It’s very cheap. It’s very small. It’s from a manufacturer that hasn’t historically focused on either. So, is the 2013 Chevrolet Spark the best car for your worst enemy?
Chevrolet offers the Korean-engineered-and-assembled Spark in some fun colors, including jalapeno (lime green), lemonade (pale yellow), and techno pink (hater bait). Yet the styling is contra-500, with the same chunky angularity as other recent Chevrolet designs. At 144.7 x 62.9 x 61.0 inches the A-segment Spark is 14 inches shorter and five inches narrower than a B-segment Chevrolet Sonic, but a little taller, and nearly as tall as it is wide. Given the proportions the designers had to work with, they didn’t do badly. Among small cars that don’t attempt cute, you’ll certainly find some homelier appliances. But does such an aggressive face belong on anything with well under 100 horsepower?
Enter the Spark with appropriately low expectations, and its interior exceeds them. The surfaces are the hard plastic that’s a given with a $12,995 sticker, but come across as sturdily functional rather than cheap. (This said, jump from a Spark to a Sonic and the latter suddenly seems almost plush.) Half-digital instruments recall those in the next-up Chevy, but they aren’t quite as fun here. With relatively few functions to manage, GM’s designers had little choice but to make the controls simple and easy to operate.
The biggest news inside the smallest Chevrolet is that four adults can fit pretty well within a 93.5-inch wheelbase. This is no iQ, where automotive packaging has been reinvented to carve out space for an extra 0.8 adults (0.2 behind the driver, 0.6 behind the passenger) within a smart-sized microcar (120.1 x 66.1 x 59.1 inches). The Spark’s packaging is relatively conventional, the main tricks being a high seating position and wheel wells that won’t swallow dubs. But get this: a Ford Focus, two size classes up, has two fewer inches of rear legroom. The Sonic also doesn’t have quite as much, and the C-segment Cruze has just a few tenths more. Shoulder room is in shorter supply, but there’s a little more than in a 500, thanks to the Spark’s barn door body sides. The seats aren’t sufficiently padded for long trips, but around town they’ll do. With the Spark’s barely there rear overhang, cargo doesn’t fare well with the rear seat up, just 11.4 cubes. A few grocery bags will fit. But fold the rear seat and there’s somehow more volume than in the Sonic (31.2 vs. 30.7).
The least friendly aspect of the interior has been imposed by the Spark’s exterior (or perhaps by a desire to make the car seem as safe as a bunker). The beltline dips dramatically as it approaches the mirrors, and there wasn’t enough space for designers to go Buck Rogers with the A-pillars, so visibility to the front quarters is good. But as in the Toyota Yaris the base of the windshield is considerably higher than that of the front windows. I felt the need to raise the seat to see over the instrument panel, at which point the windshield header intruded.
There are more constricted views forward, even in the same showroom, but such a tall, small car could easily excel in this area. Also, the beltline can dip so dramatically going forward because it is very high in the rear doors. Smallish rear seat passengers will enjoy a view of the tree tops.
The 100-horsepower 1.5-liter Mazda2 seems grossly grunt-deficient. So the situation should be nigh well hopeless in the 84-horsepower 1.2-liter Spark, which also weighs about 2,300 pounds. Yet, with a five-speed manual transmission, the Chevrolet gets around okay at sub-highway speeds. Mind you, the Spark never feels sprightly, but through more effective tuning, tweaking, and thrash suppression the Chevrolet’s relaxed pace sounds and feels appropriate while the Mazda’s seems sluggish. I had flashbacks to the 1980s Civics I used to enjoy. The shifter’s throws are longish, but smooth. GM has done worse.
Like other conventionally-powered small cars, the Spark runs into the 40 mile-per-gallon wall. It’s EPA highway rating of 38 is matched by the D-segment Nissan Altima and pretty much every B- and C-segment car. Apparently whatever the low curb weight giveth the aerodynamics inherent in a tall, stubby hatchback taketh away. An EPA city rating of 32 is more impressive
The GM tradition of tuning small cars to handle like larger cars continues with the Spark. The car feels much less tippy than a fortwo or iQ, but also less agile than its specs suggest it should feel. Its secure chassis dynamics fall into the vast middle ground between fun and frightening, successfully avoiding both poles. There’s little grip to be had from the Goodyear Integritys, but were you expecting any? Your ears rather than your fingertips let you know when they start to slide. The ride gets a little busy and noisy over 50 mph, but is reasonably smooth and quiet at around-town speeds, no mean feat given the car’s short wheelbase and low curb weight.
The Spark LS’s $12,995 base (and as-tested!) price might not seem crazy cheap. After all, both Hyundai and Nissan have offered $9,995 specials in recent years. But that price was without destination, air conditioning, or power windows. The Spark’s price includes all three—it’s not just for the ads—along with alloy wheels and ten airbags. But not power locks or mirrors. If you want those, cruise, Bluetooth, and some other goodies worth about $1,800 altogether, spend another $1,500 for the LT. Add $925 for a four-speed automatic transmission. Even the Spark LS includes about $2,800 more content than a Nissan Versa 1.6S, based on TrueDelta’s car price comparison tool. Adjust for this extra content, and the Nissan’s initial $225 pricing advantage becomes a $2,600 disadvantage. Other B-segment cars, including the Sonic, are similarly well over $2,000 more once feature differences are adjusted for. Among cars with a livable level of content, the Spark is easily the least expensive.
So, back to that worst enemy—it depends. If your nemesis is always hurrying or takes long highway trips, then sure, punish him or her with a Chevrolet Spark. But if they’re satisfied by a solid, economical, thoroughly sufficient driving appliance, or would prefer a pink or lime green anything to a gray Teuton, then you’ll have to find another means.
Harry Barnett of Jay Chevrolet in Highland, MI, provided the car (a relatively boring red one because it had a stick). He can be reached at 248-748-1126.
Michael Karesh operates truedelta.com, a provider of car reliability and pricing information.