Is the Chevy Sonic RS Turbo the Best Inexpensive Find of 2016?

wheel-to-wheel new car reviews

The 2017 Chevy Sonic features a restyled fascia and more aggressive lighting | Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

The 2017 Chevy Sonic features a restyled fascia and more aggressive lighting | Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

When Sonic the Hedgehog 2 first landed on the Sega Genesis back in 1992, it was a game changer for the Japanese video game powerhouse, which had been desperately looking for a way to appeal to Nintendo’s Super Mario Bros. fanbase. With his signature high speed “spin dash” move on tap, vibrant graphics at the ready, and Tails the fox along for the ride, the surefooted hedgehog powered his way onto millions of television screens, and into the annals of history as one of the most iconic video game characters to date.

Decades later, when General Motors announced that it would be releasing a subcompact with a turbo, a six-speed manual gearbox, and the same nameplate as our spiky blue superhero, we were skeptical as to whether it would live up to its name. Despite the help of an Ecotec engine, power figures were pint-sized, and even with RS aero upgrades, it doesn’t look exceptionally sporty.

The rear seat of the Chevy Sonic is a far more spacious than it looks from the outside | Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

The rear seat of the Chevy Sonic is a far more spacious than it looks from the outside | Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

But the Chevy Sonic has continued to sell due to value and reliability. Five-door LT RS models start off at just $17,580, and top out at just a hair over $20,000 with the addition of a more potent turbo engine and some convenient extras. This transforms the subcompact into a small, snappy, and surprisingly safe take on what an economy car can be, and with just the right amount of throttle mashing and well-timed shifts, it’s a far more fun car to drive than one might assume.

We’re suckers for a good stick-shift over here at The Cheat Sheet, and after rowing my own in the turbocharged Sonic RS, I found that this is a car that doesn’t just feel like it wants to be driven hard, but demands it. We like to praise and call out inexpensive automobiles for their ability to surprise and inspire; last year it was the turbocharged, six-speed Jeep Renegade that took home the title belt, and this year, there’s a real contender in the little Chevy Sonic. The 2017 RS is certainly among our best inexpensive finds of 2016.

Exterior

LED daytime running lights (DRLs) and heated mirrors are just a few of the features on this smart Chevy subcompact | Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

LED daytime running lights (DRLs) and heated mirrors are just a few of the features on this smart Chevy subcompact | Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

For 2017 Chevy’s Sonic gets a “new, expressive look” that includes a restyled front fascia, lighting components with standard projectors and available LED running lights, three different wheel sizes and designs, and four fresh exterior colors. It also gets some re-sculpted rear tail lamps that look light-years better than the old ones, with the oversized trapezoidal exhaust port on the driver’s side adding to the hatchback’s presence. It may not be as sharp-looking as the Civic hatch, or as sophisticated as the Golf, but it certainly is a step in the right direction for the badge.

Performance exhaust tip, alloy wheels, and an aero kit make the Sonic Turbo RS look sporty | Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

Performance exhaust tip, alloy wheels, and an aero kit help make the Sonic Turbo RS look sporty | Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

Exterior pros and cons

+ Re-sculpted nose and tail look way better than the last generation, with a sporty RS body kit, larger 16-inch alloys, rear spoiler, and enlarged trapezoidal exhaust.

+ Lighting touches like the LED running lights, restyled rear lenses, and projector lamps make a nice showing day or night. 

+ Practical points like keyless entry on all four doors, heated, power-adjusting mirrors, and fog lamps win points. 

– There’s still room to make the RS even sportier, and we’d personally take ours in Orange Burst Metallic with those sultry 17-inch rollers.

– Skinny 16-inch wheels and hard, H-rated Hankook tires are designed for fuel economy improvements, not traction. Wheel spin in wet or dry conditions was a common occurrence.

– Drum brakes limit aftermarket performance upgrade options and don’t speak to the sporty character of the RS.

Turbocharged and equipped with a sharp six-speed manual gearbox, the Sonic RS is a surprisingly fun car to drive | Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

Turbocharged and equipped with a sharp six-speed manual gearbox, the Sonic RS is a surprisingly fun car to drive | Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

Powertrain

By ditching the 1.8-liter naturally-aspirated engine for the snarky $750 1.4-liter turbo upgrade and surprisingly direct six-speed manual gearbox, drivers get a machine that is far more feisty than its appearance alludes. Like Sonic the Hedgehog, it’s compact, powerful, and often needs some time in order to get its “spin dash” up to speed. Once engaged, the drive feels focused and plucky. Boost builds rapidly outside of first gear and the transmission tightly tags each gear and holds revs up above 4,000 RPM for high speed cruising, and while this subcompact may not feature massive power numbers, it delivers a rewarding and easy-to-use drive experience.

Turbocharged and equipped with a sharp six-speed manual gearbox, the Sonic RS is a surprisingly fun car to drive | Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

Turbocharged and equipped with a sharp six-speed manual gearbox, the Sonic RS is a surprisingly fun car to drive | Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

Powertrain pros and cons

+ The six-speed manual gearbox is perfectly calibrated and helps the Sonic get 28/38 MPG ratings from the EPA. 

+ The Austrian-built, 1.4-liter turbo engine upgrade is totally worth the $750 fee, and holds boost nicely on the interstate. 

+ It takes regular pump gas like a champ, the 12.2-gallon tank costs pennies to fill-up, and front-wheel drive configuration features active stability assist and traction controls.

– 138 horsepower and 125 foot-pounds of torque don’t compare to the numbers offered by the Ford Fiesta ST, and for as good as the Chevy powertrain is, we would love to see it turned up a notch or two.

– Turbo lag is a drag, which hurts acceleration off the line even with some extra revving.

