Tall, narrow, cheap, terrific mileage and the noisiest power locks ever.Chevrolet's 2013 Spark minicar is aimed at urbanites who don't need much room, don't drive far, think easy parking in tight spots is more exciting than engine power and don't want to pay much.
Spark, from General Motors' GM Korea unit, is Chevy's first minicar in North America. It has a crude mechanical feel. One example: sloppy-shifting manual transmission lever. And those really loud power locks. Come home late at night, hit the lock button and you'll scare the dog and wake the neighbors.
PHOTOS: More views of Chevrolet Spark
Chevy makes no attempt to disguise Spark's basic nature. "There's nothing high-tech about this car," says Chris Winn, lead development engineer for Spark. For instance, no fancy plastic cowling for the engine. And the transmissions are from days of yore: four-speed automatic in a world of five- and six-speed automatics, and five-speed manual at a time when rivals are moving to six.
But though Spark struck us as unrefined to drive by today's standards, it indeed has high-tech features. For instance, an optional OnStar system can diagnose problems and e-mail you a warning.
You can link your cellphone to the car via Bluetooth, all but standard today, but in a feature rare at Spark's price, you also can display and control the phone's contents on Spark's 7-inch screen.
For the $50 cost of an application called BringGo, Spark lets you use your phone to power a navigation system, projecting the map and directions onto the car's screen and giving you turn-by-turn instructions.
Pandora and Stitcher radio apps are embedded in the car. And next year, the setup will be compatible with a free app from audio service TuneIn that offers access to some 70,000 radio stations globally. Talk shows from Afghanistan. Rock from Russia (if the band ***** Riot manages to stay out of jail). Pop hits from the U.K.
So, plenty of tech, just not much of it involves the driving feel of the car.
Three things make Spark compelling, even if driving feel isn't one:
It starts at $12,995, runs to about $17,000. The loaded Spark is slightly cheaper than a base Honda Fit, which is bigger. Chevy sees the price as an alluring alternative to a used car for city dwellers.
Spark drives as small as it looks. It turns in very little space, and slips easily into parking spaces too small for most cars. (The cost of nimbleness is a very tight back seat and not much width inside.)
Spark's 1.25-liter four-cylinder (to distinguish it from a different 1.2-liter GM engine) gets a federal rating of 34 mpg (manual transmission) or 32 (automatic) in city/highway mix. And it'll really get that. Our lead-foot testing in a manual transmission car, in the burbs and the city, resulted in a tick over 32 mpg.
And you pretty much have to lead-foot the car to keep up with traffic because of its modest power. Not much scoot unless you downshift the manual, or use the gas pedal to goad the automatic into dropping down a gear.
Doing so isn't especially rewarding because the car isn't a sporty buggy. The body doesn't lean as much as the car's tall dimensions suggest it might, but it won't make you pine for tight, high-speed "S" corners, either.
Front seats are reasonably comfortable, if lacking lateral cushioning due to the narrow dimensions. Controls and instruments are reasonably well arrayed, though some switches on the steering column are blocked by the steering wheel and require a blind reach, or a head-tilt glance.
Chevy says a flashy paint palette should provide allure. Colors include Salsa Red, Jalapeno, Denim and Techno Pink. If you're not that extroverted, you also can get a Spark in conventional black, silver or white.
Katherine Sirvio, GM senior design manager in charge of Chevy colors and trim globally, didn't want to include pink. The car needed to broaden its appeal to more young women in South Korea, where it was launched in 2010. "We shied away from pink because it's kind of a cliche" as a lure for female buyers, she says.
But after surveying personal electronics and home appliances, she switched, finally convinced when an appliance store told her its pink refrigerator was by far the most popular.
In South Korea, 23% of Sparks are pink, she says, and in the U.S., where it went on sale in July, it's 9%, and pink is being bought by men as well as women.
Leather's not available. "Nobody would believe it at this price point," she says. Nor did she try to mask the optional vinyl as leather, or cover the dashboard trim in fake wood.
In what Chevy hopes will be seen as honesty, she went for "transparency of materials. Let plastic be plastic." For the high-end test car, that meant brilliant red vinyl seats with odd pockmark patterns and splashes of bright color on the dash. Interesting.
Some shoppers no doubt still will prefer a nearly new used car that, for the price of Spark, could be bigger, more powerful and likely have unexpired warranty.
But if Spark's trim size and remarkable fuel mileage are more persuasive in your household, at least you'll have plenty of electronic gadgets to keep you occupied and a provocative approach to color and materials to keep you awake.
About the Chevy Spark
Front-drive, four-door, four-passenger hatchback aimed at urbanites. Competes with Fiat 500, Smart Fortwo and Scion iQ.
On sale since July.
Made in South Korea.
$12,995, including $750 shipping, to $16,720 loaded.
What makes it go?
1.25-liter four-cylinder gasoline engine rated 84 hp at 6,400 rpm, 83 pounds-feet of torque at 4,200 rpm. Five-speed manual or four-speed automatic.
About as wide, tall as Fiat 500 or Smart (both two-doors), but 5 inches longer than the Fiat and almost 3 feet longer than the Smart. Spark is 144.7 inches long, 62.9 in. wide, 61 in. tall on a 93.5-in. wheelbase. Weighs 2,237 to 2,269 lbs. Passenger space, 86.3 cu. ft. Cargo space, 11.4 cu. ft. behind rear seat, 31.2 cu. ft. when seat's folded. Turning circle diameter, 32.5 ft.
Rated 32 mpg city, 38 highway, 34 combined (manual); 28/37/32 (automatic). Trip computer in manual tester registered 32.2 mpg (3.11 gallons per 100 miles) in spirited suburban and city driving. Burns regular, holds 9.2 gallons.
Not fun, not fancy, but not pricey and not thirsty.
Test Drive: Low-tech Chevy Spark gets high mpg