Small cars -- I mean really small cars -- are a rarity in America, and most of the ones you can buy (Fiat 500, MINI Cooper, Scion iQ, Smart ForTwo) sell on novelty value rather than practicality. That makes the Chevrolet Spark something unique -- a five-door mini-hatch designed to be used, and not just admired. Is the new Spark right for America? Read on.
First Glance: A new face
Mini-hatchbacks like the Spark are popular in Europe and Asia, but we don't find them often in the States. One could argue that we don't really need them: Our streets are wide, our towns are far apart, and even in big cities, where parking is at a premium, spots are generally of a uniform size. And when it comes to fuel economy, there's a law of diminishing returns: Larger, more aerodynamic sedans are often more fuel efficient on the open road than small, stubby hatchbacks.
Still, some small cars -- most notably the Fiat 500 and MINI Cooper -- have made quite a splash, so Chevy is dipping their toe in the water by offering the Chevrolet Spark here in the home market. Think of this as a trial run, with better things to come if Americans take the Spark to heart.
Like the Fiat and the MINI, the Spark is stylish, with its cute bug-eye face and a selection of bright colors including green, yellow, red and pink. The Spark is about the same size as the 500 and the Cooper, but it has something they lack: Back doors. It's also a lot less expensive -- prices start at $12,995, including air conditioning, power windows and alloy wheels, and top out just shy of seventeen grand with cruise control, heated fake-leather seats, and a 7" touch-screen display stereo.
In the Driver's Seat: Color is good, glare is bad
Inside, the Spark has all the trappings of a great small car: Excellent visibility, simple controls, and a lot of character, with jazzy trim on the seats (link goes to photo) and gauges in a pod atop the steering wheel. The plastics, fabrics and carpets are better than expected given the price tag, and while the body-color trim helps to break up the monotony of the grey dash, it reflects annoyingly in the side windows -- in the green Spark I drove, the reflection was strong enough that I couldn't see the left-side mirror.
Space up front is a non-issue for all but the freakishly tall, and while the seats are a little short on thigh support, they are basically comfortable. The two-place back seat also has a lot of leg- and headroom, but gets downright claustrophobic when you close the door; the hard plastic door panel and stingy armrest don't help. Cargo space is 11.4 cubic feet, more than enough for groceries and gym bags, and the split-flip-fold back seat opens up a 31.2 cubic feet.
All but the base-model Spark get a 7" touch-screen stereo with a USB port. Plug in a USB drive and you can watch movies; plug in your smart phone, buy the BringGo app ($50), and the stereo and phone work together to give you a touch-screen navigation system. No smart phone? No problem: The Spark also comes with OnStar, a subscription-based system that provides turn-by-turn directions and calls for help in the event of a crash. And speaking of crashes, the Spark's interior is home to ten airbags -- a fantastic level of protection for such a small car.
On the Road: Living for the city
Opening the Spark's tiny little hood reveals a tiny little engine -- a 1.25 liter four-cylinder. (You know it's a small engine when the displacement goes to a second decimal place.) Output is 84 horsepower and 83 lb-ft of torque, which, as it turns out, is more than enough to motivate a 2,300 lb car. Spark buyers can choose from a 5-speed manual or a 4-speed automatic. Fuel economy is good, but not great: 32 MPG city/38 MPG highway for the manual and 28/37 for the automatic. I blame the old-tech trannies and the Spark's less-than-aerodynamic rear end.
I had low expectations for ride and handling, and was pleasantly surprised by both: The Spark turns in responsively, grips well, and rides comfortably, though it crashes noisily (and cheaply) over the largest bumps. The whole package comes into its own in town, as the Spark adeptly squeezes into gaps that SUVs can only dream about. You'll recall auto writer LJK Setright's oft-repeated adage that "It is more fun to drive a slow car fast than a fast car slow." The Spark isn't exactly slow, but it illustrates what the ol' man was talking about -- I had a great time ripping around Los Angeles in the Spark, and all while (mostly) obeying the posted limits.