2013 Chevrolet Spark Road Test Review

Simon Hill - CAP staff
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With Chevrolet boasting an impressive lineup of mainstream cars lately, including a new midsize Malibu, the compact Cruze and the well-executed subcompact Sonic, I must admit that my first reaction to the "city-sized" Spark mini car was to ask "Why?" After all, the Spark doesn't really seem strictly necessary in North American markets where very small cars haven't traditionally sold particularly well. But guess which of the previously mentioned cars was Chevrolet's fastest seller in the U.S. in mid-2012? Yup, it was the diminutive Spark.

So what's the Spark's secret for success? I can't really imagine it's the car's looks, because while the Spark is by no means ugly, it doesn't have the iconic cuteness of, say, the Fiat 500. What it has instead is four grown-up size doors, with the rear doors cleverly disguised to give it a coupe-like appearance (the disadvantage here is that the thick rear window frames hiding the door handles also impede rearward visibility, a situation that's worsened by the rather small, streamlined outside mirrors). Up front, the Spark has a slightly buggy appearance, with big googly eyes - sorry, headlights - that seem slightly out of proportion to the rest of the car. The overall look is perhaps best described as cute in a slightly exaggerated anime kind of way.

Part of the Spark's secret for success may be the fairly impressive marketing campaign running behind it, but I suspect that a larger part of the secret may simply boil down to pricing in an economy that's been running on three cylinders for far too long.

At a suggested starting price of $14,995 including destination fees, the Spark undercuts the slightly bigger Sonic hatchback by $1,995 (which works out to a difference of about $27 per month with typical five-year financing), yet it will still carry four people in reasonable comfort (only four, mind you, as there's no middle rear seat - just a cupholder and a storage bin). Factor the Spark's impressive city fuel economy in a world where gas typically costs over $1.25/litre, and the economics start to make even more sense.

With its 1.2-litre inline 4-cylinder engine, the Spark generates a usable 83 horsepower and matching 83 lb-ft of torque, consuming only a miserly 6.3 / 5.1 L/100km (city/hwy) when equipped with the 5-speed manual transmission (the Sonic actually matches the Spark's rated highway mileage, but uses an extra litre per 100km in the city). A four-speed automatic is also available and gets claimed city/hwy ratings of 7.1 / 5.2 L/100km. What's more impressive is that the Spark can actually deliver reasonably close to Transport Canada's typically optimistic city rating, so I was able to eke out 7.9 L/100km in real-world inner-city driving in the automatic-equipped test car with myself and two passengers aboard. Compared to the bigger Sonic, if you commute 15 km each way to work and back, the Spark can potentially deliver fuel savings of about $7.50 per month, and that's on your commute alone.

What it all adds up to is that you can own and operate a Spark for about $34.50 less per month than even a moderately bigger car, which is enough of a savings to pay for your smartphone bill if you choose the right coverage plan. And because the Spark is new, getting financing will be much easier than financing a used car.

Because the Spark is new, you also get a much more current audio entertainment system than you'd get in something pre-owned. In fact, the Spark is absolutely leading-edge in this regard, that is if you opt for the upgraded 1LT model which gives you Chevrolet's advanced (and very nice sounding) six-speaker MyLink touch infotainment system, which is the first entirely post-CD audio system I've encountered. What you get instead of a CD player is the ability to play music directly off your smartphone or USB flash drive via Bluetooth or a USB plug. As well as displaying your smartphone-based music, the 7-inch colour touch screen can also display your videos, photos and contacts for hands-free calling. The MyLink radio comes with embedded apps for Pandora internet radio and Stitcher Smart Radio. And if your smartphone has GPS navigation, an embedded app called BringGo will allow you to port full-function GPS navigation from your phone to the car's touchscreen. It's a pretty slick system, and leaves the competition with some catching up to do.

Fittingly enough, given its place as the tasty, gooey centre of the Spark experience, the MyLink infotainment system is mounted in a glossy, high-tech faux carbon fibre faceplate that strikes a contrast with the more standard-looking plastics used for the remainder of the dashboard. To its credit the Spark uses some interesting textures on the interior panels, and makes good use of brushed metal-look accents to brighten things up inside.

The patterned cloth seats in my test car proved reasonably comfortable, and there's tilt steering, although it doesn't telescope. I found the back seats a bit fiddly to fold down when you want to carry a full-capacity 883 litres of luggage (first of all you have to remove the headrests and then flip up the rear squabs before you can fold the seatbacks). But my passengers had no complaints once they were settled in back, and with the seats up there's still 323 litres of luggage space in behind. Rear legroom is admittedly on the shy side, so I found it necessary to move the driver's seat forward a couple notches from my usual position when driving with four of us aboard, but given that I'm 5'11" and the passenger behind me was nearly as tall, that's hardly surprising, and it worked just fine for a 20-minute drive.

As expected with less than 100 horsepower on tap, the Spark isn't exactly a pulse-quickening performer in a straight line, taking about 12 seconds to reach 100 km/h and delivering a fair amount of mechanical racket in the process. But you can fling it around corners with surprising abandon, and its small size makes it a cinch to drive in city traffic, while thanks to its 10 standard airbags, ABS brakes, traction control and stability control, it's also impressively safe.

So … the Spark is affordable to buy, frugal to operate, easy to drive, has a leading-edge available infotainment system, a funky sense of style, and enough space to carry yourself plus three friends and a reasonable amount of luggage. At the risk of ruining the secret, that does seem a good recipe for success.
©(Copyright Canadian Auto Press)

Topics: Hatchback, City Car, Chevrolet, 2013, Spark, $10,000 - $19,999,

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