We’ve come a long way with technology. Things have been made smaller and more powerful than ever before, such as microprocessors, hard drives, computers, phones, and now even our cars. With a new segment in the U.S called micro-cars, automakers somehow manage to stuff new age technology and connectivity into the smallest thing on four wheels they can find. Chevrolet is no exception with their new to the U.S. city car, the Spark.
The Chevrolet Spark has been sold in other markets around the world for a few years and was formerly known as the Daewoo Matiz, originally built by GM’s Korean branch in 1998. Variations of the car have been sold, mostly in European and Asian countries, for a long time. In 2009, Chevrolet debuted a version of the Spark based off the Chevrolet Beat concept which proved to be a radical new design and injected some style and excitement into a segment that was rather dull. It was put into production in 2010 first in Europe, then in other world markets, arriving on our shores early in 2012.
This lilliputian vehicle offers fuel efficiency, connectivity, and fun at a very affordable entry price. Chevrolet squarely targeted city dwellers with this car and even had a launch event in New York City that we tested it in. However, we wanted to find out how well this car fares in suburban and rural America. Is it really worth buying a car this small if you don’t live in a primarily urban environment? I guess you’ll have to read on to find out.
My first impression upon seeing this little runt of a vehicle was akin to what a child feels when getting their first pet kitten, its so cute, you just want to hold it. The overall design is rather funky and the car tries to look aggressive with the 2LT package’s exterior enhancements, but its diminutive proportions just don’t allow it. I guess there is only so much you can do with such a small car to make it as attractive as possible. Our silver ice metallic tester was equipped with 15” aluminum alloy wheels which add a nice sporty touch to the micro machine. It was also equipped with a rear spoiler, chrome grille surround, fog lamps, chrome exhaust tip, body color rocker panel moldings, front and rear sport grilles, and a chrome belt line. Given my personal dislike for chrome, even I have to admit that it was nicely applied on the car.
Everything in the front is big and overly pronounced, however as you travel down the sides of the car and make your way to the rear, you notice that everything shrinks. The headlights are extremely big for a car this small and the hood is rather high. As your eye progresses down the car’s profile, the window line tapers, the tail lights are much smaller and the rear hatch looks too small to even be able to hold anything. The handles on the rear doors are “hidden” in the trailing plastic molding behind the rear windows. Its not the most intuitive way of opening a door as a handle would make it easier to pull up or tug at if you have grocery bags in your grip. The panels are all put together well with even panel gaps throughout, there were no trim pieces sticking up at the corners or any misalignment to speak of. For a very cheap car, the overall exterior fit and finish was quite upscale.
Make your way into the interior and you’ll be surprised by the amount standard features on the 2LT packaged Spark. Apart from your standard array of power controls such as power windows, power locks, etc, in such a small car, the light titanium leatherette interior was one such surprise. Another was the 7” color touch screen with Chevrolet MyLink. The MyLink system has Pandora and Stitcher with blue tooth connectivity via voice commands. The large for this class touch screen is incredibly easy to navigate and with the steering wheel audio controls, you can cycle through your favorite presets or make a phone call once you have connected your phone.
The one downside with the system is that I could not find any equalizer menu to adjust the sound levels for bass, midrange and treble. I cycled through the different categories but after a while I got tired of searching through and left it alone. Sheer laziness on my part. Another thing that makes me scratch my head is the touch screen housing that is shiny black plastic and really stands out in contrast to the rest of the interior. In my opinion, it doesn’t seem to flow well. Additionally, heated seats, USB connectivity, and a very cool gauge cluster really give it an upscale feel.
While the heated seats are always nice, the switches are located at the bottom of the center stack, and I mean all the way at the bottom. You have to reach down to get at them and that involves leaning over to do it which takes your attention away from the road. It would have made a bit more sense to put them near the very simple and straight forward climate control knobs in the middle of the center stack. The climate control knobs are well placed and easy to get at with your right hand without having to look down. That neat, motorcycle inspired gauge pod houses a large speedometer with a small digital information screen to the right of it that displays the tachometer, fuel gauge and other bits of information such as average and instantaneous fuel economy, and trip odometers.
The buttons to cycle through those features are rather small, though, and linger on the right most perimeter of the digital screen. Overall, the digital display reminds me of the old Timex digital watches that had the Indiglo back lighting. The 3-spoke steering wheel has your usual assortment of media control buttons and cruise control. The steering wheel has silver accents on the spokes to match it better with the dash trim, and is wrapped in the same leatherette found on the seats. The buttons on the wheel are finished in smooth plastic and are easy to read and use without looking down at them.
