Review: 2015 Chevrolet Spark LT

Jack Baruth
by Jack Baruth

How the mighty have fallen. I don’t mean General Motors, which once literally made the earth tremble from its world-war-winning industrial prowess but which has now effectively given up on the idea of engineering a small car in the United States. Nor do I mean Gibson Guitar, operator of the Beale Street Custom Shop pictured above, which has struggled to effectively counter an exceptionally negative media and web-forum general opinion of its heavily-revised 2015 lineup.

I just mean me, myself, and I, that sort of thing.

Experienced TTAC readers will remember this photo location from another of your humble author’s long-distance road tests, namely Fleetwood Talisman Part Two. It goes without saying that the Talisman, a Detroit-engineered behemoth from the Cretaceous Era of GM full-sizers, was at home on the American highway, and I found that it made the trip from Nashville to Memphis with diffident ease. I remember the trip fondly, not least because I never drove that stretch of road again.

As fate would have it, however, last week I found myself once again making plans to drive from Nashville to Memphis via Franklin, TN. I’d managed to get an interview for an upcoming R&T feature scheduled for the morning after the closure of the Detroit Auto Show. Just getting from Allen Park, MI to home then to the Columbus airport in time required no small amount of luck, not least because I spent over an hour doing some guitar shopping at a pawnshop on 8 Mile before heading south. When I landed at BNA, however, I knew my luck had run out. My naive decision to select “Manager’s Choice” on my Hertz rental reservation form meant that the manager of the Nashville Airport Hertz could make the “choice” to screw me over by giving me a Chevy Spark for a 450-mile highway roadtrip.

My first impression of the Spark was: it looks like a toad that’s in the process of being vertically squished by transparent Lexan panels. My second impression was more positive: it’s possible for, ahem, full-sized people to actually fit in the thing comfortably. Like the one-class-up Honda Fit and like pretty much every other car globally in the sub-sub-compact segment, the Spark creates space by having the passengers sit upright. That’s how you get this much space in something that isn’t much wider or taller than a 1979 Civic. The seating position combines with the relatively low door glass to create a surprisingly CUV-like perspective on the world. The FR-S or Miata driver next to you seems to be sitting a foot lower than you are, and the Camry driver’s at a lesser but not entirely nonexistent disadvantage.

As a result of the unusual proportions, the Spark drives very differently from a traditional subcompact. You’re sitting very close to the front wheels without even the suggestion of a bonnet ahead, and the paper-thin doors have virtually no tumblehome whatsoever. The net effect is a sensation of being in a driving simulator, since there’s obviously not much car around you. For most of the developed world, the “supermini” and its box-on-wheels proportioning is old news, but here in the United States the Spark is still new enough to, uh, shock.

With a few exceptions, a Spark with its rear seats up should be able to hold everything you’re allowed to carry onto an airliner. The cargo area is wide and tall but not deep. The passenger space in those rear seats is fine for smaller people or shorter distances, though I cannot “sit behind myself” with any comfort. One minor bit of admirable packaging is the cupholder molded into what would be the center rear seat of a wider automobile.

The “motorcycle” instrument cluster is cheap-looking enough to be at home in any Nineties Suzuki bike, but the LCD screen packs a remarkable amount of information that includes what in a Spark is a very important piece of information: distance to empty. The fuel tank is just 9.2 gallons, making fillups frequent.

Those fillups will be more frequent than you’d expect if your Spark-enabled travel plans include a freeway. I-40 between Nashville and Memphis is reasonably hilly and speeds of 80-85mph are common. It’s fair to say that with just 84 horsepower to push approximately 2300 pounds, the Spark doesn’t shine here. However, the new-for-last-year CVT helps quite a bit. Acceleration to freeway speeds is safely adequate, with a quarter-mile in the eighteen-second range. The little Chevrolet’s aerodynamic profile doesn’t help here, though there is surprisingly little wind noise at speed given the barn-door shape of the thing. Nor is fuel economy particularly spectacular in real-world usage; I obtained a rough 33mpg overall on a trip that was eighty percent freeway driving.

Compared to the Aveo I drove five years ago, the Spark might well have been an S-Class in its highway demeanor even though it’s from the size class below. I didn’t push the needle above 85mph but it seemed like there was a little bit of power left even at that speed. Around town, the CVT enables a surprising amount of low-end shove. It’s possible to compete with some pickups trucks and four-cylinder economy cars from stoplight to stoplight, although something like a modern Ecoboost Fiesta will whip the Spark six ways to Sunday in that situation.

LT Sparks get this snazzy radio-and-Bluetooth media center that most emphatically does not have a CD player. If you’re coming to this from an Audi S8 or a Burmester-equipped Porsche, you’ll be horrified by the sound quality, but if you’ve been driving an old Pontiac around you’ll be thrilled. Given that Spark customers are more likely doing the latter, this is fine. With that said, the system isn’t really loud enough to cover up the wind and road noise, particularly above 70mph. Used as a speakerphone, the sound system is better at speaking than listening. I found myself switching to my handset more often during drives than I would in, say, a Camry.

