While ranchers are ranging their pickup trucks all around the county and den mothers are hurrying the family SUV up and down the suburbs, urban-nauts, those stressed-out dwellers deep in the heart of the city, are just trying to find a parking spot. The automotive needs of people in large cities sound plainly un-American. To them, the smaller, more nondescript and unobtrusive a car, the better. If it doesn't have to go to the overpriced inner-city gas station often, better still. And if it can haul several adults on occasional trips to the outer society, it's everything an urban-naut can ask.
Carmakers like Chevrolet have offered a long, mildly successful cavalcade of small cars, but nothing as small as the Chevrolet Spark, which is a genuine mini car two inches shorter than a Mini Cooper. Chevrolet isn't expecting to sell millions of Sparks in the U.S., but it has already sold 600,000 of them in the Spark's true home market, Korea, and neighboring Asian countries. Built in Changwon, Korea, the Spark is popular in the Far East, where getting the most out of a pint of gasoline, providing four adult seats and taking up minimal space is considered brilliant citizenship.
Spark's overhead costs for design and development have already been paid up. But Chevrolet believes there will be a sampling of Americans who are curious about this fairly extreme little car. It uses a tiny 1.2-liter four-cylinder engine, weighs a miniscule 2237 pounds, and gets EPA-rated 38 mpg Highway fuel mileage, which is both very good, and in these hybrid-aware days, not spectacular.
What is spectacular is the Spark's upright, one-box package. It allows ample seating for four adults in this very concise five-door. (If you look at the pictures and see only front door handles, the rear two are hidden in the rear trim.) Rear-seat passengers will not want to ride all the way to Patagonia in a Spark. There are limits. But if you replace these two passengers with supplies, the rear seats fold down, providing 31 cubic feet of storage, enough for all the inner-city Nathan's hot dogs you need on the trip.
By comparison with the Smart two-seater of a few years ago, the Spark actually is smart. Spark offers infinitely greater interior space and practicality, combined with a surprisingly good driving package. Spark corners with unexpected aplomb, stops straight and true, and accelerates with a willing spirit that makes it fully competitive in the inner-city grand prix. Entering onramps and merging with freeway traffic requires planning ahead but no more than with any other vehicle that takes 11 seconds to reach 60 mph.
All in all, the Spark is an interesting small car for special tastes, special needs, and a trim budget between $14,000-$17,000. Equipped with all the mandated airbags and a number of additional advanced safety provisions, it might be just the right choice as an urban guerrilla, a college car or a first-ever new car. What its low price delivers is a surprisingly spirited, useful entry-level five-door/four-seat sedan.
Chevrolet Spark LS Manual ($12,995), LS Automatic ($13,920), 1LT Manual ($14,595), 1LT Automatic ($15,520), 2LT Manual ($15,895), 2LT Automatic ($16,820)
Chevrolet Spark's exterior exhibits the mildly zany styling of all mini cars. Which isn't to say it's unattractive. It has a fresh look, with rakish character lines and forward-thrusting side-window forms that lend it a dynamic-at-any-cost appearance. A big, gaping grille, accompanied by the Chevrolet-trademark second overhead grille port, make a no-nonsense statement. The drastically slanting headlight boxes are a similarly dramatic designer gesture. These are matched by the bulbous twin taillight complexes. Wowsie styling is required procedure at World Car Central. The practice always has the purpose, of going far out of its way to disguise the undisguised fact that this is a short, tall four-wheeled box. The Spark's looks are two parts bravado, two parts fun.
As an Asian-born world car, Chevy's Spark is furnished with diminutive 14-inch wheels, but it's been dressed up for America with big (at least, bigger) 15-inch wheels. These alloy wheels are dressy and handsome, giving the vehicle a deluxe gleam.
To grasp the Spark's real-world scale, it's eight inches narrower and three feet shorter than the Chevrolet Cruze. Put another way, it is five inches shorter than a Fiat 500, yet it has four doors and four full-sized seats, as neither the Fiat 500 nor the Scion iQ do. In its segment, the little Chevrolet is number one in space efficiency.
To stay in tune with the Spark's playful character, it's available in a bright pallet of finishes that will make it stand out wherever it goes. Among these are Salsa, Denim, Lemonade, and Techno Pink. Our test car was a brilliant red Salsa, which seemed to make everyone who saw it happy. One particularly winsome mannerism of the Spark is that this exterior paint is carried into the car's interior. Our dashboard was bright red and gleaming.
Spark comes with dressy looking luggage racks on its roof for strapping down what won't fit inside. As elsewhere in this little world car, its luggage racks are a practical and unexpected inclusion, and crossbars are available.
The first impression of the Spark's interior is inevitable; and then it's not. This is a low-priced car, but its interior is not cheap. The controls, dashboard and interior environment are winsome, bright and made of good materials. The first and most startling thing you notice adjusting the steering wheel's height (there is no telescoping adjustment) is that the entire instrument cluster is mounted in a motorcycle-like oval matrix that moves with the steering column. This is excellent, because no matter where you adjust the wheel, your view of the instruments will not be obstructed.
