Does Chevrolet's new super-Sonic deliver enough go for the dough?

What is it?
Since the arrival of modern subcompacts like the Honda Fit, Ford Fiesta and Mazda2, Canadian drivers have finally discovered something the Europeans have known for years: a small car can be big fun. All it takes is an eager engine and perky steering — mega horsepower not required.

Chevrolet added momentum to the small-car/big-fun movement a year ago when it replaced the awful Aveo with the vastly superior Sonic for 2012. Now the bow-tie has given it another push with the launch of the "performance-inspired" 2013 Sonic RS. Or has it?

What's new?
Perhaps we should start with what isn't new: the 1.4-litre turbocharged four is the same engine as in the more luxury-oriented Sonic LTZ, producing the same 138 horsepower and 148 lb.-ft. of torque. That said, the RS is more than just a cosmetic dress-up job. The available six-speed transmissions have quicker gear ratios, the suspension is lowered and stiffened, and four-wheel disc brakes are unique to the RS.

It also has its own design of 17-inch wheels (though the 205/50R17 tires are shared with the LTZ). Other RS-exclusive cues include the usual fascias/spoilers/rockers treatment and a bright exhaust tip. Interior identifiers include leather seating surfaces, a flat-bottom steering wheel and aluminum pedals.

Chevrolet's MyLink infocommutainment system is standard on the RS. Interfacing through a seven-inch colour touchscreen, MyLink, in Chevrolet's words, "uses owners' smartphones to personalize delivery of music, video, photo galleries, phone books and other information into the vehicle — including full-function navigation via an available smartphone app."

That's in addition to OnStar, which comes standard on all Sonics (a subscription is required after the first six months).

What's it like to drive?
Despite its quicker gearing the RS is still no pocket rocket. At the recent AJAC TestFest it achieved 0-100 km/h in 10 seconds flat. Out in the real world the RS feels faster than that — but not a lot faster. Although thrust builds linearly from low rpm, with no appreciable turbo lag, the engine has little enthusiasm for revs: it's straining and wheezing well before the 6,500-rpm red line.

The RS's revised ratios deliver 120-km/h at about 3,200 rpm in sixth gear — 900 rpm busier than in an LTZ. Yet you'll still need to drop down a cog or two to accomplish an assertive passing move (happily the manual shifter is light and smooth, if not quite a tactile delight). Although some examples of the 1.4T we've driven behind were better than others, the under-hood acoustics aren't exactly gearhead ear-candy.

We can't say we noticed a dramatic difference in handling with the RS package, but that's not the downer that it seems — the standard car is surprisingly good to begin with. Light-and-lively steering response combine with the Sonic's compact dimensions to deliver a pleasing blend of flick-flick agility and toss-it-around stability. And the (seemingly modest) chassis upgrades haven't appreciably compromised the Sonic's solid yet cushioned ride, or its sense of big-car substance.

At 40.1 metres from 100 to 0 km/h, the Sonic's braking flirts with the threshold that separates everyday cars and serious stoppers.

Should you buy one?
There are really two questions here: Should you buy any Sonic? And should you buy this version? The answer to question one is an easy yes. The Sonic is an all-around decent little car and a legitimate candidate for anybody's subcompact shopping dollar (unlike its dismal predecessor, which was purchased only by those with budgets as limited as their appreciation of automotive goodness).

But despite our own appreciation of spunky small cars, we're not so sure about the RS. It offers no more power than the $2,300-cheaper LTZ, and if any real-world performance is gained from the transmission's shorter legs, the price you pay is a much busier cruising stride and consequent 14 per cent increase in highway fuel consumption.

Unless you think the RS's cosmetic addenda are worth over $2K, we'd take an LTZ at $21,295 (plus $265 for the MyLink sound system if that's important) and pocket-rocket the difference.

2013 Chevrolet Sonic RS
Price: $23,560
Type of vehicle: FWD subcompact hatchback
Engine: 1.4 L, DOHC, 16-valve I-4 turbocharged
Power/Torque: 138 hp / 148 lb.-ft.
Transmission: Six-speed manual (opt. six-speed automatic)
0-100 km/h (6MT): 10.0 sec
Fuel consumption (city/hwy): 7.5/5.8 L/100 km; 6AT 8.2/5.9 L/100 km
Competition: Fiat 500 Abarth, Honda Fit Sport, Mini Cooper


Feels quicker than your average subcompact
Entertaining handling at little cost in comfort
Comfortable and practical interior

Not quicker enough, for the money
Not the sweetest-sounding engine, even for a subcompact
Shorter gearing dents highway fuel economy