Test Driven: 2013 Chevrolet Spark (8/10)

The Chevy Spark has had a successful reception around the world since it came out in 2010. Now GM has brought it to the US market in hopes to peak the interest of younger buyers living in urban areas. It is a city car that competes with the Smart Fortwo, Scion iQ, and Fiat 500. The Spark is on the same chassis as the Chevy Sonic, but features notably smaller proportions that allow it to fit in with the city car segment. The Spark I drove was one of the first cars to hit showrooms, and given the buzz around these things right now I wanted to go try it out.

 

The first and most important theme of the Spark, one that must be remembered throughout the entire experience, is that its purpose is to be cheap transportation. It starts in the $12k range and goes up to around $16k; we are talking real meat and potatoes motoring here so adjust your expectations accordingly. The car I had was about the most basic model there is. It had the standard radio, power windows but not power door locks, and was equipped with a 5spd manual transmission. There are some decent options available for the Spark though, such as Chevy MyLink infotainment and a leather-ish interior, so please do not judge the car’s features solely by what you see here. I wanted to try the most basic spec car I could in order to judge it from the very bottom up.

From the outside the Spark is a funky little car. Its huge headlights and somewhat aggressive stance somehow remind me of one of those rambunctious little lap dogs that bark at people just because they’re there. It is a notable design though, one that won’t really get lost in a crowd, and I’m sure many will go so far as to call it “cute”. There are also a host of loud and interesting colors available for the Spark, like Jalapeño Green and Techno Pink, so if making a statement is your thing then Chevy has you covered.

 

The interior is probably the biggest surprise in the Spark. Most people wouldn’t think it offered much room just by looking at it, but it actually has more passenger room than many larger cars do. Chevy has been very clever with their spatial packaging in the Spark, and I can honestly say it will fit four adults comfortably, not tolerably. I am 5’11 with a solid, hefty build, and I have no problem getting in the back seat. I even rode around in the back seat of a Spark on a separate occasion this summer, and I never felt even slightly cramped. It is definitely a car you can take your friends somewhere in, unlike the Smart which only seats two.

 

If you look at the trunk of a Scion iQ you will se that there isn’t one as long as the rear seat is upright. The Spark on the other hand, has a very decent amount of room in its trunk with the seats up, or quite a lot of space with the rear seats folded flat. I can personally attest to the extent of the room in the back because of something I did for my job this summer. Long story short, I had to see how many large Costco cereal boxes could be crammed into the back of the tiny Spark; to my amazement it took 73 boxes. So, needless to say there is a lot more room in this car than you might think, surely enough to be able to go to the supermarket or hardware store. Take my word for it: the Spark will fit anything a standard size car will; overcoming a major shortcoming of all other offerings in the city car segment.

 

Quality wise the Spark fits its price range, but even on this bare bones model nothing is what I would call shamefully cheap. The plastics are all nicely textured, the seats are well upholstered with either fabric available, and the switchgear feels pretty solid. There are also a bunch of cubbies located around the cabin where you can put gadgets, beverages, and your trusty gizmos. The door pockets have even been specifically designed for soda/water bottles. I had the AC blowing ice cold, and everything around the cabin seemed to work just fine. For your money you get a quality product, and for this sort of car that is all that really matters.

 

Once moving there are a few things I noticed. First off you sit pretty high up, and there is great visibility around the car because of it. This will be a major plus for the types of buyers who would consider a Spark. Then I hit a rough patch and realized that the ride quality was quite good for such a small car. Next I noticed as I drove along that it was very, and I mean very, easy to drive. The clutch was quite soft, the gear throw was easy, and the steering was extremely light to the point where I could drive with my pinkies. This is fantastic for anyone just looking to run some errands, but for an enthusiast like me there is a lot to be desired of course. The clutch gave no sensation at all, and I almost stalled a few times because of this. The steering was nice and quick, but gave no idea whatsoever as to what was going on with the front wheels. The gear lever felt rubbery, and had a long throw that was a little too close to my leg. However, it did also have some good notchiness to it that let me know when I was in gear, so I wasn’t missing shifts. Also, the rev counter was put on this tiny digital display, and I could barely hear the engine, so shifting was always a bit of a guessing game. While the Spark holds some practical surprises in the space it offers, it drives a lot more standard to the type of car that it is. All to be expected though.

When cornering I would describe the Sparks handling as nimble, so long as you are not going that fast. If you go into a curved onramp too hot the car will lose its composure, becoming quite loose at the front end. But if you’re just darting between cars in traffic, or swinging around a parking lot, then it scoots quite well. Its light, quick steering made it behave pretty tight at low speeds, great for snagging that last parking spot from some old bat in her Buick.

