Save The Manuals? Let's Not Save Them All, Including The 2016 Chevrolet Spark's
Are you sure you want to save the manuals?
In theory, of course, you want to save the manual transmission. You enjoy driving. You enjoy enhancing the man-machine connection by synchronizing movements between your left foot, right hand, and right foot. You value the art of a perfectly timed shift, of properly holding a gear through a corner when even the most intelligent automatic would upshift. You know the corner. You know driving. You know how to get the best out of a Ford Fiesta ST half an hour before sunrise on Italy’s Stelvio Pass, even though you’ve never set foot outside Iowa, even though you drive a RAV4 Hybrid.
“What? I would’ve gotten a manual if Toyota offered one,” thou doth protest too much.
As we approach greater degrees of autonomous driving, as roads fill up and speed limits are not altered to reflect our vehicles’ huge improvements in stopping ability and safety, saving the manuals sounds like a noble campaign. Preserve that last shred of pure driving already forsaken by Ferrari, by performance-oriented Porsches, by the general populace that believes their right hands are better off holding a skinny cinnamon dolce latte than a leather-wrapped shifter.
But I’m driving proof, a $9,995* 2016 Chevrolet Spark, that we shouldn’t paint with such a broad brush. We should save some of the manuals, but certainly not all of them.
A Mazda MX-5 Miata’s blissful six-speed this is not. And we shouldn’t expect the driving experience to resemble the MX-5 in any way — General Motors is not going to invest as much time and money into a city car with a $10,000 price tag as Mazda will for a car with a reputation for Greatest Shift Quality Ever at stake. But the new Chevrolet Spark’s five-speed manual transmission is by no means the only manual shifter worth excluding from the aging, dying, Save The Manuals campaign.
Just watch Top Gear’s Chris Harris pilot an Alfa Romeo Giulia Quadrifoglio around road and track. Seemingly in love with the Alfa, Harris nevertheless doesn’t seem to mind that UK buyers won’t be able to choose the Giulia Quadrifoglio with the manual gearbox of his test car. “This manual gearbox,” Harris muses, “I’m not so sure about that. Shift quality’s a bit rubbery. Clutch pedal movement’s not the best.”
I’m willing to bet that the shift quality and clutch pedal action in the Alfa Romeo Giulia Quadrifoglio is leagues better than what I’m experiencing in this Chevrolet Spark, a surprisingly refined and comfortable econohatch in many other ways.
Rubbery shift quality? At best. Shifting from second or fourth into third or fifth is an exercise in aimless conjecture. Not only is the shift’s destination in doubt, your hand must guide the shifter through a soupy mix of molasses, Wrigley’s Juicy Fruit, and toothpaste. It’s just as disconcerting as it sounds.
The Spark’s shift throws, meanwhile, feel as though you’re required to reach from one side of a heavily armed border station in a former Soviet state back into the western world for second and fourth. Got long fingers? Careful you don’t scratch your knee in first and poke your hip bone going into second.
Reverse is another story. It’s out there in the general vicinity of fourth. Once you’ve located and engaged reverse, the Spark reacts with enough noise emanating from its unmentionables to alert passersby, who turn in wonder.
But there’s a backup camera. No power mirrors, locks, or windows, mind you. No air-con, either. But a backup camera? It’s quite the age we live in, where one of the most spartan vehicles on sale in North America is equipped with a touchscreen and a backup camera.
The ability to use a screen instead of your mirrors to see what you’re about to reverse over does not cancel out the alarming lack of work done to make this five-speed manual transmission tolerable. It’s not just the shifter. Clutch action is utterly lacking in feel, as though it wants to trick you into thinking the point of engagement is always where you think it isn’t. (Perhaps it always is at a different point in the pedal movement — there’s nothing to feel, you’re simply hoping for the best.)
Unlike the Alfa Romeo Giulia Quadrifoglio, however, which will eventually be available in the United States with an eight-speed automatic, Chevrolet forces two-pedal Spark drivers to use a continuously variable transmission. CVTs are sometimes acceptable, particularly when power is abundant.
The 2016 Chevrolet Spark’s 1.4-liter four-cylinder produces 98 horsepower.
But these are 98 feisty ponies. Perhaps they’ll make do.
Save The CVTs?
* GM Canada’s 2016 Chevrolet Spark LS has a CAD $9,995 base price; CAD $11,595 (USD $8,950) including the destination charge. Nissan Canada’s cheapest Micra is seven dollars less costly. The Spark LS CVT, at CAD $15,595 (USD $12,038), adds air conditioning, in addition to the continuously variable transmission The U.S. market Spark LS, priced from USD $13,875 (CAD $17,971), includes air conditioning.
[Images: © 2016 Timothy Cain/The Truth About Cars]
Timothy Cain is the founder of GoodCarBadCar.net, which obsesses over the free and frequent publication of U.S. and Canadian auto sales figures. Follow on Twitter @goodcarbadcar and on Facebook.
Join the conversation
Latest Car ReviewsRead more
Latest Product ReviewsRead more
- Robert I have had 4th gen 1996 model for many years and enjoy driving as much now as when I first purchased it - has 190 hp variant with just the right amount of power for most all driving situations!
- ToolGuy Meanwhile in Germany...
- Donald More stuff to break god I love having a nanny in my truck... find a good tuner and you can remove most of the stupid stuff they add like this and auto park when the doors open stupid stuff like that
- John Williams Sounds like a Burnout Special you can put together on any 5.0 F150. Whoever said this was Cars and Coffee bait is right on the money.
- ToolGuy Question: F-150 FP700 ( Bronze or Black) supercharger kit is legal in 50 states, while the Mustang supercharger kit is banned in California -- why??
Is this a problem with Korean cars specifically? The manual, 6 speed, in the 2011 Forte I had was pretty bad. The clutch was vague and felt like the friction zone changed places on occasion and there was a regualr problem whereby I was effectively locked out of 4th gear. Every oil change I brought it up and every time it was only replicable through some convoluted procedure which did not match how I was driving. The 2.5 Jetta my friend had concurrently was better than the Kia, and I was just as new to driving manuals full-time with that. I'll fully admit that the only manual I'd had any real seat time in was a 98 Mustang GT, which was much more user friendly, but I won't cop to it all being user error. Ever since I got my first Focus my life has been much easier. I've since gotten a Focus ST which is better than both.
I don't mind if most people prefer automatics. But as a driving enthusiast, I resent not having the CHOICE of a manual in most cars - even if if I have to pay extra for it. 20 or 30 years ago, the manual was standard and the automatic would cost you an extra $600-$1000. I could live with a situation in which the reverse were true today... if manuals were at least offered in many cars. But I wouldn't respond well if the manual were bundled with a mandatory $4K option package.