By on January 12, 2022

 

I took a few days off in December for a vacation, flying out to New Mexico just in the nick of time to avoid the rise of the Omicron variant of COVID. I’d need a rental car to get from the airport in El Paso, Texas, to Las Cruces – and to tool around town a bit, maybe.

Being on an automotive journalist’s salary and knowing I’d likely never have more than one passenger at a time, I decided to go the least-expensive route and get a compact – “compact” by the rental-car company’s definition, but subcompact per the EPA.

“Nissan Versa” or similar, the Web site said. Not great, but something I could live with for a few days. I didn’t need a lot of space or comfort.

As you no doubt know, that “or similar” means you don’t know the make and model of your chariot until you land and settle business at the counter. Or in this case, not until I walked out to the “compacts” section of the parking garage, agreement in hand, to see the only car there was a Chevrolet Spark.

Well, crap.

I tried to look on the bright side. It had been a long time since I’d piloted a Spark, but I remembered the car being a bit of a lively handler for the class, and not being a total penalty box. At least not when it was new. Would that view hold up?

Furthermore, would the difference between rental-car trim and the top-trim cars that the OEMs usually loan us for testing be noticeable?

(Full disclosure: As this was vacation, I paid for the rental car out of my own pocket, though my corporate bosses did allow me to expense the fuel.)

Things didn’t start well for the Spark – Google Maps directed me over the Trans-Mountain highway, a hilly and curvy piece of interstate that winds around the outskirts of El Paso. The 1.4-liter four-cylinder that makes a paltry 98 horsepower and 94 lb-ft of torque predictably struggled when faced with an uphill climb. It also struggled when passing on flat ground. And when asked to do anything other than idle.

And like with a whiny teen unhappy about being asked to mow the lawn, the four-banger wasn’t shy about complaining when put to work.

The presence of a continually variable automatic transmission did it no favors.

I’d hoped the Spark might redeem itself in terms of handling, since I remember the car as being a bit lively, at least for its size and class, from past encounters.

This time around, it was a mixed bag. There is some uh, spark of life in this Chevy when you encounter a corner, and it’s just spritely enough to make you forget for a millisecond that you’re driving an econobox. But there’s also not enough in the way of steering feel and occasionally too much play in said steering. It’s not the worst car in the class, and you get a half-grin if you get things just right, but it’s no secret hot hatch, either.

The short wheelbase contributes to a stiff ride (there are MacPherson struts up front and a compound crank with springs and shocks setup in the rear), though it was tolerable on the smoother local roads. When I hit the pockmarked pavement, things became decidedly less fun, though still just barely on the side of acceptable.

Rental-car trim – this appeared to be an LT and not the 2LT since it didn’t have keyless starting – means not a lot of options and cheaper interior materials, but a couple of convenience features stood out. It helps that the 1LT trim is a step above the base. First, even the basic version of GM’s/Chevy’s infotainment system is easy to use, and this car had Apple CarPlay. It’s annoying to not have factory nav on a rental car – obviously, most renters aren’t going to know the area – but having CarPlay and being able to plug in helped (and kept the rental company from having to invest in a TomTom or Garmin). I also appreciated the inclusion of satellite radio. Necessary when driving in semi-rural areas.

By the way, if you want any semi-autonomous driver aids or heated seats, you need to spring for the 2LT. I can understand why a rental-car company kept things on the cheap side, and heated seats were not really missed, even though it can get cold in the desert in December, especially before the midday sun hits.

I didn’t see an unusual amount of wear and tear on the car, meaning there’s some combination of either the materials holding up well under tough conditions, the car being treated well by customers, or the rental company doing a decent job with basic cleaning and maintenance.

Stiff seats were an issue, at least on the two long drives to and from the airport, and the small cargo area just barely handled my standard-size rollaboard suitcase and a backpack. In fact, I think I had to eventually move my backpack to the rear seat to better accommodate my suitcase. The same suitcase that’s meant to fit in a standard airplane overhead bin was barely accommodated by the cargo area of a car. Even accounting for the diminutive size of the Spark, that’s a bit absurd.