The Spark has been widely criticized for its performance on the highway, largely because its 82hp 1.2L motor defines the word “puny”. Obviously it is exceedingly slow, but while driving it I felt it had an acceptable amount of zip up to around 50mph. After that any performance it had just falls off. This means you can pull into traffic on normal roads without trouble, but that you really need to be careful when merging onto a highway. I had my Spark up to 75mph on the Interstate, and honestly there is no need to ever go faster. The car just feels nervous once you cross 70mph, so forget the left lane exists and stick to the middle and right.

(*Another thing to note, while I did not drive the automatic, other reviews have said it is much worse at performing in the real world than the manual, so consider that if you can’t drive stick.)

Is the Spark really “un-useable” on the highway? No. In all honesty, it would be fine for short jaunts, and for infrequent highway trips. You just have to get out of aggressive mode and cruise calmly at 65-70mph, for that it is fine. If you are someone who has a more routine highway commute though, then you should look at other options like the Sonic, which is far more confident at speed.

If there is one major gripe I have with the Spark it is the motor. The 1.2L doesn’t work too well here in the US, and I don’t mean for performance sake. The real issue with the Spark is that its fuel economy is fairly mediocre at 32mpg in the city and 38 on the highway. What this tells me is that the engine just isn’t up to the task at higher speeds. In my opinion GM should have fitted the US Spark with a detuned version of the 1.4L turbo from the Sonic and Cruze. Give it 100-110hp, around the same is its competitors, but it would be the midrange torque that would really make the car. It simply wouldn’t have to work as hard and would consequently be better to drive on the highway. It would likely see greater than the Sonic’s 40mpg with the same motor because it is a lot lighter. This is really a no-brainer in my opinion, and would mean the difference between the Spark being a good buy, or a great buy. That said, for urban drivers, the Spark does do better than the Sonic in the city, so if you don’t use highways much then there is no problem.

GM is really pushing the Spark toward the “Millennial” crowd, a bunch of hypothetical young folks with dedication toward frugality, who like to hang out with friends and do trendy things. They are marketing the Spark as an urban exploration vehicle. Sure it could function as that, but honestly the whole thing just seems too forced and real millenials can see that. The Spark is a great practical and affordable car, but I think it appeals to older folks just as much as the younger crowd. I can even see it being a big hit with retired senior citizens because it is easy to get in and out of, easy to drive, rides well, and appeals to the more frugal ways of times past… before every snobby little brat had a smart phone and their own Twitter page. I see the appeal of the Spark as a more widespread one, based on practicality over image. Anyone with a smart phone can appreciate Chevy MyLink, and anyone on a budget will be drawn to the Sparks value. GM’s excessive marketing toward millennials just makes them seem like that old guy in way-to-short basketball shorts with the boom box over his shoulder. They aren’t pulling off “cool”, and that could be a determent to its appeal for both the young hipster crowd, and every other demographic who might be interested in the Spark for its practical purposes alone. GM just needs to let it be a good cheap car with a wide appeal, and cut all the overly forced marketing BS.

There is no doubt in my mind that functionally, the Spark is the best car in its class by a long shot. It is the only one with four doors; it has the biggest trunk, the most useable space, and one of the lowest prices of entry. The Spark is a quality package from GM at a time when their entire portfolio seems to be improving greatly. However the big question that remains is not of the Spark alone, but of the whole city car segment. I am honestly not sure that the market exists here in the US for such cars when things like the Sonic offer a better all round package. American tastes differ fairly substantially in this realm from the rest of the world. In some countries a Spark is considered a full family car, here we see it as a basic runabout. Parking spots here in the States also tend to be much more uniform in size compared to the age-old cities in Europe and elsewhere, so the “ease of parking” argument doesn’t hold as much water here. Only time and sales will tell I guess. I personally recommend the Spark for anyone looking for cheap, practical transportation. It is a few thousand less than the Sonic, and that can make a decent difference in your monthly bills. Surely enough to maybe consider if you “need” what a Sonic offers, or if you could make due with the Spark. It is a practical purchase above all else, and when you remember that, the Spark makes a lot of sense.

WoM Score: Chevy Spark

Primary Function: Practical: 2
Secondary Functions: MPG(1):1
Visual Appeal: 2
Build Quality: 1
Value for Money: 2

Final Score: 8/10

-Nick Walker

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