I took the Sonic RS out to GingerMan Raceway, about 3 hours outside of Detroit, and it was decent road tripper, fun to drive and comfortable, but there are a few issues, some serious. But first, the good.
Gas mileage! Not the most exciting spec, but definitely important. I returned more than 30 mpg while cruising at a pretty good clip both there and back (think 10 over), and clocked more than 330 miles on the tank. It only holds about 11 gallons, so it was less than 30 bucks to fill up, and it takes regular gas, which is a bonus.
This Sonic RS is relatively lightweight, so the 1.4-liter turbo four feels quicker than expected, but not really fast. I found myself grabbing two gears on the expressway and three to pass on two laners. It seems to run out of breath up near the redline too.
The steering feel is sporty and quick, though the RS suspension feels too soft to do any real enthusiast work. Twice, once on purpose and once by accident, I was sweeping through a cloverleaf on the expressway and stabbed the brakes because traffic was backing up; it felt like the front outside tire bit hard, and almost sent the rear end around. I know that sounds crazy for a front-wheel drive hatch, but it happened. I tried to recreate it on the next cloverleaf and it happened again, though that time I was ready to countersteer just in case. This wasn’t a panic stop either, just a quick, hard stab. Scared me.
The bonus of the soft-ish suspension is the Sonic RS rides over bumps and potholes without upsetting the cabin. The noise penetrates, but on our crumbling roads, it doesn’t beat you up.
It feels spacious inside and there’s a ton of headroom. The back seats look a little tighter, but I didn’t spend any real time sitting back there. The rest of the interior is mostly rubber and plastic, inexpensive stuff, though I am glad Chevy swapped out the old seatbelt latch for something a little nicer feeling.
Overall though, for $20K no one can complain. I’ll say it again; this car is ten times better than anything we had as kids. It has a rearview camera, USB ports and basically anything else you actually need when bumping around town or further. This is a strong segment though. Both the Ford Fiesta and Honda Fit are also very good.
–Jake Lingeman, road test editor
The Sonic’s interior is plain, but it has everything might need, not want, but need.
I’m not sure what changes Chevy made to the Sonic, but they’re for the better — this car has gone from ‘meh’ to an honest top pick in the small hatch category. I drove it in what we’ll call “spirited” fashion — not skidpadding around freeway cloverleafs like Lingeman apparently enjoys doing — and have zero complaints about steering feel, suspension dynamics or engine power. My only wish is for a bit more feel in the clutch and accelerator pedal — it was hard to hit the sweet spot when leaving a light, often resulting in either a lurching launch or slipping/revving departure (I’ve been driving stick for 25 years, so it’s not just me).
Interior room and seat comfort is where the Sonic starts to edge over the Fiesta; I find myself sitting down deep in Ford hatches, with the dash looming toward the driver. The Sonic has great front seats, the cabin is open and airy by comparison and Chevrolet’s MyLink infotainment system impresses me with its ease of use every time I play with it.
My competitive set here skips the Fit and adds the formerly Scion (now Toyota) Corolla iM, another surprisingly good hatch. Consider too that the Fiesta ST can run circles around everyone and starts at about the same price as the Sonic LT/RS; a Focus SE with the 1-liter EcoBoost I-3 is both an outstanding driver and less expensive, plus it gets better gas mileage. You’ll have to work to find one, though.
Regardless, Chevrolet has made some really impressive updates to a formerly solid but uninspiring car — small hatch buyers who want to have some fun need to put the Sonic back on the list.
–Andrew Stoy, digital editor
It struck me as a little bit odd that I’ve never known anyone who has owned a Chevrolet Sonic, new or used, especially given the density of Detroit automaker loyalists in the Midwest. Then it occurred to me that, as a small car from a GM division, it sits in a sort of blind spot: Chevy makes good pickups, good sports cars and good SUVs, plus some okay crossovers. Who’s looking at their subcompacts?
Granted, it’s not in a unique position for a small car from a Detroit automaker. Ford has spent a long time fighting the perception that it only builds bigger vehicles, and it has found modest success with the Focus and the Fiesta — those vehicles can’t compete with the F-150 for volume, but they’re at least on buyers’ radar. Chrysler, for its part, isn’t even trying. (The creation of FCA brought us the Fiat 500, but still.)
So before Chevy can convince people to buy the Sonic, and the even-smaller Spark, it first has to remind them that they actually exist.
How? I dunno, that’s really not my problem. If they can just figure out how to get butts in seats, though, the Sonic should do a fairly decent job selling itself — it’s a good, solid little driver. It’s not going to make the Fiesta ST lose any sleep, but in RS trim with the six-speed manual, I managed to have fun without quite engaging in any Lingeman-like antics.
There are some neat ergonomic touches, too. The instrument cluster doesn’t boast full-color graphics or anything, but it does a great job of concentrating info in front of the driver; I seem to recall Chevy comparing it to a motorcycle setup when these came out, and that’s not inaccurate. Toss in Apple CarPlay/Android Auto to do what the fairly bare-bones infotainment system can’t, plus heated seats and keyless entry, and sell it for under $20,000 (if you ditch the optional paint) and it’s a good small-car value from a company you might have forgotten makes small cars.
–Graham Kozak, associate editor