PORTLAND, OR – Electric vehicles may not solve the transportation industry’s energy dilemma entirely, but under the correct circumstances cars such as the new-for-’14 Chevrolet Spark EV make all the sense in the world.

Testing the Spark EV here in the heart of the electrification movement in the U.S. confirms that, combined with affordable and renewable energy, a robust public-transit system, a closely populated citizenry and open-minded consumers, these cars make for a genuine alternative to the internal-combustion engine.

Let’s add one caveat: the EV must be a well-done execution, and the Korean-built Chevy Spark EV fits the bill. Available now in California and Oregon, the Spark EV is attractive to the eye, roomy for its size, and a delight to drive with sporty tuning and high-tech and helpful EV functions. Inexpensive infotainment choices are the icing on the cake.

The exterior design does not stray far from the Spark ICE and that’s a good thing. It’s funky, fun and downright lighthearted with a smiling fascia, wide-eyed headlamps, fast roofline and appealing color palette.

There are some additions to the Spark EV from its ICE counterpart to accommodate the unique propulsion system, such as a charge portal over the driver’s-side wheel well, standard 15-in. machined aluminum wheels with low-rolling-resistance tires and a rear spoiler, as well as a lower rocker panel for improved aerodynamics and a rear diffuser to further improve air flow. Closer inspection reveals a closed chrome grille, again for better air flow to improve efficiency.

The Spark EV lacks the splashy color choices of its ICE counterpart, but there’s enough energy in the car to forgo Jalapeno Green or Techno Pink paint.

It also carries its exterior colors over to the interior, an effect that earned the Spark ICE a WardsAuto 10 Best Interiors Award this year. An Electric Blue model tested here uses the same color for inserts to the instrument panel, dashboard and upper and lower door panels. It’s a whimsical yet tasteful look.

The motorcycle-inspired gauges that won over judges on the Spark ICE also remain, but are executed a bit differently to accommodate the EV functions. A single, 7-in. (18-cm) customizable display houses a digital speedometer in the center with a state-of-charge gauge to the left. To the right there’s a bouncing-ball instrument to show how conservatively, or aggressively, you’re driving the car.

A new confidence gauge helps reduce range anxiety: the worrisome feeling that the battery may not have enough charge to finish a trip. It offers an estimated range based on current driving habits, power draw and environmental conditions. Switching to a more conservative driving style, or shutting down a function such as the air conditioning, will add range to the confidence gauge.

Our tester here started off the day with 72 miles (116 km) of its EPA-estimated 82 miles (132 km) of range remaining. After 14 miles (24 km) of city driving, the car had a spot-on 58 miles (93 km) of range left, and according to the confidence gauge another 62 miles (100 km) could be squeezed from the battery with a more conservative driving style. Keeping our foot on the throttle would have resulted in 53 miles (85 km) of range.

At the end of the day, we covered 50 miles (80 km) and 40 miles (77 km) of range remained. Had we driven less aggressively, the confidence gauge indicated an additional 48 miles (77 km) could have been traveled.

But why drive conservatively when the Spark EV wants to run so readily?

Sport mode might be the less efficient of the car’s two selectable driving states, but it dials up throttle response and full access to the car’s peak 400 lb.-ft. (542 Nm) of instantly available torque. 

Add in a 560-lb. (244-kg) lithium-ion battery solidly anchoring it to the pavement and a snug, 33.8-ft. (10.3-m) turning radius allowing it to spin on a dime, and the Spark EV is more of a sports car than it is an electric commuter.  

Here are a couple other observations: the Spark EV lacks even the slightest squeak or rattle and it operates with buttery smoothness at low speed. 

Without the mask of noise created by an ICE, or absent heavy sound-damping materials that would rob efficiency, the car still seems well put together. Many other EVs suffer from what’s called “creep,” a herky-jerky motion that occurs at low speeds, but not the Spark EV. More than a decade ago General Motors decided to make electric motors a core engineering competency and now builds every unit it uses at its White Marsh, MD, production facility. It’s a smart move now paying dividends.

The Spark EV offers innovative and inexpensive infotainment options, too. Chevy’s MyLink infotainment system comes standard, uniting a smartphone and its content to a 7-in. touchscreen display on the center stack via Bluetooth or a USB port. The system features hands-free capability and Siri, which can answer simple voice-command questions such as the score of last night’s ballgame.

Owners also can purchase a BringGo software application for their smartphone to run 3-D navigation through the car’s touchscreen, and if they were to rent a Spark on vacation or through a car-sharing service they can use the app with those cars.

As enjoyable as the Spark EV is, it is relatively expensive at $27,495. With a $7,500 tax credit the price drops to $19,995. California residents can subtract another tax credit of $2,500, taking the price down to $17,495. A loaded Spark ICE, meanwhile, would cost $17,210 and deliver up to 39 mpg (6.0 L/100 km). The value proposition would appear to favor old-fashioned technology.

But bargain-hunting Californians and Oregonians wanting to shrink their carbon footprint can lease a Spark EV for a more reasonable $199 per month over 36 months with $999 due at signing.

And sticker prices are only one element of owning any EV. More often than not, the people buying these cars care less about price and more about the environment and reducing reliance on oil from countries not altogether friendly to the U.S.

In other words, the sort of folks who live here.

Portland’s progressive residents boast high income levels. They draw a majority of their power from hydroelectric sources, leading to some of the nation’s cheapest monthly power costs, and the average resident travels just 20 miles (32 km) per day in their vehicle, because three of four residents live within the city’s Denmark corridor.

Western Oregon’s mild marine climate is equally friendly to EVs and Portland State University’s Electric Avenue, where a block of both normal and quick-charger stations available for free to EV drivers unites with wide pedestrian walkways and public transportation around the city’s center to offer a petroleum-free commute.

The Spark EV is the first vehicle of its kind to offer a DC fast-charging option. Fast-charging will take the battery to 80% of its capacity in 20 minutes, GM says. Charging the car with a standard 120V connection takes 17 hours, while a 240V hookup needs seven hours.

Charging options include immediate juice; a departure-timed recharge, where owners set the charge to end just ahead of driving; and a rate-based refill recharging the car when home electricity costs are lowest. That’s an awful lot of flexibility.

At the end of the day, EVs will not satisfy everyone’s transportation demands, and in the near future will likely play a modest role in reducing U.S. petroleum consumption and emissions levels. But in a place like this, where ironically the mantra is “Keep Portland Weird,” the Spark EV makes tremendous sense.

jamend@wardsauto.com

'14 Chevrolet Spark EV
Vehicle type 4-passenger, FWD battery-electric minicar
Engine 105 kW electric motor
Power (SAE net) 140 hp
Torque 400 lb.-ft. (542 Nm)
Transmission single-speed automatic
Wheelbase 93.5 in. (237 cm)
Overall length 146.5 in. (372 cm)
Overall width 64 in. (163cm)
Overall height 62.6 in. (159 cm)
Curb weight 2,967 lbs. (1,346 kg)
Base price $27,495
Fuel economy 119 MPGe
Competition Ford Focus Electric, Nissan Leaf, Mitsubishi I, Fiat 500e
Pros Cons
Sports-car driving dynamics Just a little ole thing
DC fast-charger option 120V charge takes eternity
Inexpensive lease option Price to buy still high