The sun is shining in Vancouver, Canada’s anti-car city, as I toodle about in something I’ll call one of the latest antidotes to the traditional car. It’s not a huge stretch to call this 2013 Chevrolet Spark an “anti-car,” in fact, and the likes of it are beginning to populate dealerships in Canada’s bigger cities.
Anti-cars are crucial to the car business of the future. The joy of driving in Vancouver is the time one has sitting in traffic. Waiting. And waiting. Gridlock, thy name is Vancouver. So while I’d like to say I am wheeling about in a fire engine red 2013 Spark, I’m really putt-putting. But the car itself is cute as a bug. Made in South Korea by General Motors’ Daewoo subsidiary, the Spark is what’s called a minicar. The competition? The Spark joins a list that includes the Fiat 500, Smart fortwo and Scion iQ. All are new and at the vanguard of the anti-car movement. We’ll see more of this.
The Spark is small by any measure, though this hatchback has four doors and decent room all around. Chevy’s product types are quick to say their Spark has more headroom than its rivals, save the fortwo, and more rear headroom, period. Legroom is best-in-class, as is cargo room. And that big hatch at the rear means I could easily load up with furniture at IKEA if I were a kid who’s just moved out of his parents’ basement. Or back in.
Today, though, I am crawling in the city that, according to the TomTom Congestion Index, is Canada’s most congested and the No. 2 city for gridlock in North America. No. 1, of course, is Los Angeles.
The frustrations of driving in Vancouver were at least delayed for me this morning. Rather than driving, I spent half an hour syncing my Bluetooth phone to my Spark. After four tries and three different codes – don’t ask – I managed to make my phone part of this car. Now my so-called “smart” phone is embedded in what the Chevy people refer to as their “dumb” radio and that comes with all sorts of implications. One is that my Spark is now a rolling tracking device.
Later this year, it will also become an inexpensively equipped navigation device. GM Canada will start selling an app called “Bringgo” and in doing so will be able to sell affordable, smartphone-enabled, turn-by-turn navigation for the masses. Expect to pay somewhere between $50 and $100. Don’t underestimate the importance of this smartphone piece, either.
You see, the little Spark is not about the driving experience at all. The twentysomething Millennials expected to buy the Spark are far more interested in staying connected than in actually driving, or at least actually enjoying the experience of driving. For car companies, a disturbing number of young people think of cars as nothing more than transportation appliances into which they can pile their friends and “stuff.” As Ross Martin, the executive vice-president of MTV Scratch, a unit of the giant media company Viacom, recently told The New York Times, many young people actually “think of a car as a giant bummer. Think about your dashboard. It’s filled with nothing but bad news.”
The good news for Spark buyers is the connectivity of the MyLink colour touch screen and all the Bluetooth-enabled goodies that can be run through it. Without MyLink, the Spark will mean nothing much to the youth buyers Chevy is courting. Here’s why: nearly half (46 per cent) of U.S. drivers aged 18 to 24 said they would choose Internet access over owning a car, according to the research firm Gartner recently quoted in The New York Times. Chevy wants to be first among auto makers adjusting to changing youth tastes.
If they don’t succeed, the Times story goes, they “risk becoming the dad at the middle school dance,” says Anne Hubert, senior vice-president at Scratch, who leads its consulting practice and works closely with GM. Dad may have become a bit paunchy with middle age, but he’s not phat and he’s not the target customer for the Spark, either.
So the Spark is an early example of a smartphone on wheels. And if you believe a recent survey by Deloitte and Michigan State University’s Broad College of Business, most 19- to 31-year-olds from Boston to Beijing to Berlin want exactly that – “a smartphone on wheels.” Tech-savvy young people around the world, The Detroit News reports, want a car that is, of course, tech savvy, flexible, useful and inexpensive. Nearly 60 per cent of young people surveyed by Deloitte said in-dash technology is the most important part of a vehicle’s interior, while 73 per cent said they wanted touchscreen interfaces.
