By Driving.ca - There are days when the gap between my Baby Boomer generation and those of the Millennial crowd becomes a gulf. It's not as though I'm talking about truly important issues such as jobs with futures or affordable housing, but something as simple as what constitutes a good, inexpensive, fun-to-drive car.
The catalyst for my bewilderment is the suitably affordable ($17,845 to start, with a 1.8-litre four-cylinder engine and a five-speed manual transmission), sporty-looking Chevrolet Sonic RS. It's a nice, subcompact four-door hatchback, a body style that was very familiar to me when I was a 20-something. Chevy acknowledges that the Sonic brings new, younger customers to the brand, "almost 20 per cent of them younger than 35" and the Sonic is "one of Chevrolet's top vehicles for first-time new buyers."
All well and good, I have no beef with that statement. The subcompact segment, like most of the automobile side of things, is in a decline, thanks to the overwhelming popularity of crossovers and SUVs. And the Sonic is in tough competition with the likes of Hyundai's segment-leading Accent, plus the Honda Fit, Toyota Yaris, Kia Rio and Nissan Versa, not to mention a couple of others. It needs a hook to yank it out of the pack of also-rans and into the spotlight.
Now, being a gearhead, I thought maybe performance could be that hook; it worked for my group of scofflaw friends when I was just getting started in the work world. After all, the RS nomenclature (which used to stand for Rally Sport when used on early Camaros) could indicate something beyond the norm. And, to be fair, it's not like the Sonic is particularly deficient under the hood; the 138-horsepower turbocharged 1.4-litre four-cylinder (same engine as found in the larger Cruze) is as good as, if not better than, the Chevy's main competition. Still there are possibilities not being exploited here (more on this later).
But with the redesigned 2017 model, Chevrolet downplays the RS's potential sportiness, instead highlighting "big technologies" such as a new MyLink system with segment-exclusive Apple CarPlay and Android Auto compatibility, as well as 4G LTE with Wi-Fi hot spot and a seven-inch infotainment system designed to support the latest "connectivity technologies."
Sounds like a recipe for distracted riving to me. Put the phone down, kids, and have some fun with the car. Or is "connecting" what counts as excitement these days?
It's not as though the RS has an econo-car sadness to it. Au contraire, there's a distinct athletic vibe, accentuated by an aggressive stance from all four 17-inch wheels being pushed out at the corners. The RS package itself includes such dress-up items as front fog lamps, sporty rocker mouldings, rear spoiler, RS lettering, piano black accented instrument panel, flat-bottom three-spoke leather-wrapped steering wheel with contrasting stitching, and carpeted front and rear deluxe floor mats.
Then there are the car's overall changes for 2017, including the redesigned hood, front and rear fascia, and new projector-beam headlamps with LED daytime running lights. The tester's optional Arctic Blue Metallic paint doesn't hurt either. In short, if GM decided to turn the Sonic into a bit of a pocket rocket - like Ford did in creating the Fiesta ST - it already has something to work with.
Now, being a dedicated three-pedal guy, I'd start with a good manual box. But the higher level ($21,795) RS Premier trim (as opposed to the base LT) only comes with a six-speed automatic with manual shift ability - a pity, really. As a slushbox, the transmission is fine; as a manual it's second only to GM's skip-shift (first-to-fourth) performance tranny for annoyance. There are no paddle shifters or even a fore/aft motion of the gear lever to up- or downshift. Instead, GM uses a thumb-actuated toggle on the side of the lever to move through the gears - peachy if you're doing drag-race starts off the line, but completely unhelpful in a twisty road setting.
And zipping along back roads is clearly within the Sonic RS's purview. It comes with verve and little body roll; it might feel even faster in the turns if the front seats had just a teensy bit more bolstering to them. There's excellent weight to the steering and good communication with the road. On the other hand, the RS's ride is on the firm side; bumps, potholes, frost heaves and railway tracks are not to be toyed with. Considering the car's budget-based roots and its short wheelbase, this shouldn't come as a surprise.
As for the RS's as-tested sticker of $23,085, it would be well in reason to consider a move up to a larger compact-sized hatchback, such as the Honda Civic, Hyundai Elantra GT or Mazda3. However, while you would clearly gain more rear-seat legroom, such a move would likely be to a base or possibly mid-level model.
In Premier trim, the Sonic RS is quite comfortably equipped. Push-button start, remote keyless entry, air conditioning, heated front seats, power driver's seat, power sunroof, cruise control and more are all standard. On the safety side, stability and traction control systems are also part of the deal. Other than $495 for the bright blue paint job, the only option added was the $695 Driver Confidence package, which includes forward-collision alert, lane-departure warning and rear park assist.
To make more of a statement among the subcompact competition, the RS's 1.4-L Turbo would benefit from a power boost. It wouldn't have to be as extreme as the hot hatch Fiesta ST's astounding 197 hp; just an extra 15 to 20 ponies to match its superior handling dynamics. That's unlikely to happen - sigh! - but even as it sits now, the Sonic RS stands out as a genuinely fun and efficient ride, perky and sporty. If I were a budget-constrained Millennial in the market for my first new set of wheels, I'd take a long look at this one.