I averaged about 34 mpg over 144 miles of motoring in a mix of highway and suburban driving that leaned heavily towards highway.

As always, I try to consider a car’s strengths and weaknesses against its class (also price, but that doesn’t apply as directly in a rental review). I don’t expect a subcompact to have barn-burning acceleration, but even a small car with a small, low-power-output engine should have a little more gusto. The handling is a nice surprise – it’s sportier than it needs to be, and it’s the one dynamic highlight – and the ride is about what you’d expect.

I give Chevy credit for having a cheap car with materials that seemingly have held up well despite the torture that rental cars endure, and for making features like Apple CarPlay and satellite radio available on a lower trim like LT. I’m less sanguine about the lack of cargo room, even in such a small car.

There’s little about this Chevy that will spark (sorry) your interest, but there’s still at least one other econobox you could encounter on the lot and it’s made by Mitsubishi. At least this Spark wasn’t a desert Mirage.

[Images © 2022 Tim Healey/TTAC]

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39 Comments on “2021 Chevrolet Spark LT Rental Review – Not Sparking My Interest...”


  • avatar
    eggsalad

    I think Chevrolet continues to build these, despite decimating the rest of their passenger car lineup, almost strictly for the rental-car industry. I rarely see these without a rental car barcode sticker.

    I guess they didn’t want to relinquish the bottom-feeder rental-car market to Mitsubishi.

  • avatar
    FreedMike

    I tried one of these out a couple of years back when my kid was looking for a car – it was an even more stripped-out model (crank windows, yo) and had a manual. I was pleasantly surprised how fun it was to drive – far better than the Versa I tried out.

    Moral of the story: stay away from the CVT.

    • 0 avatar
      Matt Foley

      Amen. This has been true of compact cars since the dawn of time. Ever driven a late-70s Accord or Civic with the Hondamatic? Those have to be the all-time champions of “the stick is fun but the automatic is terrible.”

      • 0 avatar
        FreedMike

        Very true, but that was in the days before turbos and modern non-CVT automatics. If this had been, say, a three cylinder turbo like the one Ford did in the Focus a few years back, I suspect it’d be different story.

  • avatar
    Oberkanone

    $14,990 Chevrolet Spark
    $31,995 Chevrolet Bolt

    Comparing least expensive ICE Chevrolet to least expensive EV Chevrolet, Spark saves you $17,005.

    • 0 avatar
      SCE to AUX

      Hey, that’s only a 250k mile payback for the savings.

    • 0 avatar
      RHD

      What we really want to know is if you managed to get air when you floored it approaching a railroad crossing.

    • 0 avatar
      mcs

      @Oberkanone:

      Let’s do another comparison:

      Spark 0-60: 10.8 seconds
      Bolt 0-60: 6.5 seconds

      Bit of a difference there. Sometimes in the automotive world you have to pay more for faster acceleration and smoothness. The Bolt is sort of a Spark with a V8 in it. Why wouldn’t it cost more?

      What next, do we want to compare Chevy’s most expensive compact, the C8, vs. the Spark. Why would anyone pick a C8 over Spark when you get 2 more seats over a C8? Makes no sense that someone would pick a C8 over a Spark, right? Because you get two more seats?

      EVs are essentially V8 class vehicles and shouldn’t be price compared with 4 cylinder cars with CVTs. You’re getting torque and smoothness you don’t get with a 4. Not the same class of vehicle despite the size similarities.

    • 0 avatar
      M1EK

      1 The Bolt is more Sonic-sized on the outside (and a little bigger on the inside especially in the back)
      2. The Bolt is a hell of a lot better to drive.

      Other than that, your comparison was, well, a little less garbage.

