It’s been a while now since subcompacts were bottom-rung driving instruments devoid of any modern luxuries or conveniences. Years ago features like air conditioning, automatic transmissions, power windows and sunroofs became more and more prevalent in these little runabouts.
But today’s consumer wants more; a lot more. Subcompacts are no longer being bought just because they are the cheapest vehicle on the market. These cars are now purchased by environmentally conscious consumers who appreciate stellar fuel economy, or by those living in dense urban areas where roads are tight and space is at a premium. Just because someone wants a smaller sized vehicle, doesn’t mean sacrifices need to be made in style, comfort and convenience; right?
Well, manufacturers are listening and the segment is seeing an infusion of new models boasting increased power, better efficiency, new features and some actual design. Two vehicles at the forefront of the upscale subcompact revolution are, surprisingly, the Hyundai Accent and Chevrolet Sonic.
The Accent has been a stalwart in the subcompact segment for over 15 years now. Originally the poster child for cheap, no frills transportation, the Accent has been moving upscale with every new generation, with the latest refresh in 2012 continuing this theme.
Now available in the Accent are features like automatic climate control, a sliding center armrest, satellite radio, Bluetooth connectivity and a sunroof. Even with all these options checked off, a 2013 Accent SE hatchback with an automatic transmission still retails for just $18,790 after destination charges.
Taking on the Accent is the Chevrolet Sonic. Debuting two years ago as a replacement for the much lamented Chevrolet Aveo (another sub-compact backmarker), the Sonic takes the concept of a premium subcompact further in both price and content. Coming in at $20,695 after destination chargers, our 2013 Chevrolet Sonic LTZ hatchback also came equipped with an automatic transmission and features like the MyLink touchscreen infotainment system, leatherette seats, heated front seats, automatic headlights and Bluetooth connectivity.
Both vehicles make an identical 138 hp, but in very different ways. The Accent uses Hyundai’s 1.6L direct injection four-cylinder, while the Sonic uses a 1.4L turbocharged four-cylinder engine. Since the Sonic is turbocharged, torque favours the little Chevrolet – 148 lb-ft of torque vs. 123 lb-ft. The turbo engine is actually an upgrade for the Sonic, as the base engine is a naturally aspirated 1.8L four-cylinder engine that also makes 138 hp, but less torque.
Being the two most powerful vehicles in this segment (performance models aside), the Sonic and Accent have very usable power bands. A noticeable rush of torque can be felt in the Sonic as early as 2,000 rpm and continues past 5,000 rpm. The Accent does require to be wrung out a bit harder to produce optimal power in the higher rpm range, but initial throttle response is good and we found it easy to get up to speed on either city streets or highways. Safe to say, neither of these vehicles feels underpowered and the careful planning required when passing with some lesser potent subcompacts is thankfully unneeded.
As nice as a dollop of power is, this class is dictated more by fuel economy. With the automatic, the Accent is officially rated 28 MPG city and 37 MPG highway, which is one tick higher in the city than the Sonic, and the same on the highway. After a week of testing, our observed fuel economy had the Accent at 32.2 MPG ahead of the Sonic’s average of 30.1 MPG.
Some of the Accent’s advantage in fuel economy comes down to weight. It is over 100 lbs. lighter than the Sonic, which may not sound like much, but in this segment weight is a great enemy and a four and a half percent weight reduction shows up in fuel consumption as well as on the road.
The Accent feels more nimble from behind the wheel and more willing to change directions. Lighter steering that requires less effort only adds to this feeling, and Hyundai has done a good job retaining some steering feel despite this lightness. However, it does not match the steering in the Sonic, which is more direct and better weighted; a good thing if a little sport is required from one of these subcompact hatchbacks, otherwise it may not matter much at all to potential customers.
Continuing the theme of sportiness, the Sonic also has more outright cornering grip thanks to a stiffer suspension and wider 205/50R17 tires compared to the Accent’s 195/50R16 tires. This stiffer suspension does make the Sonic feel more solid on the road, and the Chevrolet does not suffer from the rear-end side-to-side shimmy the Accent does over offset bumps.
Unfortunately for the Sonic, this comes at the price of ride comfort. Although not bad, the longer-wheelbase Accent easily beats the Sonic on this front. In fact, we were surprised at how supple the Accent is for such a small vehicle. Both vehicles also do a good job of eliminating road noise, with the Sonic being a bit quieter. The days of tinny, buzzy penalty boxes are definitely far behind us now.
These two hatchbacks also have a lot more style and identity now than previous generations. The Chevrolet Sonic is easily one of the most unique looking subcompacts out there thanks to hidden rear door handles, 17-inch chrome wheels and protruding headlights and taillights. There are also a few bits of chrome trim intended to give the car a slightly upper-class look, but may be too much bling for some tastes.
The Accent is also an attractive little hatchback, but in a completely different way. It has a more controlled, sophisticated look to it, especially with the cyclone gray paint job. Some may find it features too many swoops and curves, but at least the hatchback, much like the Sonic, does not suffer from awkward disproportioned look of its sedan sibling.
Inside Hyundai has really done a great job making the entry level Accent feel anything but. There is a stylish steering wheel that feels great and is full of all the usual redundant controls. The center stack is the usual Hyundai design and wouldn’t look out of place in a Sonata. Even the areas where Hyundai has had to cheap out and cut costs, like the dashboard and door coverings, at least have patterned hard plastic to give them a little more style. The only real complaints we have about the Accent from the driver’s seat, where you notice the lack of a telescopic steering wheel and just how hard the door mounted armrests are.[vs-comparsion-table]
Like the exterior, the Sonic features an edgier interior design that works in some ways, but falls apart in others. The gauge cluster certainly is unique combining the speedo and tachometers into one cool, compact pod. The infotainment system is high-tech, but has no hard buttons which a few staff members found annoying. The sound-system itself is surprisingly good and could be a key selling point for buyers in this segment. But the teal stitching found throughout the Sonic is another point of controversy as some found it tacky, while others appreciate the unique flair.
As for front seat comfort, all of our reviewers preferred the Accent’s front seats as the Sonic’s seat bottom is too flat, non-adjustable and puts the overall seat into an unwelcome position. In the back, the scales tip back in the Sonic’s favor thanks to over an inch more legroom and slightly more headroom. Continuing this see-saw battle, the Accent trumps the Sonic with 2 more cu-ft of rear cargo space, but things even out with the rear seat backs folded.
As attractive as both of these offerings are in their own ways, the Accent is the better deal overall. With a cheaper as tested price, better observed fuel economy and unbeatable five year new vehicle and ten year powertrain warranties, the Hyundai Accent is a great value for those wanting a little more substance in a small hatchback.
2013 Chevrolet Sonic LTZ
2013 Hyundai Accent