Chevrolet may not be entirely comfortable with its new Spark ultra-mini – ditto for traditional bow-tie-brand buyers eyeing it – and felt it necessary to accompany its recent launch with a size-myth-buster info release.
The concern may be merited as the recently arrived 2013 Spark, launched in Korea in 2009 with 600,000 sold so far in 100 other markets, is the first mini-motor-car to wear a Chevy badge in North America – you could park it on the hood of a Buick Roadmaster of a couple of decades ago.
The young buyers it is aimed at, used to ever-shrinking mobile devices, may not be fazed by this dimensionally challenged Chevy. But Chevy marketers must believe moving more mature city dwellers out of bigger cars – which might include the Chevy Sonic or Cruze – and squeezing them into a Spark requires a little reassurance.
Let’s make one thing clear: it is small. With a length of 3,675 mm, the Spark would fill the gap between the subcompact Sonic’s bumpers with 364 mm to spare. The only “real” car that is tinier is Fiat’s 500, with only silly-sized city cars such as the Scion iQ and Smart fortwo in the even-smaller category.
The price is minimal, too, starting at $13,495 for a base car with manual or $14,745 with automatic. More realistic for most will be the better-equipped 1LT at $16,695 with manual; if you need more, there’s the 2LT at $18,495 or, in the case of my automatic-equipped tester, $19,745.
The first “myth” Chevy’s info piece attempts to debunk is that Spark-sized cars aren’t safe, rightly pointing out it’s designed to be tough (and does feel solid) structurally, and is equipped with electronic stability and braking assist systems and no less than 10 airbags. In fact, all it doesn’t have compared to bigger vehicles is, well, size and mass, which unfortunately count if you’re involved in a crash with something that has more of both. Try not to get hit by anything big and you’ll be fine.
Other “myths” Chevy puts a positive spin on are that cars in this class are cramped, uncomfortable, and lack style and features.
There may not be much of the Spark, but what there is has been moulded into a five-door shape that definitely looks city-car trendy. And for those who don’t mind attracting attention, it comes coloured in Salsa Red, Jalapeno, Denim, Lemonade and Techno Pink.
And as far as interior room goes, while there obviously isn’t a lot, it’s not too tight up front, or in the rear, where two adults will actually fit – although not in what you’d call comfort. With the 60/40-split rear seatback up, there’s 323 litres of grocery-bag room under the hatch and, with it folded, a useful 884 litres.
The interior fittings are nice enough to look at and work with, and the front seats, while somewhat minimalist, actually proved comfortable. The only really cheap note is sounded by the power locks, which activate with an unpleasant “shlock” sound. A driver’s-side armrest seems an odd feature for an around-town car.
And it isn’t shy on features. Standard on all but the base model are air conditioning, cruise, power windows and locks, remote keyless entry, outside temperature readout and a tilt wheel and driver info centre. The 2LT adds fancier wheels and some exterior chrome bits, fog lamps, roof rails, leather-wrapped wheel with cruise and Bluetooth controls and leatherette upholstery.
The Spark is apparently the first modern Chevy without a standard CD player, fitted instead with an audio system that includes MyLink, which integrates with smartphones via Bluetooth or USB and includes a navigation feature.
The final “myth” category addressed is that little cars like this won’t handle or deliver a livable level of performance.
Under the Spark’s hood and driving the front wheels through a five-speed manual, or in the test car’s case a four-speed automatic transmission, is a growly, 1.2-litre four-cylinder engine that makes 84 hp and 83 lb-ft of torque. Which, despite the car weighing just 1,060 kilograms, isn’t enough to generate a lot of accelerative spark. At least by the numbers. According to recent AJAC TestFest results, with the automatic, getting to 100 km/h takes 14.1 seconds, with 80 km/h to 120km/h requiring 12.4 seconds. So put your foot down on on-ramps and give secondary road passing a little forethought.
More importantly though, it doesn’t feel particularly sluggish in city traffic conditions, where 0-60 km range performance is more critical. The five-speed is probably quicker, but the automatic makes sense in the city.
As you’d expect, it poses more positive fuel economy numbers, 7.1 litres/100 km city and 5.2 highway. I averaged 6.3 litres/100 km in my highway and ex-urban driving cycle week. Micro-engined cars often aren’t at their most frugal when flogged at high cruising speed on a hilly highway, but the Spark managed 6.4 litres/100 km.
The Spark has a Macpherson strut front and compound crank rear suspension and is firmly sprung, which means you get rocked and rolled and pitched and tossed around, but only in exceptionally rough going (city potholes?) treated harshly. The ride, in other words, isn’t too bad.
The steering is electric and feels light, but also directly connected to the front wheels, and on a smoothly surfaced back road it corners competently, albeit with a lot of body roll. As with all small cars with ultra-short wheelbases, it will pay to stay alert and have quick hands when driving it in slippery winter conditions.
So, okay, Chevy’s assertion that it’s “fun to drive” will depend a lot on your definition of the word. A turbocharger and better tires would help. But the Spark does work as a city car (or commuter), where its size doesn’t make you feel as vulnerable, its performance is okay, and it’s definitely easy to park.
2013 Chevrolet Spark 2LT
Type: Subcompact hatchback
Base Price: $19,745; as tested, $21,345
Engine: 1.2-litre, DOHC, inline-four.
Horsepower/torque: 84 hp/82 lb-ft
Transmission: Four-speed automatic
Fuel economy (litres/100 km): 7.1 city/5.2 highway; regular gas
Alternatives: Fiat 500, Ford Fiesta, Hyundai Accent, Kia Rio5, Mazda2, Nissan Versa, Honda Fit