You may call the 2013 Chevrolet Spark "unique" without upsetting defenders of the English language. "Unique" means "one of a kind," so "very unique" is poor wording, and describing an item as "unique" when there are other things like it is wrong.
The Spark is Chevy's new A-segment mini. Three other cars sold in the U.S. compete in this size category, and none is like this Bowtie A-car. It certainly has none of the cartoonish character of the Fiat 500, and it's more than $3000 cheaper than the op-art design, two-door hatchback Scion iQ, a car surprisingly substandard in its driving dynamics, especially for a Toyota product. The only competitor that comes close to the Spark's $12,995 price is the Smart Fortwo, a two-door two-seater that serves as a strong argument for the commuter biking movement.
The Chevy Spark, which goes on sale in August or September, is the only four-door hatchback in the A-segment with reasonably comfortable space for four adults. It is unique. A pure electric version is scheduled to hit the market next year.
The rear seat, with cupholders dividing left from right, has generous headroom and pretty good legroom, with a necessarily short seat cushion. The car is tall: one inch taller than the already upright Sonic B-car. With the Spark's rear seats up, there's not much more cargo space than in the Fortwo. But who combines grocery shopping with double dates? Flip and fold the rear seats and the Spark offers 31.2 cubic-feet of volume, Chevy says.
The Spark is successor to the Daewoo Matiz, a onetime favorite of the Third World and emerging markets. Chevrolet already is building the Spark in South Korea for Asia and Europe. North America gets a specific chassis setup and a bump in engine displacement from 1.2 liters to 1.249 liters, thanks to both bore and stroke, plus electronic power steering, aluminum wheels, StabiliTrak stability control with brake assist, and Hill Start Assist. We get 185/55R all-season tires on 15-inch wheels, while other markets get 14-inch wheels or smaller.
Air conditioning -- which is optional, still, on the base Dodge Dart -- is standard across the Spark line, as are power windows all around. The 2LT trim level adds heated leatherette (vinyl) seats and a leather-wrapped steering wheel, but the joy in owning a Spark will come from owning one of the lowest-priced cars available, and possibly the cheapest car with four useful seats.
The best thing that can be said about the optional four-speed automatic, which should cost an extra $1000 or so, is that it's not a CVT. Beside the fact it has just four speeds, it adds about 2 seconds onto the five-speed manual's already considerable estimated 0-60 time. What better time to teach your kids how to operate a clutch pedal? The only issue is that if most prospective customers heed this advice, it'll surely upset Chevy's inventory.
Manuals should be required on such cars, because a stick shift can keep drivers from texting and phoning while driving, and because it can add a modicum of fun to otherwise unremarkable dynamics.
The ultra-light car feels fairly tossable. Its stiff damping seems designed to keep the car from bottoming out on Rustbelt potholes. Steering is unobtrusive at best, and doesn't go out of its way to offer feedback. Body roll is considerable, thanks to the space-creating height. Three passengers joined me for my first drive of a manual Spark around GM's Milford Proving Grounds handling road, which means the four of us increased the car's gross weight more than 30 percent. There was a good deal of lean in the long sweepers.
The 83-horsepower engine moves the car adequately, and offers plenty of power for first-time drivers. It can get out of its own way, though not at all quickly. At highway speeds, there's plenty of wind and road noise, though the car is quiet enough inside to conduct normal conversation with front- and rear-seat passengers.
If you feel compelled to add anything to the Spark's base price, go for the package that includes Chevrolet MyLink with AM/FM/SiriusXM Satellite Radio (with a three-month trial service), digital clock, Bluetooth streaming audio, six speakers, and voice recognition. The stereo is no Bose, let alone Fender or Mark Levinson, but you won't be spending a couple large for a built-in navigation system. MyLink connects with your smartphone to provide GoGo Link navigation, so it gets upgrades every time you upgrade your phone's software or replace the hardware. The system also provides Pandora and Stitcher music services, and there's room on the 7-inch touch screen for more apps later.
With 10 airbags, a sufficiently solid feel, and a cheap and cheerful interior, the Chevy Spark is plenty of car for used car money. Its ride, handling, and steering aren't unlike that in the soft and springy Fiat 500 - the standard model, not the Abarth. If you're in the market for an A-segment car, you should dismiss the Scion iQ and Smart Fortwo immediately, which leaves the 500 and the Spark. From there, it comes down to the question of whether you'll fork over $2500 to $5500 more for all the Italian-bombshell-in-a-black-cocktail-dress style and fashion of the Fiat that's missing in the Chevy [unless you consider oversized headlamps "stylish"]. If you're unwilling, or unable, to spend an extra 20 to 42 percent of your budget on the 500, then you've discovered what marketers would call the Spark's unique selling proposition.
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