The 2013 Chevrolet Spark may be arriving ahead of its time.
But General Motors Co. hopes its first micro-compact for the U.S. projects a hip image that will draw young buyers to the tiny and efficient cars that are popular around the rest of the globe.
The Spark is blunt, boldly styled, and when fully optioned, technologically fused to the young crowd's ever-present smart phones.
Being introduced now in 18 major North American cities, the Spark has been a big seller for three years in Europe and Asia, where crowded streets, high fuel prices, and specially structured taxes push buyers into little cars that are fuel efficient and generate low exhaust emissions.
Market forces like that just don't exist here. Bigger is better and small typically means cheap.
Scion's iQ and the micro-mini Smart ForTwo are clever, but each sold slightly more than 5,000 units through July. Fiat's 500 has shown the potential of the previously untouched U.S. micro-car market, selling more than 24,000 units, despite production slowdowns and not enough dealerships.
U.S. government-mandated fuel consumption standards are rising annually through 2025 when carmakers will be held to a fleetwide average of 54.5 mpg.
Chevrolet is going to have to sell a lot of fuel-efficient Volt, Cruze, Sonic and Spark models if it wants to continue offering its high performance, image-making Corvettes and Camaros with muscular engines.
So here's the plan. The tiny Spark is aimed at urban youth with its bright colors — including a silvery metal flake pink — low sticker prices, a long list of standard equipment, and an optional suite of plug-in-your-own infotainment and navigation systems.
The base LS model sells for $12,995 — that's thousands less than the Fiat 500 and Scion iQ, and a few hundred dollars less than a two-passenger Smart ForTwo.
For that price, you get a four-door hatchback that slips into small parking spaces and sips regular unleaded at a rate of 32 mpg while hauling four people across a bustling city. It comes with standard air conditioning, power windows and locks, 15-inch alloy wheels and 10 airbags.
Outstanding city mileage
The city mileage rate is better than the Fiat's 500's 30 mpg city, but less than the Smart ForTwo's 33 mpg city, and Scion iQ's 36. Spark gets 38 mpg highway, which is better than iQ's 37, equal to the Fiat's 38 and below Smart ForTwo's 41 mpg highway.
The Spark underachieves on highway mileage because it is not aerodynamically slippery. The Spark is tall, narrow and stubby, which isn't good for airflow. But it gets outstanding city mileage because it weighs just 2,300 pounds, making it more efficient in stop-and-go driving.
The Spark's 83-horsepower engine and four-speed automatic transmission aren't much for passing power. And although its engine is nearly silent when idling, it buzzes at more than 3,000 rpm when traveling 70 mph.
Downshifting the five-speed manual transmission provides more pep for expressway merging.
Its best operating range is 50 mph and below. I drove several models around downtown Detroit last week , but also drove a preproduction model in June around the rugged handling course at GM's Milford Proving Grounds.
The Spark was surprisingly stable over the potholes, dips and humps designed into the road. I had expected the rear end to swing out over a series of chatter bumps built into a sweeping 60 mph turn, but the rear suspension absorbed the disturbance and kept the tires planted.
Its 94-inch-long wheelbase, longer than the Fiat, Scion and Smart, helps with stability and provides surprising interior space.
I borrowed a 6-foot-5-inch Detroit News editorial writer, and not only did he fit comfortably behind the wheel, he also had sufficient leg and headroom to ride in the back. Buy the upscale 1LT or 2LT models for up to $16,720, and you get heated leather seats and a 7-inch glassy, color touch screen in the center of the dash to run preloaded apps for Pandora and Stitcher Internet radio.
Another app, called BringGo, will become available this summer, costing about $50 to download to your cell phone. It puts your phone's internal GPS locator to work with downloaded maps, turn-by-turn directions, and real-time Internet traffic and weather updates — all displayed on the car's center console screen.
'Truth in Materials'
Chevy's marketers make no secret about the car having a low-dollar hard plastic interior, cleverly calling their admission, "Truth in Materials." It seems to have freed designers to play with textures and patterns rather than trying to make them all look like leather, wood or even metal.
The interior is accented by shiny panels of the exterior color. Even the insides of the deep door pockets are usefully finished in the bright colors, turning them from mysterious dark holes into easy to see storage bins.
The instrument cluster above the steering wheel has a motorcycle-like look, similar to the Sonic. Three simple knobs on the dash easily operate the HVAC system.
The Spark is so young it doesn't even come with a CD player. USB drives, iPods and smartphones connect through Bluetooth to the Spark's MyLink radio. The car audio system has an internal FM and AM tuner, but everything else comes from the wireless connection or plug-ins.
Chevrolet isn't planning any traditional television advertising for the Spark. With the help of MTV, 10 videos have been produced for Internet distribution, emphasizing the global and "fun" nature of the Spark.
Look for the Spark in dealerships throughout North America by year's end. Chevrolet also promises a plug-in electric version next year.
2013 Chevrolet Spark
Price: $12,995 to $16,720
Type: Four-passenger, four-door, micro-compact hatchback with front-wheel drive
Engine: 1.25-liter four-cylinder
Power: 84 horsepower;
83-pound-feet of torque
automatic; five-speed manual
EPA gas mileage: 32 city / 38 highway
Exterior: Blunt and bold.
Hidden back door handles. Huge headlight lenses extend from the grille to the windshield
Interior: Surprisingly large and comfortable. Easy to learn
interfaces for smartphone-driven features
Performance: Handling is secure. The engine isn’t powerful but could dart through traffic on the Lodge
Pros: A nimble city car that cleverly taps your smartphone for
infotainment and navigation
Cons: It’s hard to convince
Americans that a small car is safe
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