The newest Chevrolet Sonic is a peppy, stylish, versatile and good handling RS hatchback with standard turbo engine, leather-trimmed seats and smartphone infotainment link – all for a starting price tag of less $21,000.
Better yet, the 2013 Sonic 5-Door RS has the top, overall, five-out-of-five-stars rating for passenger protection in frontal and side crash testing, according to the federal government.
And the Sonic is a recommended buy of Consumer Reports magazine, where first-year owner reports put predicted reliability of Sonic models at average.
Don't confuse the 138-horsepower Sonic RS, which comes with a six-speed manual or six-speed automatic transmission and peak torque of 148 foot-pounds, with the more fuel-sipping versions of Sonic sedan and hatchback. Transmission gearing is different in the RS to get power to the front wheels quicker. With bigger wheels and more standard equipment, the RS also weighs more.
So the best RS fuel economy rating from the U.S. government of 27 miles per gallon in city driving and 34 mpg on the highway with manual transmission is a tad lower than that of other Sonics.
The test Sonic RS hatchback averaged 28 mpg in combined city/highway travel.
But the get-up-and-go of the sporty-looking, four-cylinder turbocharged RS hatchback quickly becomes appealing.
Retail price certainly can be appealing, too, when standard features are factored in.
Starting manufacturer's suggested retail price, including destination charge, of $20,995 for the 2013 RS five-door hatchback with 1.4-liter, double overhead cam, turbo four cylinder and six-speed manual transmission is $5,400 more than that for a base, 2013 Sonic LS hatchback with non-turbo four cylinder with 125 foot-pounds of torque and five-speed manual.
But the RS standard equipment includes 17-inch, five-spoke, aluminum wheels, rear brake discs and the leather-trimmed, front bucket seats that have suede-like microfiber inserts and stitched "RS" on them and look like those in a sports car. There's a leather-wrapped, sport steering wheel, premium floor mats with RS emblems on them and premium audio with six speakers.
And the RS comes standard with Chevrolet's MyLink infotainment system that is compatible with smartphones for use of Pandora and Stitcher Internet radio as well as the low-cost BringGo smartphone navigation system.
Competitors in the small hatchback category include the 2013 Hyundai Elantra GT which has a starting MSRP, including destination charge, of $19,340. The Elantra GT has a 148-horsepower, naturally aspirated four cylinder with peak torque of 131 foot-pounds at 4,700 rpm and leather-trimmed seats come with a $2,750 option package.
Meantime, the 2013 Ford Fiesta five-door hatchback with 120-horsepower, naturally aspirated four cylinder has a starting retail price of $19,995 with cloth seats.
The Sonic is the "middle child" of Chevrolet's three smallest cars – Spark, Sonic and Cruze.
The Spark, however, is not a recommended buy of Consumer Reports, and the Cruze is offered only as a sedan with 15 cubic feet of trunk space.
This compares with 19 cubic feet behind the Sonic RS rear seats and the 47.7 cubic feet of cargo room when the Sonic hatchback's rear seats are folded down. These seats split 60/40 for different types of people- and cargo-hauling tasks.
The five-passenger Sonic five-door RS uses the same turbocharged four-cylinder engine that the Cruze has.
Starting retail price, including destination charge, for a 2013 Cruze sedan with this turbo four cylinder is $19,370 and does not include the large wheels and leather seat trim that are on the Sonic RS.
In the test Sonic RS five door, this powerplant gave strong "oomph" to slow-speed start ups, after a bit of turbo lag. The engine sounds were mostly pleasant, save for when the RS was near its 6,500 rpm redline and the four cylinder was buzzing loudly
But the six-speed manual felt loose, not precise, in its movements and there was an overall notchy feel.
Thanks to a slightly lowered ride height, stiffened suspension and performance-tuned dampers, the RS tester was well-planted to the pavement and there was no overall tippy feeling. The ride wasn't punishing. Rather, the RS rode firmly, with many, but not all, road bumps muted beneath passengers.
Power steering is fuel-saving electric and had a lighter feel in the test car than expected.
The test Sonic RS surprised with its upscale interior materials and excellent fit and finish.
Seat adjustments were all manual, and once the driver's seat was properly positioned, there were decent views out front and to the side. Views out the back were somewhat blocked by the Sonic hatchback's rear window pillars, and there is no rearview camera offered as an option. But the Sonic's small size meant many motions at the back could be detected by an alert driver.
Front-seat passengers get a bit less headroom – 37.6 inches to 38.7 inches, depending on whether there's a sunroof – than the Fiesta and Elantra GT buyers have.
Interestingly, back-seat riders in the Sonic RS get a full 38.1 inches as the Sonic roofline doesn't slope down until aft of the back-seat passengers' heads. This is more than the 37.2 inches in the Fiesta back seat and the 37.9 inches in the back of the Elantra GT.
Legroom of 41.8 inches in the Sonic hatchback front seats is generous but still a tad less than the 42.2 inches in the front seats of the Fiesta and 42 inches in the Elantra GT. Rear-seat legroom of 34.6 inches is equal to that of the Elantra GT and better than the 31.2 inches in the back of the Fiesta.
The Sonic RS comes with an impressive 10 standard air bags plus electronic stability control and antilock brakes.
Last September, the 2013 Sonic was the subject of a safety recall because an electronic component might not alert drivers when a turn signal stopped working.