Can Chevy’s tiny offering save the reputation of microcars in America?
On-Sale Date: Now
Price: $12,995 to $15,795
Competitors: Scion iQ, Fiat 500, Smart ForTwo
Powertrains: 1.25-liter I-4, 84 hp, 83 lb-ft
EPA Fuel Economy (city/hwy): 32/38 (manual), 28/37 (auto)
What’s New: Chevy’s sprightly minicar, the Spark, is a big seller around the globe, but it wasn’t developed with North America in mind. The "old" GM might have shipped the Korean-made tyke over to our shores and hoped for the best. Thankfully for us, the GM of today unleashed a squadron of homeland Detroit engineers onto the Spark to modify and improve the little machine for the U.S.
Under that short hood is an 84-hp, 1.25-liter four-cylinder. That’s .5-liter more than Sparks have in other markets. "The real goal there was to get a flatter, more useable torque curve out of the engine," ride and handling engineer Nathan Sumner says. The team at GM also retuned the intake manifold and the whole exhaust system to give our Spark a sportier sound and optimized the gear ratios in both the five-speed manual and the four-speed automatic with unique gearing for the U.S. market.
The original Spark was a soft rider and not what you’d describe as a fun machine when the road twists. To impart a livelier feel, Sumner’s colleagues lowered the car by 10 mm and retuned the suspension bushings and shocks. Anyone who’s spent time in a Smart ForTwo knows how unsettled that car feels at highway speeds. Sumner didn’t want that to be the Spark’s Achilles’ heel, so he minimized the nervousness on the highway by first adding 15-inch wheels and improved tires, then fine-tuning the suspension. "Just a small tweak will make all the difference in the world," Sumner says. "I made one little change to the rear damper tuning, and it just calmed the whole car down. It’s really kind of a black art sometimes, finding just the right balance."
The American Spark also comes with an electronic power-steering system. It provides variable assist based on speed, so the driver can dial in a lighter feel around town and more heft through the wheel as the Spark piles on speed. "When you increase the effort at highways speeds, it makes the car much more stable and less twitchy," Sumner says.
GM says it improved the door seals, baffles, carpeting, engine acoustics, and wipers to make the Spark a quieter place to spend time. And the U.S. team enhanced the bodywork for aero. Lowering the Spark and making tweaks such as changing the mirrors gained a little by way of mileage. Sparks equipped with a manual transmission return 34 mpg combined—not exactly hybrid-level fuel sipping but not too shabby. (You’d expect such a small car to go farther than this on a gallon of gas, but here’s an explanation of why it doesn’t.)
On the inside, the Spark has 10 airbags as well as a rollover sensing system. A gauge pod reminiscent of the Sonic, the Spark’s bigger brother, sits up front with a large LCD screen in the dash for infotainment. The rear seat on global Sparks seats three people. But that middle seat was deemed too narrow for American posteriors, so a handy console resides in its place, making the car a four-seater. There’s 11.4 cubic feet behind that rear seat and a solid 31.2 cubic feet with the rear seat folded.
Tech Tidbit: Five years ago, Chevy says, infotainment systems ranked about 25th on the wish list of features for car buyers. Today, it’s fourth. And since many Spark customers could very well be the youngest and most tech-savvy folks trolling Chevy stores, the company’s new MyLink infotainment system is being offered in this car first. Already more than 60 percent of the Sparks on the road have the system.
MyLink isn’t revolutionary. It simply helps pair your smartphone to the car and offers the usual audio and phone controls as well as a handful of apps. One particular app, BringGo, is a real moneysaver. Spark owners with MyLink can download BringGo to their phones, and the app will display functions on the in-dash screen. So you’ve got a full in-car navigation system at your fingers for just $50.
Driving Character: As cute as the Spark may be, especially in colors such as Jalapeno or Techno Pink, we didn’t expect much from behind the wheel. Why? Because the Smart ForTwo is such an awful car to drive, it ruined us for all other minicars. But it only took a few minutes to realize that the Spark outsmarts the Smart.
The Spark’s cabin is airy, open, and feels like a much larger car than it is. When you are in the driver’s seat , there’s almost no evidence that you are, in fact, piloting a minicar—at least until you hit the gas. The Spark isn’t a quick machine. But it’s adequate for around-town cruising and, surprisingly, merging onto the freeway is not a white-knuckle affair.
The Spark’s ride is firm and the steering is relatively quick. This combination makes the Spark feel a bit like a go-kart. Throw this little guy into a set of bends at a moderate speed, and it’s actually fun to drive. After all, this is a 2300-pound car, so it should feel agile. As we threaded the Spark through the streets and up into rolling hills near Novato, Calif., it was as though this Chevy was channeling the sporty personality of the Honda Fit. And that’s high praise.
Favorite Detail: Instead of the sportier Sonic’s gauge pod that houses an analog tach on the left and a digital speedo to the right, the Spark has the speedo on the left and an information cluster on the right. The Spark’s floating gauge pod is fun to use and looks cool too. A car like the Spark can’t take itself too seriously. It has to have fun touches like this.
Driver’s Grievance: As good as the Spark is for a $13,000 car, we’d hoped for better fuel economy—everyone who sees the Spark will assume this micromachine returns 50 mpg. Although 38-mpg highway is excellent when that figure corresponds to that of a family sedan, it’s not too impressive on a car of this size. And it’s the same fuel economy than the much older Smart delivers. Boo. Perhaps GM will put a small hybrid powertrain in a Spark that could deliver numbers in the 50s.
Bottom Line: The Spark is clearly the most practical minicar in the segment. It conveys a sense of lighthearted fun as you slice though city traffic. Compared with Chevy’s larger Sonic, the Spark is clearly a level down in terms of ride, handling, isolation, and power. But for less than $13,000, the Spark is a solid deal.
Read more: 2013 Chevrolet Spark Test Drive - Popular Mechanics
2013 Chevrolet Spark Test Drive - Popular Mechanics