What it lacks in power, it makes up for in style, spaciousness and connectivity
It is interesting, in light of high fuel prices, that small city runabouts are not selling as well as larger compact cars and crossovers.
The subcompact market has been flooded with all-new product over the last two years, yet sales remain well back of larger vehicles.
Behind the subcompact segment is an even smaller set of vehicles called "mini," that is represented by the Fiat 500, Scion IQ and the Smart Fortwo. Chevrolet is entering this mini segment with a very good offering, the Spark.
It differs from the established vehicles due to the fact it has four doors and four seats compared to the two-door competition.
The Spark has been sold around the world for the past two years under the Chevrolet badge and is built by General Motors of Korea, formally known as Daewoo.
In order to provide enough interior space, the overall shape of the car needs to be boxy, yet the designers have used a few tricks to make the Spark look rounded and more athletic.
The Spark's Korean designers wanted a vehicle that looked like it was ready to pounce, so the oversized headlights sweep back over a rounded hood, giving the small car a sense of motion. Then the side accent lines flow upward and the rear door handles are integrated into the window trim, mimicking the look of a coupe.
If the Spark looks bigger than a Fiat 500, that's because it is. The extra doors offer an option for families, where the two-door designs in the Fiat 500 limits the number of buyers.
The rear of the car is basic and rather upright but this provides a large hatch and easy access to the small cargo area.
This car is perfect for small grocery buying trips - for larger purchases, the back seats need to be folded down.
To appeal to youthful buyers, the Spark is sold in eight colours, including Lemonade Yellow and Techno pink.
Having driven the subcompact Chevrolet Sonic recently, I am pleasantly surprised by the interior finish and design of the Spark; it looks more polished and well thought out. Body colour-matched interior panels brighten the interior, something the Sonic could use. These high-gloss features run across the dash and into the door panels, but how long will this shinny finish hold up in daily use? Starting at $13,495, the LS model comes with standard air-conditioning, power windows and auxiliary audio jack.
Safety features include 10 standard airbags and traction and stability control. The most popular model will be the 1LT trim, with a starting price of $16,695.
The reason to upgrade to this car is the fabulous MyLink radio and smart phone connectivity system. Bluetooth audio and phone calls are simple and the screen is very well designed, making touch-screen transitions second nature. MyLink also has an app that allows compatible smartphones to stream their navigation maps, into the screen, allowing the system to piggyback on the phone's information.
This is the first time I have seen this type of integration, something smartphone buyers have been asking for.
The Spark doesn't exactly ignite passion behind the wheel; this car is more about efficiency and attitude, not performance. It is powered by a small, 83-horsepower 1.2-litre 4-cylinder engine and is matched to either a 5-speed manual or 4-speed automatic.
The Fiat 500, by comparison, has a 1.4-litre 4-cylinder with 101hp; the Scion IQ has 94hp; and the Smart Fortwo is rated at 70hp.
The engine is willing off the line, but passing manoeuvres need to be planned out.
Handling is lively, thanks to the short wheelbase and wide track, but the high roofline produces body roll in the corners.
Having a 4-speed automatic instead of a 6-speed, in cars like the Kia Rio, might be proven technology and lighter, but this little motor could use at least one more gear - the manual might be the way to go. The high roof also provides an abundance of glass for excellent outward visibility and the seats are nicely bolstered for comfortable commuting.
The Good, The Bad
Good: Impressive amount of room, connectivity and attitude.
Bad: Underpowered and expensive in the higher trim levels.
Since the Spark is slightly bigger than the other mini cars it nudges into the subcompact class, competing with more powerful and betterpackaged hatchbacks. The $16,695 5-speed manual 1LT is a perfect example. Yes it comes well-equipped, but for just $300 more the Kia Rio has more room, a more powerful engine, and a 6-speed automatic.
Another example is the amazing Nissan Versa hatchback for $14,678. What the Spark has in its favour is a vehicle in the mini class with plenty of room. The back seat has enough leg and headroom for adults; the cabin feels open and airy; and the fun styling packs a bit of attitude.
The market might be telling us that buyers are looking for more in a vehicle these days. With buyers choosing size, features and functionality over thriftiness, the Spark might have a hard time establishing itself. Chevrolet got a lot right about this vehicle, except the price.
Power: 1.2-litre 4-cylinder (83hp)
Fill-up: 6.3L/5.1L/100km (city/ highway)
Sticker price: $13,495-$18,495
© Copyright (c) The Vancouver Sun