With the introduction of the 2012 Sonic, Chevrolet looked to banish the memory of the Aveo and get buyers to see the bowtie brand as more youthful. In a move that was easily anticipated, Chevrolet is now furthering that effort with the Sonic RS.
Previewed in near-production guise as at this year's Detroit auto show, the RS is more than a sporty trim kit. The RS receives a slightly retuned suspension, more aggressively geared transmissions, and a raft of aesthetic changes. In the Sonic's model hierarchy, the top-of-the-line RS sits above the LTZ, a car that already comes with such niceties as heated front seats, a tilting/telescoping steering column, and Bluetooth.
Aiming for enthusiasts
Chevrolet is hoping to lure buyers who are looking at larger hot-hatch offerings like the Volkswagen GTI but don't want to shell out $24,765 or more. We think that those hopes may be a bit of a longshot, but at least Chevy has targeted one of the best cars on the market.
Does the Sonic RS drive like a cut-rate GTI? No, not really. For one thing, it's down on power compared to the GTI's 200-hp 2.0-liter turbo-four. The Sonic RS uses the same turbocharged, 1.4-liter I-4 that's available elsewhere in the Sonic range. It's rated at 138 hp and 148 lb-ft of torque in all applications, and achieves the same fuel economy here as in the Sonic LTZ: 29/40 mpg city/highway with the six-speed manual or 27/31 mpg with the six-speed automatic.
Our drive a pre-production 2013 Sonic RS was limited to one equipped with the six-speed manual transmission, and we found that the slightly more aggressive ratios do help get the most from the 1.4-liter. We fell in love with the Sonic's chassis; it surprised us in its ability to scoot through an autocross without suffering the torque steer that can afflict turbocharged front-wheel-drive cars.
For the Sonic RS, Chevrolet has stiffened the suspension, lowered the ride height by 10 millimeters, and carried over the same P205/50R17 all-season tires from the LTZ, although they are now wrapped around sportier-looking 17-inch, five-spoke, gunmetal-grey alloy wheels. The suspension upgrades, however, do little to help tame body roll or improve in-corner performance, although the revised setup does lend a feeling of urban zippiness, inspiring confidence to make quick low-speed lane changes. However, the formerly compliant highway ride has become choppy bordering on harsh, due to the stiffer springs combined with the short wheelbase. And the fact that the Sonic RS still wallows through turns means that Chevrolet has a bit more work to do in the tuning department for the RS.
One improvement that the Sonic RS does net is heavier and more direct-feeling steering. Chevrolet says that it only slightly changed the calibration of the electric power steering, but the over-assisted feeling of other models has subsided. Although better weighted, the steering is still rather artificial, a common complaint with electric power assisted systems. The RS also uses a flat-bottomed wheel wrapped in leather and sueded microfiber.
The top-of-the-line model also gets rear disc brakes in place of the other models' rear drums. Chevrolet says that they only marginally improve braking performance; they're really there for appearance. As in other Sonics, pedal feel is a bit vague but the 10.9-inch vented front and 10.6-inch rear discs never feel overwhelmed.
More show than go
It will be easy to pick out the 2013 Sonic RS from lesser models thanks to a raft of cosmetic enhancements differentiating the sportiest Sonic. Most notable is the revised lower front fascia with its oversized fog lights and gaping faux intakes; the giant, split hexagonal grille carries over, but has a new honeycomb pattern. Chevrolet has also added rocker panel extensions, a larger rear spoiler, a new rear diffuser, and a trapezoidal exhaust tip. That new exhaust tip looks great, but, sadly, is for show only; however, there is plenty of audible turbo whine from the 1.4-liter under moderate-to-heavy throttle. The body kit combined with the five-spoke alloys give the Sonic RS a more menacing look; all it's missing are the sinister red headlight rings from the Sonic Z-Spec Hatch 2 Concept seen at this year's Chicago auto show. (No word on if Chevy will offer them as a later add-on.)
The cabin has seen a number of subtle upgrades as well. The shifter for the six-speed manual is trimmed in the same sueded microfiber as the steering wheel, as are the bolsters on the upgraded sport seats. Piano black trim replaces the silver-painted plastic that adorns the cabin of other Sonics. Chevy's new touchscreen MyLink infotainment system is also standard on the Sonic RS; the system has been designed specifically for the Sonic and Spark, and incorporates things like iPhone-based navigation, Bluetooth audio streaming, and Pandora integration, but it eschews the now old-tech CD player. (If there was any question that Chevrolet is marketing to millennial buyers, here's your answer.)
Production of the 2013 Sonic RS begins later this year, with the first models rolling into dealerships this winter. Just four colors will be offered on the hatchback-only Sonic: victory red, summit white, new-for-2013 black granite metallic, and the RS-exclusive cyber grey metallic. Pricing has yet to be announced, but Chevrolet told us to think of the car as a "Sonic LTZ-plus" -- and an LTZ with the turbo four starts at $18,860, including destination, and tops out around $21,600. The new RS takes what was already a very good package and made it even better -- but Volkswagen doesn't really have anything to worry about just yet.
2013 Chevrolet Sonic RS
On Sale: Winter 2012
MSRP (with destination): $22,000 (est.)
1.4-liter turbocharged DOHC I-4
Horsepower (hp): 138 @ 4900 rpm
Torque (lb-ft): 148 @ 2500 rpm
6-speed manual or automatic
WHEELS AND TIRES:
17-inch five-spoke aluminum wheels P205/50R17 all-season tires
FUEL ECONOMY (city/highway/combined): 29/40/33 mpg
CURB WEIGHT: 2811 lb
Cargo (rear seats up/down): 19.0/47.7 cu ft
Legroom (front/rear): 41.8/34.6 in
Headroom (front/rear): 38.7/38.1 in