot mirrors, an available six-speaker premium audio system, and upgrades to many options.
We think the Chevrolet Sonic has an edge over the Toyota Yaris, Nissan Versa, and Honda Fit when it comes to sportiness and refinement, though the Ford Fiesta and Mazda2 offer similar strengths at similar prices.
Although it's made in America, the 2013 Chevrolet Sonic was sketched and modeled in Korea by designers who are avid motorcycle enthusiasts. As such, the Sonic contains many design cues borrowed from two wheelers.
The five-door hatchback model has a younger, more aggressive, boxy shape with hidden rear door handles and exposed rear taillights. The four-door sedan's profile, meanwhile, is sleeker and more refined.
On both body styles, the Sonic uses round, exposed headlamps, chrome trim around Chevy's trademark dual-port grille and honeycomb-shaped grille inserts. Steel wheels with wheel covers are new this year on the base model, and they result in a cheaper look. Alloy wheels are available in 15, 16 or 17-inch diameters, and they look far more sophisticated.
Large gaps between body panels were one tell-tale sign of cheap cars of the past. But the Chevrolet Sonic manages to pare down body gaps to 3.5 millimeters or less. Also, a special welding technique was used to make for a cleaner, more flush fit.
The Sonic RS model gets several tell-tale exterior cues. The ride height that has been lowered 10 millimeters and satin-finish aluminum wheels give it a sportier stance. The lower front fascia is also more aggressive and the lower portion of the grille appears to be more open. In addition, the lower rocker moldings and rear fascia are more aggressive, the exhaust outlets are bright, and the rear spoiler features a center dip that suggests a dual-cockpit design.
The cabin of the Chevrolet Sonic carries over the motorcycle-inspired design with a large, round tachometer front and center. A large LCD speedometer to the right of the tach glows a pleasant blue color and is easy to read, though the red dial glows too brightly at night.
Audio and climate controls are simple, logical and easy to read and reach. The tall, narrow slots on either side of the center stack add extra storage, but they look out of place.
The cloth seats are comfortable and easily adjustable. We especially like the tilt-and-telescoping steering wheel, which is often tough to get as standard equipment on more luxurious cars. Dash and trim materials are mostly plastics, but that's expected in this class, and the plastics are substantial, fit together well, and feature well-executed colors and textures.
The Sonic RS has some sporty touches. You expect to find a flat-bottom steering wheel in an Audi TT, not an entry-level Chevy. The aluminum pedals are cool, as so is the red contrast stitching in the seats and shifter. The synthetic seat inserts also add a bit more grip to keep you in place during aggressive maneuvers.
In the rear, there is enough headroom and legroom, even for adults to fit behind adults. Most subcompact cars have tighter rear seats.
Cargo space comes in at an average 14 cubic-feet for the sedan and a decent 19 cubic feet for the hatchback. A shelf in the rear of the hatch stows away to make room for tall items and is completely removable for more space. Fold down the 60/40 rear seats, and cargo space expands to 30.7 cubic feet. That's small for a hatchback, but quite useful.
For 2013, Chevrolet is adding its new MyLink Color Touch radio to the Sonic. It offers the connectivity that young buyers desire. It consists of a 7-inch touchscreen that links with your smartphone to provide access to apps, pictures and movies (when stopped). Available apps include Pandora and Stitcher internet radio, as well as a new navigation app called BringGo. BringGo costs $50 and offers such functionality as point of interest search, Google local search, and real-time traffic information.
We tried BringGo in Chicago and found that it worked quite well. It requires a cell phone signal to work, but a full navigation system for $50? Sounds great. Kudos to Chevy for bringing this type of connectivity into such an affordable car.
The Chevrolet Sonic delivers spritely acceleration performance with the standard 1.8-liter engine. Power from the 1.8-liter engine is sufficient off the line, but we found throttle tip-in to be overly sensitive and that made for jumpy standing starts until we got used to it.
We sometimes had trouble choosing the right gear over hills and through windy roads. With the automatic, we needed to manually shift to get the optimum power. With the manual, second gear seemed too short yet third was much too tall. This suggests torque from the 1.8-liter engine might not be sufficiently broad and robust for the gear ratios. In short, more power would be useful for motoring around town.
We found the 1.4-liter turbo models in the LT and LTZ to be a tad zippier, smoother, and quieter. There isn't much low-rpm response, so downshifting is required for good acceleration. Merge from the on-ramp onto the freeway in third gear and you'll be wishing for more power to get up to speed.
The shorter gear ratios in the Sonic RS make it feel noticeably stronger at low speeds. The 0 to 60 mph time is about the same at about 8.4 seconds, but that's because you'll need to grab an extra gear to get to 60. It may not be much, but we like the extra zip of the RS.
When it comes to handling, the Sonic is accomplished for the price. The steering is surprisingly responsive and offers decent road feel. The car's strong body structure and well-tuned suspension make it agile and composed. Throw the car into a cloverleaf on-ramp and it will maintain its line and rotate the way you want it to. Most other cars in this class will push forward instead of rotating, the front tires washing out, reducing cornering speed. We like to think of the Sonic hatchback as the poor man's VW GTI.
The Sonic RS is even sportier. The lower ride height and stiffer suspension make the handling a bit more crisp without becoming harsh or high strung.
Ride quality is comfortable, a nice balance with handling. The suspension is sufficiently compliant to handle bumps and railroad tracks, yet still firm enough to attack corners with minimal body roll.
Braking is responsive. The brake pedal is not as progressive as we would like, however. There's pedal travel then the brakes bite. They are perfectly safe but they're more difficult to modulate for smooth driving and this takes some of the joy out of the driving experience. The Sonic RS, which has four-wheel discs instead of rear drums, feels a bit more progressive.
Fuel economy for the Chevrolet Sonic regardless of body style is an EPA estimated 26/35 mpg City/Highway with the 1.8-liter engine and 5-speed manual transmission, 25/35 mpg with the automatic. The 1.4 turbo is rated at 29/40 mpg with the manual and 27/37 mpg with the automatic. The RS's shorter gearing costs it significant mileage: Sonic RS is EPA-rated at 27/34 mpg with the 6-speed manual, 25/33 mpg with 6-speed automatic. Regular gasoline is recommended for all models, so there's no need to pay more for Premium.
The 2013 Chevrolet Sonic is a peppy, well-executed subcompact car with lots of standard features and surprisingly good performance at a reasonable price. It offers levels of sportiness and refinement that are uncommon in this class. It's quickly become our favorite subcompact.
Laura Burstein filed this NewCarTestDrive.com report after her test drive of the Chevrolet Sonic in San Francisco. Kirk Bell contributed from Chicago.