Everything in the cabin is of hard hollow plastics, from the dash to the door panels. Color trim accents that match the exterior color can be applied to the interior to jazz it up, but it doesn’t do much to take away from the hard matte plastic that is on everything else. Chevrolet seems to have found even more space for storage in the small cabin by carving out little storage trays in the dashboard as well as adding plastic trays near the floor mounted shifter. While it is a nice thought, things tend to rattle and sound a little annoying when traveling over a bumpy road. Passenger safety and security equipment includes ten standard air bags with a rollover sensing system, OnStar Crash Response, Brake Assist, and a Theft Deterrent System. Again, given how affordable the car is, the textures and seams were well thought out and were excellently put together.
I was able to take the Spark on a nice seven and a half hour round trip to PA from CT. A few things were made quite evident as the hours rolled on during this road trip. While Chevrolet claims that the Spark has 42” of front legroom, the driver’s seat does not go back far enough for me to be comfortable in the car. I’m used to being able to have my legs stretch out and not bent as much as they were in the spark. Head room is great, and at 5’10.5” there was plenty of room to spare height-wise. The steering wheel can only tilt making it even more uncomfortable, but with a driver’s side folding armrest, I was able to make due. With the driver’s seat set to my somewhat compromised driving position, there was none left for rear occupants.
Getting in to the rear seats was almost impossible as I had to twist my ankles to allow myself to slide in. Ingress is a little difficult due to the sloping roof line but children should be fine. The rear seats are 60/40 split and are also covered in leatherette. To have the rear seats folded as flat as possible, the front seats need to be moved up to allow the seat bottoms to fold forward so that they move out of the way for the seat backs to fold down. Luckily, my cargo of a disassembled rotary engine fit neatly stacked up in the rear hatch area with the seats up. With two occupants including myself, and about 200lbs worth of engine in the back, I was able to manage between 34.8-35.1mpg in the Litchfield Hills area of CT and around 35.5mpgs on the highway with the Spark fully loaded. After resetting the average fuel economy gauge, I recorded 38.9mpgs on the highway on the return trip home minus the cargo.
Merging into heavy, fast moving New Jersey traffic off the Saw Mill Parkway, as well as any form of acceleration up to highway speeds requires a miracle from God. The little 1.25L Ecotec, which oddly enough IS a 4-cylinder, churns out 84bhp at 6300RPM and 83lb-ft of torque at 4200RPM. It was mated with a 4-speed automatic which only made matters worse. I ended up really having to floor the peddle in order for the transmission to down shift and it took a while for it to do what was asked of it. The down shifts resulted in high RPM and very little forward progress. The engine was just loud and buzzy at high RPM but was smooth and rather subdued for its size once your accepted cruising speed is reached. Getting stuck in between two tractor trailers is enough to give you an anxiety attack. It is susceptible to crosswinds and wind distortion from large trucks. I’d be personally willing to forgo a couple of the airbags for a bit more size though.
The added weight in the back seemed to have helped the suspension soak up the bumps and road imperfections but once it was unladen, every crevice in the road was easily felt. I’m sure the small diameter and width of the tires had much to do with this. I also experienced a slight rattle coming from the right A-Pillar on my return trip home which sounded like plastic on plastic tapping but couldn’t easily pinpoint it. It was only on the highway and didn’t happen in town so I didn’t give it another look. I also thought that the Spark’s isolation was admirable for the size of the car, but I don’t see many people being too enthused about it. Wind noise is kept to a minimum for this size car. Outward visibility is perfect, the big windshield and tall greenhouse allow for little to no blind spots, even with the narrowing of the greenhouse towards the rear. The pointed shape of the side mirrors is more for style rather than visibility, but are adequate.
The back country of Connecticut with all its hills and rough, windy roads are known to put a strain on the brakes and suspension systems of any vehicle so, as you can imagine, the Spark was put through its paces. The little Chevy is equipped with StabiliTrack electronic stability control, four wheel ABS (discs in the front, drums in the rear), Hill Start Assist, as well as an electronic power steering system. The Hill Start feature came in handy when at an uphill stop light and is nice to have, especially in winter months. The helm provided little feedback but was linear and not over boosted.
Handling was what I had expected for a car with such a short wheelbase and tall stature. It is tippy at its low limits but you don’t buy a car like this to drive it hard around some sweepers. The brake pedal was spongy for my tastes but the brakes themselves never gave the impression that they had succumbed to any fade. This is meant to be a city car after all, not a performance car of any kind. In town driving is very lax and uneventful as it should be. It provides a very simple means of transportation that many people would love as long as the destination is close.
The little bundle of value rings in at $16,720, including the $750 destination charge, which is quite a bargain considering the options that you get in the Spark. What is also easy on your wallet is the fact that it only requires regular grade gasoline and the fuel tank only holds 9.2 gallons. The price factor is certainly a strong suit for the Spark 2LT, but for a country dominated by the SUV and large roads, only time, and consumers, will tell whether micro cars are a fad or if they’re here to stay.
Photo Credit: Chevrolet