I will say this about the Spark: the MyLink touchscreen interface is simple to operate and it works. Seconds after syncing my phone, all my contacts and contact histories were right there, up front in the colour screen. During frequent and long stretches of being stuck in Vancouver traffic, I was able to legally punch up friends and business colleagues and sort through business issues and social plans as I crawled through traffic.
Mind you, there is a price for this. My fancy 2LT model Spark with automatic transmission stickers for nearly 20 large – $19,745 to be exact. Sure, it’s equipped with everything from 10 air bags to StabiliTrak, not to mention air conditioning, Stitcher SmartRadio, SiriusXM radio, cruise control, fog lights, roof rails, unique aluminum wheels, “leatherette” seating with heat up front and even a leather-wrapped steering wheel. Loaded.
The young buyer looking for a car that is simply inexpensive, however, can opt for the base Spark ($13,495), which still has a long list of standard gear – power windows and door locks and six months of OnStar included. That model, like all the rest, is powered by a 1.25-litre four-banger rated at 85 horsepower. Chevy says you’ll get away from a stoplight and hit 96 km/h in 12.5 seconds. At least the tight turning radius (5.0 metres) makes the Spark ideal for manoeuvring around IKEA’s always-jammed parking lot. And the Spark uses regular gas.
Still, the iQ is rated at 94 hp and uses less fuel (4.7 litres/100 km versus the Spark at 5.2). Fiat’s 500 churns up a even healthier 101 hp, but is thirstier (5.7 litres/100 km) and wants premium. The Spark’s pint-sized mill is not what I’d call a smoothie, either; it feels and sounds coarse. Good thing most Spark drivers will be talking on the phone or listening to music. What does powertrain sophistication matter to them? On that point, the manual gearbox is a five-speed, while the auto is a four-speed. Neither offering is cutting-edge.
Smartphones and fuel economy aside, Chevy likes its monthly payment story and plans to push it. According to company officials, a 48-month lease on a Spark LS with autobox and air will set you back $242 a month ($0 down, 2.6 per cent lease rate); the monthly payment on a 72-month finance deal comes to $254 ($0 down, 1.99 per cent).
As for these socializing Millennials, the Spark’s current competitors are all two-door grocery-getters. Chevy ticks the “friends” box for the four-door Spark, citing it as a big advantage. Foursomes can easily pile in and, if you get the roof rails, there’s even room for Mitt Romney to tie down his dog.
And the design is interesting, from the “elliptically sculpted” headlights to the arcing roofline to the hidden handles on the rear doors. The production version of the Spark is really quite true to the Spark concept we saw many years ago as it made rounds of the auto show circuit. Chevy swears six ways and up and down that quality will also be good – 3 mm panel gaps are an example – and the power train warranty is five years/160,000 km.
In truth, cabin ergonomics are not ideal. The steering column tilts but does not telescope, so not everyone will find a comfy place behind the wheel. For me, the reach to the touchscreen seemed overly far and visibility to the side and rear could be better. Overall, I felt like I was sitting in a chair in car, not a seat contoured to fit me and fit me inside the Spark.
Will anyone care? Perhaps not in Vancouver. This is a town that celebrated Car Free Vancouver Day on June 17, Father’s Day. By 2020, city council wants 50 per cent of all trips in the city to be by foot, bicycle or public transit. Vehicles? Well, the city will tolerate car-sharing and electrics.
Chevy has a plan there, too. Next year the Spark EV will go on sale as a 2014 model. And Smart’s EV is a 2013. The anti-car cars are here and more are coming.
2013 Chevrolet Spark 2LT Auto
Type: Four-door minicar hatchback
Base price: $19,745 ($1,500 freight)
Engine: 1.25-litre, four-cylinder
Horsepower/torque: 85 hp/82 lb-ft
Transmission: Four-speed automatic
Fuel economy (litres/100 km): 7.1 city/5.2 highway; regular gas
Alternatives: Fiat 500, Scion iQ, Smart fortwo