I can’t believe that we’ve gotten all the way to the end of this review without mentioning handling. It’s okay. There you go. A Fiesta or Mazda2 is far better to drive than this Spark will ever be, for the same reason the Spark whips them on interior space: packaging. With a center of gravity this high, on 155/55R15 wheels, there’s just too much potential tipover for pushing the limit to ever seem like a good idea. Encouraged by a fellow racer around a long on-ramp in Memphis, I experimented with trail-braking and lift-throttle oversteer.

Kids, just don’t do it.

The ECS intervenes early and often in the Spark. That’s for a good reason: keeping the roof off the ground. I’d be slightly worried about any genuine evasive maneuvers at freeway speeds, honestly. It’s best to drive the Spark the way you’d drive a Jeep Wrangler: with plenty of room around you at all times. The brakes,

If you don’t care about handling or power, the Spark delivers something much closer to a “real car” experience than the more conventional entries in the class. While I haven’t driven this car back to back with a Mirage, it’s my belief that the Spark is simply superior as a real-world operational proposition. There’s more room, a better driving position, and enough NVH control to make it livable.

Price as tested was $15,920. You can’t get this much equipment — the Spark includes power locks and cruise control in this trim — for this much money anywhere else. While I’d personally rather have a Hyundai Accent with less equipment, or even the mythical slightly-used-Civic-going-for-75-percent-of-original-MSRP that the Internet recommends to all car shoppers without ten million dollars saved for early retirement, the Spark is more than fit for purpose. Even if that purpose includes occasional freeway driving. It’s no Cadillac, to be sure, but neither is it a Chevette.

Jack Baruth
Jack Baruth

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  • EspritdeFacelVega EspritdeFacelVega on Jan 25, 2015

    87 Morgan is spot on. Financing a critical component for young first-time buyers, parents etc. Also, given the lack of car knowledge of many of newest crop of young drivers (by no means just girls, as was mostly the case in my youth), as a parent I’d undoubtedly lean towards a new Spark over a former-rental 2009 Fusion on whatever else $15k will dig up (although $15k will get junior a wicked used Grand Marquis, probably a "Suncoast Edition" with the gold package, a green landau top and 10k very slow miles on it. Cool!). For myself, $15k unlocks a world of opportunity. But for our kids, well, other considerations come into play. About the car. C’mon guys, the Spark isn’t bad at all. We get few cars in this class over here, so I’m glad GM is giving us the option. Having said that, I’d get junior that extremely cool “57” edition Fiat 500. Cheap and cheery (Clarkson’s wrong).

  • Festiboi Festiboi on Jan 29, 2015

    I have spent much time in several Spark rentals and they are decent. They do feel surprisingly solid and well made, and are excellent little city cars. The tall, skinny, bug-eyed looks are somewhat bizarre, but overall it's a good car. Even on the freeway, they seemed pretty confident, but I do agree (and had a laugh) at the "driving simulator" vibe since there's not much metal surrounding the driver. However, I wouldn't buy one and would much prefer a Mitsubishi Mirage if looking for bargain basement transport. Why? The Spark does not have a spare tire, which can turn into a dangerous situation in a remote area with cell phone reception. At the very least it's a major inconvenience if the sidewall is punctured. Secondly, it only sits four. Although it'd only be for short trips, at least the Mirage has five belts, just in case. And lastly, the Spark does not have a CD player. That alienates any of us without an iPod. That being said, I did read the review of the Aveo from six years ago that was linked on here. I found it to be very unjust. You're welcome to revoke my car fanatic card away, but honestly, the Aveo wasn't that bad. I owned one back in 2004 and drove it a total of 30k miles, and enjoyed it. My husband currently has an '08 Aveo which we've driven cross country, and although no luxury or sports car, it was just fine for those long freeway expanses. I still don't understand the continual Aveo hate out there. Heck, I actually prefer my husband's Aveo over my 2015 Honda Fit. The Fit has been nothing but trouble and has had so many quality issues in only a few months of ownership. By comparision, the Aveo has been perfectly reliable in 83k miles. It's been a roomy, comfy car, and the driving experience is no worse than a Yaris or Versa

  • James Hendricks The depreciation on the Turbo S is going to be epic!
  • VoGhost Key phrase: "The EV market has grown." Yup, EV sales are up yet again, contrary to what nearly every article on the topic has been claiming. It's almost as if the press gets 30% of ad revenues from oil companies and legacy ICE OEMs.
  • Leonard Ostrander Daniel J, you are making the assertion. It's up to you to produce the evidence.
  • VoGhost I remember all those years when the brilliant TTAC commenters told me over and over how easy it was for legacy automakers to switch to making EVs, and that Tesla was due to be crushed by them in just a few months.
  • D "smaller vehicles" - sorry, that's way too much common sense! Americans won't go along because clever marketing convinced us our egos need big@ss trucks, which give auto manufacturers the profit margin they want, and everybody feels vulnerable now unless they too have a huge vehicle. Lower speed limits could help, but no politician wants to push that losing policy. We'll just go on building more lanes and driving faster and faster behind our vehicle's tinted privacy glass. Visions of Slim Pickens riding a big black jacked up truck out of a B-52.
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