If you have a pulse and a willful ignorance of the local speed limit, you’re probably not interested in the Chevrolet Spark. If you’re a media-savvy hipster who’s on Facebook sixteen hours a day, you’re probably not interested in the Spark, either. If you’re a techno-geek or an eco-geek, you’re probably still not interested in the Chevrolet Spark.
If you need something to get you from point Alpha to point Beta and aren’t willing to pay too much, you might be interested in the Spark. But only after all the alternatives have been removed from your short-list as being too sensible. And even then, a lobotomy might be required to help you make up your mind.
That’s a shame, because the Spark isn’t really that bad.
The Spark competes in a super-mini class that’s largely ignored in the United States simply because of the lack of motorboat-towing power and decent-sized cupholders. The old Daewoo/Chevrolet Matiz that GM’s global division has been peddling around is even worse than the norm, with a cabin two sizes smaller than the competition and barstools stapled to the floor in lieu of actual car seats. Crash-safety is only noteworthy in the fact that at one time, it scored the infamous “zero stars” on the EuroNCAP tests.
The new Spark is a completely different vehicle. For one, it scores a commendable four stars on the EuroNCAP (missing the fifth for lack of stability control). Unfortunately, they’ve dumped the classic lines of the Guigaro-penned Matiz and replaced it with a deformed, head-shrunken Cruze.
Like the Cruze, it’s the roomiest in its class by a few hair-widths, with legroom more subcompact than super-mini. The seats are still two sizes too small, but they’re comfortable, at least. There’s enough trunk space for about a week’s worth of groceries, and cubbies for oodles of odds and ends. There are even cupholders big enough for Big Gulps.
The Spark tries to pull a Mini by having the instrument gauges mounted on the steering column, but the steering wheel obscures the top of the speedometer and the tiny digital tachometer doesn’t seem to sync up to the engine. The rest of the cabin is nice, though the body-colored trim is tackier than a Dodge Caliber’s. To note: the shiny black cladding around the side mirrors and the hidden rear door handles is pretty pitiful, even for Chevrolet.
On paper, the 1.2 liter engine provides more than enough power and acceleration to satisfy compact owners looking to downsize. Chevrolet claims a 0-62 time of 12.1 seconds. But in reality, you’d be lucky to get within a second of that time. It suffers from the same issues as the 1.8 Cruze, namely a lack of mid-range punch and a pronounced wheeziness near redline. The five speed manual gearbox is well-mated to the meagre power, but finding third is an adventure, hitting fifth is a chore, and finding reverse requires an instruction manual. The mix of rubbery shifter, short gear ratios and laggy tachometer makes overtaking on the highway more exciting than it really ought to be.
On to the good stuff: The Spark drives with some verve. The chassis balance is great, with good body control and composure. While understeer is the car’s default setting, the Spark responds well to throttle-lift and trail-braking. The turning circle is incredibly tight, yet a slow steering ratio keeps it from feeling darty at high speeds. Though it’s not quite Mazda2 keen, the steering wheel actually feels like it’s connected to the front tires, making for a relatively pleasant driving experience.
None of this comes at the expense of the ride, which is supple and absorbent. Even at speeds in excess of 80 mph, which is as fast as you can go without a tail-wind, the Spark feels as stable as a compact car, with minimal wind and road noise. I wish I could say the same about the engine, which sounds ready to explode at higher revs. Despite the mill’s shortcomings, it’s pretty economical, reaching 35-40 mpg in mixed driving. Not at 80 mph, obviously, but hey, you can’t have everything.
I won’t talk much about amenities and gadgets, because a lot can change by the official launch, sometime between now and the twelfth of never. Maybe GM is waiting for everyone to forget the Spark’s debut as the gold-toothed, jive-talking, racist-stereotype “Skids” in “Transformers”. Considering that this abomination of a movie marketing tie-ins has been immortalized in a line of even uglier toys, that may take a while.
Shame, as the Spark is a good little car with virtually no competitors on the US market. But the longer GM waits to release it, the more likely it is that the Spark’s Korean competitors will get there first and ruin the party for the spunky little Daewoo.