  • avatar
    Mike Beranek

    34 MPG??!!??!!
    Jeez, I coulda got close to that in my ’04 LeSabre. And it has no trouble with mountains.

    • 0 avatar
      28-Cars-Later

      Mixed driving? I drove my 3800 steed for many years and mixed driving was 26-27 at best 60/40 highway/city.

    • 0 avatar
      dal20402

      Pretty much any car-shaped car that’s not an egregious guzzler can get ~30 mpg on the highway, where aero more than weight or power determine efficiency. Even my old LS 460 could do 31 mpg if driven with a feather foot.

      The acid test is in the city.

    • 0 avatar
      FreedMike

      Was there an Eco Edition LeSabre? I had an ’03, and I usually saw 25 in mixed city/highway driving. On the road, I saw high twenties.

  • avatar
    tankinbeans

    The last rental I had was a Cruz with balding tires, an inoperative rear defogger and nasty seats. Pass.

    The only saving grace was that the mileage was pretty good, about 38 combined. I think it had the 1.4T as the 1.8 was cancelled for the second generation IIRC.

    Also, 34mpg!? Mileage should be that thing’s saving grace. I took my Mazda down to Florida in September and averaged 38mpg for the trip and had all the horsepowers and torques. Yikes. It takes talent to get mileage that bad in a car that small… Then again mountains and CVT mixed with a lack of torque may have something to do with that.

  • avatar
    SCE to AUX

    HVAC knobs!

    Another plus – this car is probably a very reliable cockroach, and cheap to own and operate. Glad cars like this are still available.

  • avatar
    Ol Shel

    Sounds like a great car for people on a tight budget. It seems like it transported the author and his belongings reliably.

    Or you could buy one of the other new $15,000 high-horsepower luxury cars.

  • avatar
    thirty-three

    The last 3 times I rented a “compact” I got a RAV4, a Grand Caravan and a Journey. Guess I’m just lucky.

  • avatar
    wjtinfwb

    Why Chevy nixed the Sonic and kept this POS must purely be economic. The Sonic was a decent little box, could be moderately fun to drive and had a decent interior. Alas, it was built in the US which meant it was less profitable for GM than the South Korean built Spark. Wondering if this inflation and gas price situation will cause Ford and GM to rethink their abandonment of the decent small car market. I’d be very happy to see Ford bring the Focus back, specifically in ST trim. Our 2016 Focus ST is a fantastic little box and have been faultless in 50k miles, but it won’t last forever and I have no idea what I’d replace it with as the new GTI leaves me ice cold.

    • 0 avatar
      SCE to AUX

      Every mfr’s move seems to be governed by economics these days.

      The small-car market shrank to the point where it was better for F and GM to cede it to others; they won’t be returning to it. Americans want their utility vehicles.

      • 0 avatar
        Ol Shel

        Crossovers show that people do want practical 5-doors. They just needed more marketing and ‘image’ to go along with them.

        I don’t know if electric will allow the average consumer to continue having overly large vehicles, but if a future need for economy forces a trend toward the smaller and more efficient, then these crossovers could evolve back into hatchbacks and sedans.

      • 0 avatar
        Detroit-X

        The Camry alone sold 314k units in 2021, Civic 264k, Corolla 223k, Accord 202k and that’s just the top of the list. Any automaker who claims to be able to make electric and self driving cars be viable, certainly must be able to make sedans viable. Otherwise their credibility is Zero, Zero, and Zero.

  • avatar
    kcflyer

    Makes me wish again that Honda had put the 1.5 turbo motor in the FIT and kept it available here. I would buy that combo tomorrow if the price was in keeping with what it was allowing for inflation and the more pricey motor. Say 20 grand for a 2022 Fit base model with the turbo motor. Pretty please Honda.