The speedometer is minimalist but entirely legible. An electronic tachometer is located to the right in the form of a circular trace that curiously has no redline. This space is very busy, containing a fuel gauge in a vertical trace and an information center that delivers average mpg, trip time, trip mpg, trip miles, range and average speed. Very complete for such a car.
The wheel itself is small, sturdy, very nice. It contains cruise control tabs on the left of the hub, audio channel change tabs and, yes, a phone control on the right hub. Audio volume on two separate tabs is located conveniently behind the front two audio tabs. Well done.
The wiper controls provide the full range of intermittent, low and high frequency, as well as the safety of a rear wiper for the large, near-vertical back window. The latter is indispensable in such a configuration. The running lights do not include an Automatic option, one of the few conveniences the Spark lacks. But the climate control system is first-rate, using big, easy-to-use radial knobs for fan level, as well as controls for front and rear window defrost and heat and cool. Straightforward and flawless. The German luxury brands could learn from this elegant simplicity.
The Spark 2LT we drove had a handsome 7-inch full-color MyLink touch-screen infotainment system that is a startlingly advanced component in all LT models. Our unit did not include a navigation system, though Chevrolet says an app will be available late in the Spark's first sales year. MyLink provides excellent graphics, and a touch of the screen dials-in the audio system, though the targets on-screen for dialing the volume up or down demand too much marksmanship while driving. The same controls on the steering wheel, however, handled the same duty painlessly.
The audio was surprisingly good for this class of car. The additional capabilities of the system, in meeting the needs of advanced inner-city connectivity mavens, were very powerful. In addition to AM/FM, XM/Sirius Satellite Radio and a digital clock, Bluetooth streaming audio for music and selected phones is available, voice recognition is available for compatible phones, and compatible apps for Pandora and Stitcher are supported. OnStar is also available, with collision notification, a good safety feature.
Perhaps the Smart interior's most startling characteristic, however, is how roomy it feels despite its very small exterior package. The front seats give quite good lateral support and snugness. Upholstered in black leatherette, with high-back design and adjustable head restraints, the seats were not quite sporty. And even leaving space for a six-foot two driver, the left-rear seat had plenty of comfort space for an adult. The rear seats, however, were flat, hard and not very comfortable over the long haul. Yet even with the rear seats in place, a small grocery-storage space was available behind the back seats.
The first observation about driving the Spark must mention how well stocked it is in driving aids. Despite being a bargain-basement sedan, it is equipped with electronic stability control, traction control, four-wheel ABS anti-lock brakes, brake assist, and a tire-pressure monitor, not to mention, all 10 mandated airbags.
Remotely releasing our Spark's electric door lock and climbing in, we were prepared for anything from a tight, disciplined small car to a fizzy little imitation trying to make it in the big league. The miniscule four-cylinder started up crisply and sounded quiet and well engineered.
Our first drive would be in the wilds of New York's bumpy, crowded, no-mercy Brooklyn-Queens Expressway. Keeping in mind this was an 11-second zero-to-60 vehicle, we drove it on Brooklyn surface streets first before facing the Expressway. The 1.2-liter four-cylinder seemed responsive and game, so picking our moment, we joined the Expressway.
But as soon as we hit the deep dips and bumps at 60 mph, something was very wrong. The Spark was rebounding harshly, turning each impact into two or three impacts. When we got to the Chevrolet engineer we were meeting 10 minutes later, we complained, and he immediately began checking tire pressures. But how could it be? Tire pressure! He found the front tires were five pounds underinflated, and the rear tires were two pounds overinflated. He said they all must be at 38 pounds.
Sure enough, back on the Expressway, the Spark cruised smoothly across the cratered surface, problem solved. Tire pressures are as critical to the Spark as they are to a race car.
From then on, it was a surprisingly impressive little car. Its power was minimal, but its compactness gave it a kind of sportiness only small cars ever achieve. Impressive when cornered forcefully, its little 15-inch tires did their work bravely. The Spark has electronic steering, which could be a terrible thing if engineered poorly, but in the Spark, feedback and road feel left little to grouse about. Though the brakes were an old-fashioned combo of discs in front and drums in the rear, the light Spark stopped firm and true.
Escaping the city jungle (never a bad thing), the little Chevy stretched out, delivering a pleasant ride at highway speeds. Its shock absorber damping was everything it should be, and wind noise was nothing obtrusive. The only thing you need to get used to is the people in bigger cars smiling and waving at you, expecting a dozen clowns to climb out.
The Chevrolet Spark is a contradiction; a minimalist car that is so well furnished with contemporary content that maybe only very young urban-nauts will understand it. On the other hand, this is a fully competent mini-car that will satisfy very sophisticated needs for people whose primary automotive concerns boil down to parking where no one else can and escaping the city when no one else is looking. The Spark is automotive whimsy at an attractive bargain-basement price.
Ted West filed this report to NewCarTestDrive.com after his test drive of the Spark LT around New York City.