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car review

Chevrolet introduced its Spark EV at this year's Los Angeles Auto Show, and, according to the company, it should be in dealerships by next summer. Fully battery-powered, it will be part of a model-wide electric technology push on the part of General Motors.

Let's hope it's a more driveable proposition than the current internal-combustion Spark, which is on sale now. I'm hard-pressed to think of another vehicle that has so little going for it. Maybe the Smart, possibly the Scion iQ.

But before I get into it, a few stats on the Chevy Spark. Built in Korea, this sub-compact is powered by a 1.2-litre, four-cylinder engine that develops 83 horsepower. It's available as a four-door hatchback only and you can choose from either a five-speed manual or four-speed automatic transmission. My tester, a middle-of-the-range 1LT, had the latter. Standard equipment includes front disc/rear drum brakes with ABS, seating for four, 883 litres of cargo room with the back seat folded, power windows and, with the 1LT, Bluetooth and Sirius satellite radio.

That leads to my first complaint. This engine is awful. It's loud, unrefined, and gutless. GM claims that the Spark has "plenty of juice" to get around town. I disagree. There's no juice here, just some dregs. You've got to really give it some welly just to keep up and, on the highway, it practically drowns out the radio. I guess I should be thankful it's not mated to a CVT, which would be a nightmare.

The upgraded radio, by the way, is part of GM's MyLink system and may be the worst-designed sound system I've ever encountered. The layout and controls don't make sense, and I spent way more time than I should have trying to figure out how to change stations and adjusting the balance and tone. A few years back, an acquaintance of mine had an accident because he was trying to adjust the radio settings in his new Audi, and the Spark is almost as bad.

But what really rubs me the wrong way about this one is the price. GM claims that the base model starts at just less than $12,000. That may be true, but my tester, with extras such as the autobox, cruise control, tilt steering, air conditioning, and the MyLink set-up comes in at just less than $18,000. And it doesn't even have heated seats. For that, you have to step up to the 2LT version, which is almost two grand more. If I shelled out 18 large – almost $20,000 after taxes and extras – for this tin can, I'd be one unhappy camper. You can pick up superior models from Honda, Hyundai and Kia for less and get more car for your money. You could also buy yourself a decent two- or three-year-old Honda Accord or a new VW Jetta for about the same money, and be happier for it.

Even Chevy's own Cruze, which is a superior automobile in every way, starts at around $15,000. You'd be better off spending your money on a Cruze than a slapped-together puddle-jumper like the Spark.

I'm also confused about the marketing of this one. GM introduced the Chevrolet Sonic last year which, although it's a little pricier than the Spark, is much the same in design and purpose, but is a better car in almost every way. It's got a bigger engine(s), more content, and is more driveable and easy to get along with. These two are now competing against each other, which doesn't make sense. Maybe GM is just trying to flood the market.

All that said, there are a couple of bright spots for the Spark. No. 1: it's good on gas. GM is claiming 7.1 litres/100 km in town, and 5.2 on the highway, for a combined rating of 6.2 litres/100 km. No. 2: it is manageable and nimble in city traffic and is easy to park and man-handle around town.

But the Spark is being marketed as a low-cost city car with a high fun quotient. It's neither. Rivals such as the Honda Fit, Nissan Versa, Kia Rio, Hyundai Accent, and even the Mazda2 and Ford Fiesta are just as thrifty, if not more so, more enjoyable to drive, more powerful, and feature better build quality.

Maybe the electric version will be better.

Tech Specs

2013 Chev Spark 1LT

Base Price: $17,945; as tested: $19,545

Engine: 1.2-litre four-cylinder

Horsepower/torque: 83 hp/83 ft-lb

Transmission: Four-speed automatic

Drive: Front-wheel

Fuel economy: (litres/100 km): 7.1 city/5.2 highway

Alternatives:Mazda2, Ford Fiesta, Chevrolet Sonic, Honda Fit, Nissan Versa, Kia Rio5, Fiat 500, Toyota Yaris, Smart FourTwo.

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