The budget-minded driver’s car.

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Fairfield County is a driver’s paradise. From the Long Island coast up into Litchfield you’ll find great, twisty, two-lanes roads made for driving. And, to really appreciate these undulating ribbons of tarmac, you need the right car – a driver’s car.

If you have $30k-$40k to spend on a new car, there’s a hefty list of choices that fit the bill for serious drivers. But, if your budget is considerably less, say $20,000, you might think you are out of luck. Most vehicles in the $15-20K range are pure economy cars. All those go-fast goodies that make a car fun to drive don’t make the cut when a manufacturer is looking to bring a vehicle in on the cheap.

However, one carmaker has managed to achieve the unthinkable – an exciting car for 20 grand. Even more surprising is the manufacturer that pulled it off: Chevrolet. In the fall of 2008, GM was on its heels, having to beg Uncle Sam to save its bacon after years of financial woes from bad product planning, mediocre design, and a host of other missteps. Yet, four years later, we have a car I consider best in class: The Chevrolet Sonic RS.

The Sonic RS front is distinctive and aggressive.

A cheap Chevy at a racetrack: With distinctive front-end styling, the Sonic RS looks more expensive than it is.

Don’t laugh. Dollar for dollar, this is one of the best enthusiast cars to ever wear a Chevy badge. Sure it’s underpowered, but so is a Mazda Miata. Not that this is a Miata, but the Sonic RS is pretty darn good.

The RS badge has been on some high-horsepower Chevys. This is not one of them.

The RS badge has adorned some high-horsepower Chevys. This is not one of them.

Chevy engineers put the money in the right places on the RS. The seats are well-bolstered and feature a combination of leather and grippy Alcantara. The flat-bottom steering wheel is properly thick and perfectly positioned. The standard transmission is a close-ratio 6-speed manual with a 4.18 final drive ratio, making the most of the modest 138HP EcoTec 4-cylinder turbo. Suspension-wise, the RS is lowered and stiffer than the base model, with sharp 17” wheels wearing higher-performance tires. Four-wheel disc brakes replace the standard Sonic’s disc/drum set-up. Since the Sonic is aimed at a younger demographic, Chevy did not scrimp on the technology, either. There is a lot standard here that is optional on most other cars, including Bluetooth, XM Radio, OnStar, MyLink, and USB input. The easy to read digital dash is inspired by motorcycles and video games. On the outside, the designers did a great job with a unique and bold exterior, taking styling cues from one of Chevy’s recent concept cars.

Grippy Alcantara seat inserts and prominent side bolsters are much appreciated when you hit the twistys.

Grippy Alcantara seat inserts and prominent side bolsters are much appreciated when you hit the twisty bits. The contrasting stitching and RS embroidery remind you you’re not in a typical economy car.

Sonic's thick, flat-bottomed wheel.

Sonic’s thick, flat-bottomed wheel.

The RS dash is motorcycle and video game inspired.

The RS dash is motorcycle and video game inspired.

Spending a week with the Sonic RS gave me the chance to put it through its paces on my favorite local roads, including Route 58 from Fairfield to Bethel and Route 7 north of New Milford. The five-door hatchback layout is perfect in my book, offering seating for four adults – albeit a bit tight in the rear – plus the practicality of extra carrying capacity when needed. With the rear seats down, the Sonic’s cargo area was able to swallow a dozen bags of mulch. But it’s still frugal: Without being too conservative, I was able to get a very respectable 32 MPG. Still, the Sonic feels very solidly built and drives like a larger car.

The Sonic RS has plenty of extras as standard equipment including Bluetooth and XM radio.

The Sonic RS has plenty of extras as standard equipment including Bluetooth and XM radio.

138 screaming horses under the hood.

138 screaming horses under the hood.

To really explore the potential of the RS, I took it to NY’s Monticello Motor Club for a day of high-performance track driving. And to see if it clicks with the Sonic’s primary market, my 19-year old son, Ben, came along.

A proper close-ratio 6-speed manual transmission is standard. Thank you, Chevrolet.

A proper close-ratio 6-speed manual transmission is standard. Thank you, Chevrolet.

To say the car was fun on the 1.9-mile, 10-turn North Course would be an understatement. The RS was balanced, responsive and predictable with the expected FWD understeer at the limit. The brakes hauled the RS down from speed without fade, lap after lap, while the turbo spooled up quickly under full throttle. Here’s a video of the car on track:

The grin on my face was growing with every session. But, it wasn’t just me. Ben loved the car, too. “It was surprisingly fun. For an economy car, it was really quick and felt solid on the track. And it didn’t sound half bad, either.”

Not to be too dramatic or put too much pressure on GM, but this car could get young people excited about driving again. Which to me is a worthy mission. Personally, I could drive this car every day and not complain. Which I can’t say about any other new car at that price.

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  1. Dave says:

    This car sounds perfect for my daughter, who is young and on a tight budged–and who loves to drive a manual.