MOAPA, Nev. -- On a sand-swept strip of serpentine pavement that slithers through the Nevada desert, we're sawing a quick-to respond steering wheel and plying a stubby shifter stick while cinched firmly against a body-hugging bucket in Chevrolet's made-in-Michigan Sonic RS, a 4-door sedan for the eensy-weensy subcompact class wearing a performance-themed deep air dam, rocker moldings and tail spoiler with body paint tinted to the not-so-subtle shade of Red Hot.
This is a surprisingly sweet set of sporty wheels, despite Sonic's wee dimensions and econo-car descriptive.
Chevrolet rolled out the Sonic subcompacts conformed as a 4-door notchback sedan and 5-door hatchback as 2012 models replacing the Korean-built Aveo economy subcompacts.
For 2016 models, both the Sonic sedan and hatch trim out in four grades: Price-leader LS, upgraded LT, luxe-skewed LTZ and racy RS.
The two Sonic body styles vary toward the tail, where Sonic Sedan shows an arched roof concluding at a brief trunk ledge while Sonic Hatch has the roof extending beyond the lip of the back door before diving down through a liftgate to the body-colored wrap of a tail bumper.
Both Sonic Sedan and Sonic Hatch contain a passenger compartment with room for five riders plus more personal space than the pint-size appearance may indicate and far more standard features than the typical economy car.
Both vehicles ride on a rigid front-wheel-drive platform with sleek skin dressing the external package in the manner of stylish and edgy European city cars.
And both pack as the standard engine a naturally aspirated 1.8-liter Ecotech 4-pack that feels downright zippy when running the stoplight derby on suburban streets. The in-line-4 plant, with dual overhead cams (DOHC) and variable valve timing (VVT) controls, delivers 138 hp at 6300 rpm with torque of 125 lb-ft at 3800 rpm.
EPA-estimated fuel economy numbers for the 1.8-liter plant tally to 26/35 mpg city/highway with either the standard 5-speed manual shifter or optional 6-speed Hydra-Matic electronic automatic.
The estimated fuel consumption numbers reach 40 mpg when Sonic is equipped with an optional turbo-charged Ecotec 4-in-line engine displacing 1.4 liters. It produces 138 hp at 4900 rpm plus 148 lb-ft of torque at 2500 rpm and achieves the highest fuel economy scores when linked to a 6-speed manual transmission, although Chevy also offers a 6-speed automatic transaxle with electronic controls, the Hydra-Matic 6T40 by GM.
Sonic RS Sedan and RS Hatch stock as standard equipment the turbo-4 and manual 6-speed transmission.
Styling of Sonic's shell appears smooth and tailored on the sedan but it's more sharply drawn on the hatchback with a boxy format and concealed rear door handles. Both sedan and hatch versions feature a distinctive prow with the body-color single-bar grille supporting Chevy's bow-tie badge. Those articulated round lamps on front corners draw design cues from motorcycles.
Flanks are relatively flat but interrupted by subtle flares on wheelwell arches, with counterbalance above coming from smooth roof rails which stretch over an arched cab. Tail treatment consists of a brief notchback deck on the sedan but a near-vertical door on the hatch with articulated round lamps in red, another motorcycle cue.
Sonic's wheelbase length measures to 99.4 inches long while the distance from the prow up front to the back bumper tallies to 173.1 inches on the sedan and 159.0 inches for the hatch.
Cabin dimensions are generous, despite the pint-size category of subcompacts. Sonic sedan has 90.3 cubic feet of room for riders with headroom up to 38.7 inches and legroom to 41.8 inches front and 34.6 inches rear.
Layout of Sonic's cabin amounts to a pair of bucket seats in front of a bench for three with the seatback split and folding to add room for cargo. The cargo area runs to 14.9 cubic feet for the sedan, but 19 cubic feet for the hatch with rear seatback up or 47.7 cubic feet with rear seatback down.
For seat upholstery, Sonic lists two versions of cloth for LS and LT grades, perforated leatherette on the LTZ and fine leather on sporty RS.
We estimate price points for Chevy's 2016 Sonic Series will run from $14,900 to $20,900.