The interior of the RS version in particular gets a lot of unique touches that are all desirable | Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

The interior of the RS in particular gets a lot of unique touches that are all desirable | Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

Interior

The Sonic’s interior updates for 2017 include a new gauge cluster, a segment-first available power driver’s seat, optional heated cloth seats and steering wheel, and a 7-inch diagonal touchscreen, with RS models receiving exclusive additions. Our LT-trimmed RS Turbo came with logo emblazoned floor mats, piano black touches, an RS-badged D-cut steering wheel, and some sharply accented red seat inserts. It may not be the most practical or plush cabin on the market today, but it is purpose-built and has some nice touches that elevate it above econo-car status.

Rear storage space in the Chevy Sonic is adjustable and more plentiful than the Ford Fiesta | Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

Rear storage space in the Chevy Sonic is adjustable and more plentiful than the Ford Fiesta | Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

Interior pros and cons

+ RS models get stitched mats, exclusive red seats, a leather shift boot with a weighty knob, and a D-cut leather steering wheel. 

+ Push-button start, auto roll-down on all four windows, heated seats and steering wheel, dual stacked glove boxes, large cupholders in door inserts, a multi-layered stow space, and a button in the center console that unlocks all five doors all add substantial value.

+ Attractive silver and piano black touches, a dapper center stack, loads of headroom, six strong speakers, and more rear seat space and cargo capacity than the Fiesta win the Sonic points.

– At the end of the day, it’s still a cheap car; that means lots of cheap hard plastics. Also, no LED interior lights, sunglasses holder, rear seat armrest, or even a center console.

– Seats are a bit under-padded, rear bench position is almost completely upright, and traction control button sits near center cupholders making it easy to accidentally switch off.

– Small potatoes, but the volume knob felt weirdly small. Is that just us? Anyone else? Bueller?

An available 7-inch diagonal touchscreen adds features and a colorful center stack focal point | Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

An available 7-inch diagonal touchscreen adds features and a colorful center stack focal point | Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

Tech and safety

It may not be a surplus for tech and autonomous safety, but economical subcompacts aren’t typically designed to be the centerpiece for technological advancements either. However, the Sonic delivers yet again, offering Apple CarPlay and Android Auto compatibility, 4G Wi-Fi hotspots, an informative digital driver display, and a loaded 7-inch infotainment touchscreen. For those wanting additional peace of mind, an available Driver Confidence Package offers forward collision warnings, lane departure alerts, and parking assistance.

A redesigned driver gauge cluster features a digital read-out for tracking vehicle statistics | Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

A redesigned driver gauge cluster features a digital read-out for tracking vehicle statistics | Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

Tech pros and cons

+ New driver display is both useful and easy to navigate, and the 7-inch touchscreen is responsive and vibrant.

+ Two USB ports up front with projection capabilities, five years of OnStar services, 4G Wi-Fi connectivity, Bluetooth, and Apple CarPlay and Android Auto connectivity.

+ Five star overall crash rating from the NHTSA, 10 airbags, crystal clear back-up camera, and an available Driver Confidence Package make safety a priority. 

– New digital driver display already looks dated and doesn’t have the same kind of allure compared to other setups.

Driving the Chevy Sonic RS with a turbo and a manual gearbox provides a rewarding experience | Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

Driving the Chevy Sonic RS with a turbo and a manual gearbox provides a rewarding experience | Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

The drive

Driving the Sonic RS proved to be very rewarding, and a lot of that has to do with its sturdy little six-speed manual gearbox. While the Hydra-Matic automatic will be the more popular transmission with buyers, we feel that in this car, a stick-shift is the only way to go based purely on the fact that the manual has been calibrated so damn well. The clutch pedal is weighted just right for daily driving, bite points are easy to locate, throws are surprisingly short and crisp, and the shifter assembly itself feels fantastic.

The boosted 1.4-liter four-banger really likes higher revs too, and while there is some turbo lag down low, second gear and up is spirited, with this combo offering the most fun in high fourth gear. It may only have 138 horsepower and 125 pound-feet of torque, but in a car that weighs a tad under a ton and a half it doesn’t take much to accelerate. Cruising and daily-driving purposes are also surprisingly agreeable, as the manual remains forgiving in stop-and-go traffic and the engine offers a quiet ride with mild exhaust notes.

Powertrain performance aside, this sensational little subcompact steers with crisp purpose, and the brakes are both snug and balanced front-to-rear without being overly sensitive. The offset MacPherson front and semi-independent rear suspension are tight but not jarring, and while both body roll and nose dive are noticeable, the RS offers a more composed and flatter driving experience than one might expect.

It may be slight in stature, but this little subcompact brings plenty of practicality and driver enjoyment | Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

It may be slight in stature, but this little subcompact brings plenty of practicality and driver enjoyment | Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

Wrap up and review

While the Chevy Sonic doesn’t have the interior bag of tricks that the Honda Fit does or the super-low sticker price of the Toyota iA, outside of the Fiesta ST, the RS version stomps the subcompact segment when it comes to performance. This really is a fantastic little car for fans of fun drivability and small footprints, and with its armada of standard features and inexpensive add-ons, subcompact shoppers would be foolish not to take an RS model out for a quick spin.

Though it doesn’t have the kind of styling that drives us to say “damn, that’s a sporty little hatchback,” it isn’t as bland as many other competitors in the segment. Chevrolet has done a lot of the right things with this 2017 update, both inside and out, and we feel that by the time the next refresh comes about, the Sonic will be impossible to ignore.

The Sonic RS slides right behind the Honda Civic Sport hatchback with a strong showing for our vote for best inexpensive turbocharged hatchback of 2016. We can foresee that with a more aggressive engine and some fresh styling updates down the line, this car has the foundation to upset the mighty Fiesta ST. As long as sales remain strong, it’s only going to get better.