Any city car needs to be cheap to buy, fuel-efficient and easy to park. Let’s say priced below $20,000, including tax.
Choosing one grows tougher as more manufacturers produce new takes on tiny.
Consider the variety on offer: Smart, Fiat 500, Scion iQ and the newest arrival among them, the Chevrolet Spark we’re evaluating today. (Mini Cooper is a contender as well, but starts at $23,950.)
They’re really small, 3.7-metres or less in length. Subcompacts like the Mazda2, Honda Fit, Toyota Yaris, and Ford Fiesta seem like bulge-mobiles by comparison.
Our occasional EcoDriver series of reviews includes only vehicles rated at 10 litres or less per 100 km of city-area driving. These city cars come in at less than 8.0 litres/100 km.
Beyond fuel efficiency, of course, some city car shoppers are won over by flair, some by functionality.
Fiat 500 and the Mini are intensely huggable, and stand out with their classic 1950s styling. The way they look can be a big part of the purchase decision. The Scion iQ and the Smart, on the other hand, either attract or repel on the basis of their weirdness.
Functionality is less personal. Bottom line, Smart carries only two persons. Most city cars can squeeze in another two consenting adults with varying degrees of unpleasantness.
In comparison, roominess is what the Chevrolet Spark is all about. Its major selling point among minor cars is its ability to carry four in reasonable comfort.
The Spark isn’t going to attract buyers with its appearance, or turn them off. Not a whole lot different in shape from hordes of hatchbacks, the littlest Chevy can be hard to pick out in a parking lot. Once you find it and remember where its rear door handles are concealed (high in the rear pillars), Spark is extraordinary in the way it opens up to four grownups. It’s the one four-door in a two-door class.
If only it were more enjoyable to drive. Tiny cars really can be fun. But the elements that make for fun in some – turn-on-a-dime steering, effortless parking, all-round zip – fall short in this one.
Yes, it will feel nimble to anyone accustomed to larger cars. It pulls off your classic Toronto Beach U-turn with pavement to spare. Its turning circle is tighter than the Mini’s. The Fiat 500 shows true city car manoeuvrability, though, turning in 9.3 metres compared to Spark’s 9.9 metres, and Scion iQ sets the standard at 7.9. Smart? 8.7.
The ability to seize a parking space on either side of the street distinguishes a city car. And here exists another Spark negative: the process of parking. Backing into a spot, you encounter the extraordinarily wide rear pillars that restrict rear vision to the sides. Not easy.
A quiet, smooth ride at cruising speeds – 60 km/h in town, 120 on the highway – is a plus. Accelerating is the irritant. The only city car slower in acceleration is the Smart, and not by much. With 84 horsepower and the automatic transmission only a four-speed, stepping on the accelerator produces more noise than progress.
That’s with only the driver on board. Fully loaded with four adults, Spark might be outpaced by a horse and carriage hauling tourists downtown.
The readout in the gauge cluster indicating fuel consumption may be the most rewarding element of the driving experience. On country roads with speed limits of 60 or 80 km/h, seeing a readout of 5.8 litres/100 km was a highlight. In a week’s suburban driving, 434 km, the test car consumed 29.8 litres for an average of 6.9 litres/100 km, among the best in EcoDriver testing.
Perhaps normal performance standards do not apply. Think of the Spark as an appliance instead of a car and you begin to get it. Like a refrigerator, what it can hold counts more than how it moves. Occupants can chill, if not thrill.
The interior neither feels nor looks cheapo in our 1LT test car, which has a base price of $17,945 (Spark starts at $11,845). The seats are unexpectedly cushy. Artful pastel stripes lift their grey cloth beyond the usual cut-rate grey. Shiny plastic trim spears enliven the dash.
Controls are simple. Three large knobs cover heat and air-conditioning. Cruise, telephone and sound system volume are on the steering wheel.
A seven-inch touch screen and Bluetooth involves your phone in Chevrolet’s MyLink setup. The compact disc generation will feel left out with no slot for their tunes, but the USB port recognizes today’s reality.
The mid-day sun produces a disconcerting reflection of the dashboard in the windshield. Otherwise, GM Korea has exceeded current standards.
Keyless entry, power windows, outside temperature, XM radio (for three months) and OnStar security number among the formerly luxury car touches. A privacy panel hides the not-very-large luggage area. Rear seats folded not quite flat, cargo capacity is 883 litres.
The twin cup-holders are hard to use – they’re too far back in the console and swallow medium coffee cups. Younger drivers will appreciate door receptacles with jumbo drink capacity.
An electric Spark made its debut at the Los Angeles car show. More juice, in the end, is exactly what today’s test car needs.
2013 Chevrolet Spark LT
Type: Four-door hatchback
Base price: $17,945; as tested, $19,445 including options and $1,500 destination/pre-delivery charges, but not taxes
Engine: 1.25-litre, DOHC, four-cylinder
Horsepower/torque: 84 hp/83 lb-ft
Transmission: Four-speed automatic
Fuel economy (litres/100 km): 7.1 city/5.2 highway (Natural Resources Canada); in our suburban driving, 6.9.; regular gas
Alternatives: Fiat 500, Smart fortwo, Scion iQ, Hyundai Accent, Kia Rio