  • avatar
    VWGolfGuy

    GF bought one in 2018 after Grad School. We still have it and overtime I’ve developed an attachment to it. I like it for what it is, not what it could be. They took an underwhelming power train and packaged it in a odd but unique design. It has a basic interior but GM Korea did a decent job hiding the low rent materials with textures, colors, and clever designs. For its class it comes with decent amount of features not present on others, and in the city it’s a “fun” car to drive. Gas milage is biggest complaint.

    Tim, your bags must be oversized.

  • avatar
    SoCalMikester

    used to be a 1.5 n/a 4 banger with a bit over 100hp would be considered adequate for the job in a bigger car than this

  • avatar
    ajla

    I see a lot of these at campsites and RV resorts because they are light, low-cost, and can be flat towed behind a motorhome.

  • avatar

    I’ve had a rental tactic that I’ve used lately, as non-business and infrequent renter. Thus far it has worked:

    Spend a couple extra bucks for the full-size sedan. They won’t have it because they don’t really stock those, and then you can just have whatever you want from their current selection. Win!

    • 0 avatar
      theflyersfan

      Try this as well – if you are not flying into somewhere, but can arrive soon after the rental counter opens (like a local rental or even the airport counter), go with the House Special. Hertz has that as an option. Let’s say you need a weekend car and want to get something nice so you choose the airport counter. If they open at 7AM, get there around 7:30 or so. By that time, they’ve checked in all of the cars. If you’re real nice and flexible, you might be able to score a far better car than what the $25/day rental normally gets you. I’ve gotten convertibles and even European cars with this. If no one has their name on it during the day, you might score it so give it a try.

    • 0 avatar
      FreedMike

      Well played, sir.

  • avatar
    Jeff S

    I have driven much worse rental cars than a Chevy Spark at least the Spark has AC. As a cheap economy car it is all many need especially in the present time of average car prices of 40k and used average car prices near 30k to have a sub 20k vehicle. Even the Mirage is better than many used cars.

  • avatar
    randy in rocklin

    I used to have to rent from Hertz due to Corp policy, so a colleague suggested to add navigation. You usually got an upgraded car for a full-size price since most of the GPS were installed on upscale models. I liked National cuz you could choose your own car.

  • avatar
    ponchoman49

    GM gets zero credit from me. They discontinued all of their best cars and kept this clown thing. I can understand killing off some but they went too far as the Malibu and Camaro are also on the chopping block leaving nothing but an expensive impractical Vette and controversial small electric hatches.

  • avatar
    TheMrFreeze

    Cars of this nature absolutely suck when equipped with an automatic transmission…I have zero doubt it performs quite decently with the manual.

    I’ve actually had my eye on the Spark for the simple reason that it has a lot of features that I prefer. It has multiport fuel injection instead of GDI, no turbo, no automatic start/stop, a manual trans, no push-button start, real HVAC controls, no safety nannies, rear drum brakes (so they won’t need the semi-annual servicing disks need due to salt-induced corrosion), the usefulness of being a hatch, the availability of at least a few interesting colors, plus a sunroof option if that’s your thing.

    For somebody who prefers simplicity and doesn’t drive all that much, this car has the potential to last a good long time. If only it were a wee bit larger and maybe not a Chevrolet ;)

  • avatar
    Jeff S

    If you don’t drive that much then the Spark might be an ideal car with the low price, less gadgets, and lower maintenance cost. Do the routine maintenance and it should last a long time.

  • avatar
    2004_Z06

    One time I reserved a “Mercedes C-Class sedan or equivalent”. The “equivalent” was some generic Infinity sedan. For a modest additional fee, I was able to upgrade to a 2016-ish Mercedes SLK-300 hardtop/convertible (or convertible hardtop?). It was far and away my best rental car, ever.

    Another time I reserved a “Chrysler C-300 or equivalent”. The “equivalent” was either a Cadillac XTS or a Volvo SUV. I mistakenly chose the Caddy for a six-hour drive. 30K miles on the odometer and I quickly found out the cruise control was broken. I kept driving but in retrospect I should have brought it back to swap for the Volvo.

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