If you'd have told me in 2004 I'd be driving a tiny Korean-built GM product around NYC in 2014 I'd have guessed I lost a bet. If you'd have told me I was looking forward to the experience, I'd have thanked you from coming back from the future to warn me. The Chevy Spark is yet another example of the difference a decade makes.
(Full Disclosure: Chevy wanted me to drive the new Chevy Spark so badly they let me pick one up from a garage when I asked for it. They even gave me an iPhone 4 to go with it pre-loaded with apps, which doubled the value of the car.)
As I type this, GM is anxiously trying to jettison whatever bits of Old GM it can in the hopes they can save this new, leaner fleet the government helped them build. They've most successfully done so at the higher end, with flagship products from Cadillac that are so good you almost forget there was a time when you wouldn't want a Cadillac.
That's easier, I'd argue, than making cars at the lower end (Cadillac was also the brand with the biggest head start). Just look at Chevy's long road to make the Malibu more than an also-ran and the Chevy Cruze more than a great value.
For a GM product it doesn't get any smaller than the GM Korea Chevy Spark. It's not even a dinghy. It's the little inflatable tube they put in the dinghy in case the dinghy capsizes.
Really, just park it wherever you want. Chain it to a bike rack.
Given the last smallest product from GM was the pitiable Chevy/Daewoo Aveo, it's not hard to improve, but that product was marketed as a catch-all cheap form of transport for those who liked the idea of a new car so much they'd forgo almost all the benefits of buying one.
The Spark is a true microcar, targeted at city-dwellers who have a need for a car and don't have the energy to ZipCar it everywhere.
Squatness is not a property one looks for in cars or dogs — we've switched metaphors from ships to canines so keep up — yet if a pug can be cute so can something that's so obviously off. It's about as tall as it is wide and only a couple feet longer. It just looks like it can be picked up and taken with you if it misbehaves — and at a shade over 2,300 pounds in CVT guise that's not out of the question.
Parked next to a Mini Countryman, the Spark looks sharper, bigger, and even more expensive despite being a rounding error away from half the price. The Mini looks sort of incomplete where the Spark looks designed right up to the edge of too detailed. While driving it around it was mistaken for an EV — it's unlikely those people knew what a Spark EV is.
That's as much about the freshness of the design as it is the electric green hue they're shortchanging by simply calling it "lime."
Is this better looking than the new WRX that we scored a "5"? Yes, yes it is.
Looking for soft-touch plastics and supple leather in a car that retails for a smidgen over $12K is like asking one of the drunken Long Islanders who flock to the city for St. Paddy's Day if they have an opinion on Thatcherism and its aggressive treatment of Ireland.
Still, if you step into the car with realistic expectations you won't be disappointed. The plastics, while not rub-my-cheek-against-it-smooth like an Audi, has a nice texture to distract from the thriftiness of it. In this car there were nice lime green accents and cubbies perfect for chucking an iPhone or bags of organic coffee in.
It kind of works...
The seating position is a little high and you're only sticking two people in the back if you're ok with them thinking they've offended you in some way (sorry Whitson!), although it's better back there than the Juke and vehicles we normally think of as much larger. The high roof also gives the impression that you're in a vehicle significantly larger than a Fiat 500.
The touchscreen is useful and right where you want it to be. The seats don't quite fold all the way forward, but for day-to-day trips there's plenty of room for you and your stuff.
My favorite touch might be the information pod at the top of the steering, which is bright and blue and almost motorcycle-like. The left pod contains all of your basic warnings and a large speedo, while the right has a multi information screen with all the rest of the information you might want.
Viewed through the lens of pure 0-60 mph time, the Spark with the CVT is a huge disappointment, landing somewhere around 13 seconds. You're better bet is to get the manual(low 11s!) or the EV version, which is downright quick.
A vehicle designed for thrift responds just as you'd imagine, although once the CVT and engine finally understand that you're actually intending to go fast it can scoot along quickly enough to get out of its own way. While I'm sure I'd be happier with the manual, this is a 1.2-liter four that's putting out an anemic 84 horsepower and 83 lb-ft of torque.
Why do you pay more to get a Mini Cooper or similar vehicle? POWER.
I'm always disappointed when I get drum brakes on a car, but like my gin blossom-spotted Geography professor used to say: It's cheap, it's dirty… but it works.
Indeed, the front-disc/rear-drum conversation isn't pretty, but it's cheap and they work so well you're never going to notice unless you crawl to the back of the car the car to check.
Pedal feel is… they feel like bits of rubber connected to metal.
Altezza lights. Still a thing!
I'm going to level with you, it's not the smoothest car you can buy, but compared to other cars in this class — notably the more expensive Smart ForTwo — you're going to have to work hard to find anything that's better.
For city driving it's actually closer to ideal than you'd imagine, a little stiffness is fine on smooth roads, and the wheels are so small and the car is so tiny you just drive straight into the larger potholes and then drive right out the other side. Boom. Problem solved.
"A six! Are you drunk!?!" I can hear you asking your computer, especially if you've confused it for a semi-sentient OS like in that movie about the guy who falls in love with his computer. You know, Steve Guttenberg in Short Circuit?
Short wheelbase with tiny wheels is always a recipe for fun, no matter what you're driving, assuming it has enough power to back it up and the Spark juuuust does. An independent front setup (MacPherson struts) with a rear torsion beam out back is about what you'd expect, but it's nicely sorted.
A city car needs to be able to dart in-and-out and dart it does, giving me the confidence to dive in between cabs and delivery trucks more than once. Compared to the terrifying experience of piloting an Aston Martin around Manhattan this was like a day at AstroWorld if AstroWorld still existed.