DETROIT – Chevrolet’s Spark has little in common with the Volt extended-range electric vehicle, despite its electricity themed name.
However, the global car, now on sale in the U.S., is another one of’ efforts to remake itself in its home market. Like the Volt, it rises above competitors.
The new Spark is part of the A-segment, cars smaller than subcompacts, and was first launched in Korea. But the sector is new in the U.S. and it isn’t exactly setting sales charts on fire.
WardsAuto data show the500, Scion iQ and Smart Fortwo, plus the initial 1,460 sales of the Spark last month, tallied 37,045 units through July. Step up to the B-segment, and the sales leader, the Versa, alone has sold 68,370 in the period.
But for those who want an ultra-small vehicle, the Spark delivers a lot of bang for the buck.
A mere $12,245 gets a comfortable car with air conditioning, power windows and an auxiliary audio jack. Moving up to the 1LT grade, which starts at $13,745, adds Chevy’s MyLink telematics’ system with 7-in. (17.8-cm) touchscreen, as well as power mirrors and cruise control.
The 2LT Spark, from $15,045, is outfitted with even more features, including heated faux leather front seats and a leather-wrapped steering wheel, plus unique, 15-in. machined aluminum wheels with painted gray accents.
A 4-speed automatic transmission adds $925 to base prices, and destination and handling charges tack on another $750.
The Scion iQ and500 start in the mid-$15,000 range. The ’13 Smart Fortwo begins at $12,490 but has the segment’s smallest engine: a 70-hp 1.0L 3-cyl., and air conditioning is extra.
Like most of those cars, the Spark, on its intended urban routes, is fun to drive and plenty peppy.
Befitting its diminutive size and city-oriented target buyer, the front-wheel-drive Spark is outfitted with an 84-hp 1.2L inline 4-cyl. gas engine with multiport fuel injection. It is less powerful than the 1.3L 94-hp I-4 in the iQ and the 1.4L 101-hp I-4 in the 500, but stronger than the Smart Fortwo’s 1.0L.
The Spark reaches its horsepower apex at about 6,400 rpm. Peak torque of 83 lb.-ft. (113 Nm) arrives sooner, at 4,200 rpm, but the engine labors noisily while accelerating to – and maintaining – highway speeds. In short, this is not a vehicle for roadtrips.
Flooring the accelerator results in white-knuckle moments on the expressway, especially with 18-wheelers bearing down. Fortunately, once the power arrives, the Spark’s small size allows for easy maneuvering around the big, lumbering trucks.
Paired with either the 5-speed manual or 4-speed automatic transmissions, the Spark tends to be thrashy under hard acceleration, like its competitors in the segment.
Many buyers prefer automatics for gridlocked cities, but the Spark’s manual is easy to operate, thanks to a light clutch and a shifter within easy reach. Gear changes are smooth, rather than tight and notchy.
GM officials here hint a more advanced automatic gearbox may come later, but for now the 4-speed gets the job done, and with minimal shift shock. The auto maker expects a healthy take rate for the automatic, but declines to put a number on it.
All Sparks have hill-start assist, which is a strong feature if you’ve ever been caught in traffic in a hilly urban area.
The Spark is tiny but tall, which hurts aerodynamics. Like rivals with the same silhouette, it has ho-hum fuel economy for its size. It is rated at 32 mpg (7.4 L/100 km) with a 5-speed manual and 34 mpg (6.9 L/100 km) with the automatic.
On a 22-mile (35-km) route, WardsAuto averages 40.5 mpg (5.8 L/100 km) in a manual 1LT grade on the first leg. A dearth of red lights on the second leg to a city park boosts mileage close to 45 mpg (5.2 L/100 km).
More frequent stops on the same route, this time in an automatic 2LT, result in a lower 37.6 mpg (6.3 L/100 km) average.
The test cars exhibit good fit and finish overall. An exception is loose trim with big gaps around the A-pillar on the driver’s side of the manual 1LT model.
Low-cost materials and features are common in the Spark’s segment, as is the non-damped glovebox hinge. The door just flops open.
But taken together with the upper dash, which is imprinted with the same streaky pattern as the cloth seat fabric, as well as motorcycle-style gauges, the Spark’s interior is eye-catching overall.
It would be ideal if the separate shades of grey on the door panels matched up better and there was less shiny piano black trim on the center stack.
Kudos to GM for installing grab bars for each seat and painting the inside of the door pockets silver. They are little touches that lend an upscale feel.
MyLink, which allows drivers to hook up iPhones through the auxiliary jacks, or use Bluetooth to connect an Android-based phone, is cleanly laid out and easy to use. However, as is the case with all touchscreens, eyes must leave the road when navigating menus.
Not many options come with the Spark, but colored cloth and seat trim are available. For those who want to embrace their inner Big Bird, a 1LT automatic offers yellow cloth with yellow trim.
Fun exterior colors are a big part of what Chevy thinks will be the Spark’s appeal to young, urban dwellers. Techno Pink or Jalapeno anyone?
Despite the low starting price, public transportation available in major urban areas remains the Spark’s toughest competition.
But GM says its data show many urban dwellers want cars. Wary of the potential of ultra-small cars in the U.S. and low volumes to date in the segment, the auto maker isn’t divulging a sales target.
However, GM sees an opportunity to get new, young buyers behind the wheel of a Chevrolet. This pint-sized people mover might provide the spark of inspiration.
|Vehicle type||Front-wheel drive 5-door hatchback|
|Engine||1.2L DOHC 4-cyl., cast iron block/aluminum head|
|Power (SAE net)||86 hp @ 6,400 rpm|
|Torque||83 lb.-ft. (113 Nm) @ 4,200 rpm|
|Bore x stroke (mm)||70.5 x 80|
|Wheelbase||93.5 ins. (238 cm)|
|Overall length||144.7 ins. (368 cm)|
|Overall width||62.9 ins. (160 cm)|
|Overall height||61 ins. (155 cm)|
|Curb weight||2,269 lbs. (1,060 kg)|
|Base price||$15,970, plus $750 destination|
|Fuel economy||28/37 mpg (8.4/6.4 L/100 km) city/highway|
|Competition||Fiat 500, Scion iQ, Smart Fortwo|
|Priced lower than comps||Subway still cheaper|
|Fun and funky inside and out||Lots of hard plastic trim|
|Peppy for city||Thrashy on highway|