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.