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Mini cars have been a growing presence ever since the advent of the Smart fortwo. Today, the list counts the Fiat 500, Scion iQ and Chevrolet’s first mini, the four-seater Spark. It has enormous curb appeal, as was evidenced by the attention it garnered whenever it was parked curbside. Of course, the neon-green paint scheme (Jalapeno Metallic in GM-speak) did make it somewhat difficult to miss.

That exterior flare flows inside, where many of the trim pieces are painted body colour. This adds some needed character to the cabin, as does the seven-inch touchscreen that houses Chevrolet’s MyLink Touch infotainment system. It allows the driver to access all of the entertainment (radio, Bluetooth-streaming audio, videos and photos) and phone functions by touching the screen or through voice commands. It is an advanced system that proved to be very easy to navigate.

The gauge cluster includes an analogue speedometer and a digital rev counter with trip computer. The latter does pack a lot of information into a small amount of real estate, which tends to make it look a little busy at first. Fortunately, it is intuitive and so that initial impression faded quickly. If only the reflection of the dashboard’s upper surface in the windshield did likewise — in bright sunlight it was akin to peering through opaque glass.

The Spark does succeed, for the most part at least, in the manner in which it accommodates its occupants and/or cargo. There is plenty of head- and legroom front and rear and, with the seats upright, there is 11.4 cubic feet of space available, which is significantly more than that of other mini cars — 225% more than the Scion iQ’s 3.5 cu. ft. Dropping the 60/40-split folding seats opens up a useful 31.2 cu. ft. and a reasonably flat floor — but that’s only after lifting and tilting the seat base forward, removing the headrests and folding the seatbacks down.

The downside proved to be the tester’s seating. First, the driver does not sit in the seat, one sits on it, which makes for an unnatural position and odd sensation. Second, the “leatherette” covering the seating is pure vinyl and not a particularly good interpretation of pleather at that. Ironically, it is only offered on the up-level models — the base cars earn cloth upholstery.

The hamster under the hood, a.k.a the 1.2-litre four-banger, manages to spin out 84 Shetlands and 83 pound- feet of torque when spinning at peak rpm. Were it not for the fact that the Spark weighs just 1,060 kilograms, the performance might be woeful. As it stands, it is best described as being enough to get from A to B without impeding the flow of traffic — more on this in a moment. The hitch is that it gets loud whenever worked at the top end of the rev range, which is, unfortunately, most of the time.

The Shetland’s work is put to the pavement through a four-speed automatic and the front wheels. The transmission is pretty slick, although the need for tall ratios to get the best out of the engine leaves the highway ride rather busy — 3,100 rpm at 110 kilometres an hour.

And so to the all-important numbers: It takes the Spark 13.4 seconds to saunter to 100 km/h and 10.1 seconds to accomplish the 80-to-120-km/h passing move. As my wife quipped, the performance was more damp squib than perky sparkler!

The kicker proved to be the average fuel consumption. At 8.3 litres per 100 km, it was thirstier than I expected given the diminutive dimensions, lightweight design and small-displacement hamster. It can only be chalked up to the need to work the poor thing constantly to keep things rolling along — any engine gets thirsty when pushed.

When it comes to the ride and handling characteristics, the Spark is, again, a mixed bag. In the handling department, it is light, lithe and thrives in a tight urban environment or when the road begins to snake. The steering feel is reassuringly direct and it has the right feel (the chunky steering wheel reinforces that impression). Likewise, the amount of body roll is limited to a few degrees — it is actually more perceived than real because of said perched seating position.

Finally, the P185/55R15 tires did a pretty good job of taming understeer. Factor in the advanced stability control system and it takes quite a lot to upset the Spark. In this regard, it is a fun buggy. The downside is that the taut nature of the suspension and the short wheelbase combine to make the ride a little harsh on a rough road.

The Spark, in spite of its perky looks and above-average flexibility, never managed to live up to my initial expectations. It has decidedly lacklustre performance, a rather choppy ride and the pleather is awful — it imparted a truly cheap feeling to the cabin. In the base car, much of this might pass unnoticed because of its affordability ($13,495). However, the hefty $19,745 price tag attached to the test car served to spark the wrong emotion — apathy toward what might have been a fun-to-drive mini car.

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Type of vehicle Front-wheel-drive mini hatchback
Engine 1.2L DOHC in-line four
Power 84 hp @ 6,400 rpm; 83 lb-ft of torque @ 4,200 rpm
Transmission Four-speed automatic
Brakes Front disc/rear drum with ABS
Tires P185/55R15
Price: base/as tested $13,495/$19,745
Destination charge $1,500
Transport Canada fuel economy L/100 km 7.1 city, 5.2 hwy.
Standard features Air conditioning with filtration, power locks, windows and mirrors, steering wheel-mounted cruise control, tilt steering, heated front seats, manual four-way driver’s seat, Chevrolet MyLink Touch AM/FM/CD/MP3/satellite audio with USB input and steering wheel mounted controls, Bluetooth, OnStar, 10 air bags including knee and rear seat bags, anti-theft system, rear washer/wiper, fog lights, roof rails and rear spoiler
Options None

Road Test: 2013 Chevrolet Spark | Driving | National Post
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