Microcars haven’t really caught on here in the States. The rather public sales failure of the Smart Fortwo, along with the supersized attitude of the American citizenry, makes the US a slightly hostile market for small cars. Still, over the past several years, inroads have been made. Mini has become a household name, selling stylish, premium compacts in North America for over a decade. Fiat has also seen a limited degree of success with its 500, 500C, and sporty 500 Abarth.
The issue is, both Mini and Fiat have a reputation largely shaped by their European roots. Their import nature makes them cool and must-have, two qualities that are rare for small cars. So what chance does a microcar from Chevrolet have?
Well, a rather good one, actually. There’s a great deal to like about our Jalapeno Green Chevrolet Spark (we tried for the Lilac car, but our co-driver wasn’t having it). First, the details. It’s powered by a 1.2-liter four-cylinder, and pumps out a positively adorable 85 horsepower and 84 pound-feet of torque. Power is channeled to the front wheels by either a four-speed auto or a five-speed manual. The curb weight sits at a pixie-like 2237 pounds. In terms of footprint, it’s 144.7 inches long, 62.9 inches wide, and 61 inches tall. The wheelbase is 93.5 inches. Despite these diminutive dimensions, passenger volume sits at an impressive 86.3 cubic feet, while folding the second row down nets owners 31.2 cubic feet of space. It’s not a McMansion, but it’s also no shack on the side of the road.
[Click here to read our review of the 2012 Fiat 500 Sport]
How does this translate to usable space, though? As it stands, quite well. Your six-foot, two-inch, 250-pound author had no issue getting into or out of our Spark (and he looked damned manly in the process). Even the back seats proved reasonable. With the driver’s seat set to our position, we found the backseat room surprisingly ample. It’s no place to keep people for a long time, but it’ll certainly fit four adults for short trips. Headroom in all four seats is quite good, owing to the tall design of the Spark. This tall design also means big windows, despite the rather aggressive rake of the beltline. These design features serve practical ingress and egress purposes, but also keep the cabin from inducing claustrophobia.
Being stuck in the cabin for a while wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world. For the price point ($15,795 for our loaded up tester), the material quality was certainly adequate. There’s a lot of plastic, but it’s nicely textured and feels just as good as it looks. The seats are pretty flat and unsupportive, but keep from constricting the driver, giving a good range of motion for ingress and egress. Still, the lack of support was somewhat disconcerting on the twistier stretches of our test route. Our other issue was with the position of the gear shifter on our five-speed manual. In our driving position, first gear starts at mid-thigh level, while second sits at roughly our right hip. The longish throws are fine (and actually add a bit of character we think), but the position it puts our arm in is downright weird, and keeps our hand off the wheel for a disturbingly long time.
The gauge cluster is similar to the system used on the Chevy Sonic, but instead of a digital speedometer, there’s a digital tachometer. This might be fine on the automatic, but it certainly wasn’t okay for our manual tester. There is no indication of where the redline sits. Honestly, there might as well have been no tachometer at all. Ignoring this glaring design fault, the gauges are as attractive and stylish as they are in the Sonic, and act as a real design centerpiece for the cabin.
Now, if you’ve been ignoring everything we’ve written and are still stuck on 85 horsepower and 2237 pounds, this is the part you want to read. This kind of power and weight are an utter, giggle-inducing, out-and-out riot. This is not a fast car. ****, it’s not even a quick car. But it feels absolutely exceptional. You need to work hard to get this thing going. Redline is your friend.
All 83 pound-feet of torque are available at 4200 rpm, meaning this is a car with zero low-end grunt. Patience is rewarded though, as the climbing revs gave us more and more to work with, until we were zipping about at a surprisingly brisk pace. All along the way, we were accompanied by a burly, rorty exhaust note that had no business coming from a 1.2-liter engine. It’s like this thing runs on minced bulldog; it just has a growl that is so pure and enjoyable. We’d recommend it for this quality alone.
Shifting the five-speed manual is a throwback to old-school compacts. The throws are long, but there’s a satisfying feel from the tall gear shifter when you slot it into a gate. Don’t get us wrong, it’s not particularly good; it feels rather rubbery and imprecise, but it is a great deal of fun to row through the gears. The clutch has a fair amount of travel, but is quite easy to adjust to. A broad catchpoint makes it easy deliver power to the wheels without too much jerkiness. The whole affair reminds us of old Civics, Celicas, and Golfs, which is quite high praise where we come from.
If you’ve been waiting for a “but” in this sea of praise, here it is. This is neither a smooth riding nor a well handling vehicle. That first part may not be a surprise, but the second certainly is. We expected great things from the little Spark in terms of its maneuverability (it’s a small car after all), but what we got was a rather skittish car that lacks composure over undulating roads. Imperfections toss the McPherson front/compound-crank rear suspension over the road like a skipping stone on a pond. It feels unplanted, and is a bit of a handful at speed. The entire experience was a disappointment, because as evidenced on the Sonic, Chevy seems to have really figured out small car suspensions.
The ride is the definition of “economy car.” It’s rough, with a good deal of vertical motion. Impacts, regardless of size or severity, are clearly felt in the cabin, sending jolts and shudders through the body. The secondary ride is remarkable only because there isn’t much of one to speak of. We weren’t expecting Rolls-Royce ride quality, but we expected it to be on par with Chevy’s stated competition: Fiat 500, Smart Fortwo, and Scion iQ. That last car, the iQ, is particularly telling, if only because it’s a demonstration on how to tune a small car’s suspension in such a manner that it retains some degree of composure over rough roads.
The electric steering wasn’t so much a disappointment, as we generally expect electric steering to be inferior to hydraulic racks. Such was the case here. Weight seemed fairly uniform whether we were driving straight or mid-turn. It just didn’t weight up much at all. There was some feel coming through the tiller, but it was still difficult to figure out just where the front end wanted to go.
The base Spark starts at $12,245. The price climbs from there until you get to $15,045 for our top-of-the-line 2LT. That seems rather pricey, until you consider just what’s standard: 15-inch wheels, Hill Start Assist, ten airbags, OnStar, Chevrolet’s MyLink infotainment system with Bluetooth, leather-wrapped steering wheel with audio controls, cruise control, satellite radio, and heated leatherette seats. That’s a rather comprehensive list of goodies for a small car. The MyLink system is of particular interest, as it offers Pandora connectivity, and will eventually offer navigation by way of an app on a smartphone. Still, we can think of a fair few competitors at that price point that aren’t such huge compromises in the ride/handling department.
The Chevrolet Spark is an intriguing vehicle if only because it reminds us so much of older compact cars. Its low-weight, low-power formula is one we wish other automakers would attempt, because it creates a driving experience that few cars can really approximate. Our only wish is that Chevy had really put the same thought into the ride and handling that it did on the Sonic (a car that genuinely impresses us each time we drive it). Its skittishness over rough surfaces and general lack of composure just turn us off to what could be an extremely competent small car.
Winding Road | Driven: 2013 Chevrolet Spark