After decades of insanity in the automobile industry, the age of moderation has arrived. Think green, think simplicity (not always voluntarily), think small – all this to avoid unnecessary waste. The presence of microcars on the Canadian market is a perfect reflection of this trend. The diminutive smart was the first to arrive from Europe, followed by the Fiat 500 and then the Scion iQ. Then, a few short days ago, we got the Chevrolet Spark.
As this was GM’s first experiment with this type of car in North America, it would have been suicide for the Detroit-based giant to create its own microcar. As luck would have it, GM owns Daewoo, a Korean company that has a car in its lineup that is as nice as it is small: the Matiz. Given that it was due for a mid-cycle change, they seized the opportunity bring it to North America. The bigwigs at GM decided to call it Spark, and they’re hoping that there will be a spark between it and the public.
Micro, but not microscopic
Although it’s a microcar, the Spark is quite a bit longer than a smart (991 mm), a Scion iQ (635 mm) and a Fiat 500 (127 mm), meaning – you guessed it – that it has a clear advantage in terms of trunk size and back seats (Note that the smart is a two-seater). The Spark has the “cathedral ceiling” of cars that are as high as they are wide. Speaking of its shape, it seems to be unanimously well liked, but certain colours have divided opinion. I guess there’s no accounting for taste.
For a car of this size, the passenger compartment is impressive. Sure, it’s no Chevrolet Suburban, but they have certainly made the most of the interior space, and front seat passengers won’t bump elbows. In the back, with very generous head and leg room, two “regular sized” people can sit without wanting to murder one another. It would have been a crime to add a middle seat, so kudos to Chevrolet for resisting the temptation. In its place, there are cupholders. The rear seatback lowers in two sections (40/60) to form a floor that’s nearly flat. Under the trunk’s thin carpeting, you’ll find... nothing. Not even a spare tire. There is however, a compressor and a liquid sealant. They’ll go to almost any lengths to save a few kilos! The hatch is light, and thus, easy to handle, and its opening is sufficiently large.
The dashboard is disarmingly simple and beautifully stylized. It takes its inspiration from the Spark’s big sister, the Sonic. Smack in the middle of the dashboard, there’s a 7-inch touch screen. On option on the LS base version but standard on the 1LT and 2LT versions, it has the MyLink system that includes such features as satellite radio, SiriusXM, Bluetooth and a GPS that runs on an application that offers a wide range of services for a reasonable price rather than a hard disc. During the launch, the folks at GM didn’t confirm the price of this application, but it could cost about $60. Even more interesting than that is the fact that this passenger compartment includes no less than ten airbags!
Power not on the menu
The engine is a 1.2-litre (Chevrolet’s engineers insist that it’s a 1.25-litre) four-cylinder with 83 horsepower and the same amount of lbs-ft of torque. The Spark weighs a mere 1,029 kilos (strangely, the version with the manual transmission is heavier at 1,060 kilos), but its performance is far from spectacular. Note that this car is meant for the city rather than for the highway, so the fact that the engine is weak isn’t terribly important.
More important, however, is that the five-speed manual transmission left me exasperated. Rarely have I handled so soft and imprecise a stick shift enabled in its mediocrity by a clutch that lacks substance. For the car to move forward, you have to learn to rev it before releasing the clutch. Otherwise, prepare to get stuck. It’s less frustrating once you’re used to it, of course. On the other hand, the Hill Start Assist, a system that prevents the Spark from rolling backward when starting on inclines of at least five degrees, is a godsend for anyone who hasn’t mastered the clutch. As for the automatic, it doesn’t do the modest horsepower any favours but at least it isn’t a CVT. Noise in the passenger compartment is relatively well contained at high speeds, between 100 and 120 km/hr. Note that at 100 km/hr, the manual transmission revs the engine at 3,000 rpm and at 3,500 at 120 km/hr. These engine speeds are very high but, like I said, the Spark is primarily a city car.
As for the suspension, there are front struts and a torsion beam in the rear. This arrangement has the advantage of being well adapted to the car’s urban vocation, being inexpensive to repair and not encroaching on trunk space. The combination of front disc brakes and rear drum brakes are also a good fit for this vehicle. The electronically assisted steering isn’t terribly precise and the feedback isn’t great, but, at least the turning circle is very short (9.9 metres), which is a blessing in town.
A corner taken too quickly brings out the roll and even though we didn’t push the Spark to its limits, it’s clear that sportiness isn’t part of the offer. On the other hand, it’s surprisingly comfortable, as evidenced by a drive on the cobblestone streets near Bonsecours Market in Montreal. And there was no body noise either.
The question of price
In the small car, sub-compact and microcar category, price is everything. You could have the best product on Earth, but if it’s too expensive, it’s doomed to fail. And that is undoubtedly the Spark’s Achilles heel: the base price (LS) is $13,495 and another $1,000 for air conditioning. Or opt for the 1LT equipped with air conditioning and Bluetooth connectivity for $16,995. Finally, the 2LT at $18,495 offers a lot of accessories, both useful and less useful. The base version of the Spark is one of the least expensive cars on the market and frankly, I believe it’s a good deal. But at more than $17,000, the bigger Sonic becomes more attractive, as does the Hyundai Accent, which is Korean like the Spark.
Infinitely more fun to drive and more practical than the smart Fortwo or the Scion iQ, the Spark stands to have a nice career. Sure, the Fiat 500 is in the equation too, but the Spark, while a lot less sporty, is more logical and unique. With Chevrolet already announcing an electric Spark for 2014, the future of the microcar not only looks bright, it looks electric!
|Test model||2013 Chevrolet Spark|
|Price range||$13,495 - $18,495|
|Price as tested||$18,495|
|Warranty (basic)||3 years / 60,000 km|
|Warranty (powertrain)||5 years / 160,000 km|
|Competitive models||Fiat 500, Scion iQ, smart Fortwo|
|Fuel consumption||You need at least a week to do a proper evaluation, but it seems high for the category.|
|Value for price||Will it have a high resale value?|
|Styling||This author likes it; others, not so much.|
|Performance||Hope you’re not in a hurry...|
|Overall||Nice little car, but if you want passion, keep looking.|