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.
People like to say small cars handle like go karts, but I wonder if those people have actually driven go karts. Go karts, at least fast ones, are work. The steering feel here is direct but nice and light, so while it's small and about as strong, you're going to be far more comfortable with this than you would with a go kart. On the downside, it's unlikely you'll be given pizza for driving this car well.
A CVT is designed to maximize efficiency, and some even manage to do this without removing most of what you love about driving. The Spark's CVT doesn't quite manage this. While most people wouldn't even notice the car had a CVT — and I'm not sure a traditional torque converter box would do much better here — it does lead to the car being louder and whinier as it accelerates than I'd like.
For fun, put it in a "low gear" and you'll at least get a more aggressive sound, albeit a more aggressive but still equally unpleasant sound. Does Fran Drescher's voice get any better if you speed it up? Probably not, but it's a change.
The CVT definitely holds you back from going as quick as you'd want, but that's what it's for, and the upside is 30 MPG in the cry and 39 MPG on the highway.
There are so many toys you could get on this car you'd never need because of the size. Backup camera? Just stick your hand out the back window and stop when you touch another car. Blindspot warning? Basically the same, just stick your hand out the side window. Lane departure warning? What kind of asshole can't keep this car in a single lane?
The rest of what's there is exactly what you'd want. The infotainment system comes with Sirius XM radio but pushes most of the work onto your phone, embracing the BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) approach that I like.
Want to listen to your Pandora station? Just use your iPhone's data. Navigation? You'll have to pay $50 for the BringGo app once, but after that it'll display your phone screen on the infotainment system like you've always wanted. Slacker radio? Are you serious, you use Slacker radio? No one uses Slacker radio, it's just a marketing gimmick. I'm not convinced it actually exists.
The Spark also comes — in 2LT trim — with the option to use the Siri Eyes Free system everyone talked about that one time and then forgot about it. It turns out you have to have an iPhone 5 (GM provided an iPhone4) and plug directly in, as opposed to using bluetooth, and then press a button on the steering wheel.
By the time this was figured out I had to return the car, but I've seen video of it being used and if you used Siri you'll know just how well it's capable of working and how little you care about ever using it.
The Spark is not quiet. It is not quiet when it accelerates. It is not quiet when someone outside the car is having a conversation. It is not quite over bumps, it is not quiet over mumps. It is not quiet.
The audio system itself is average — although there's something annoying about calling a six-speaker system "premium" — and the interface is nice. It's the only thing saving this from getting a 3/10 because the only thing worse than the sound of this car accelerating is the sound of everything else in the universe getting into the cabin.
They had to cut corners somewhere, I guess, and I find out where. The windows must be made out of sugar glass and the doors must be padded with cotton candy.
The $12K version of this car is not that much different than the as-optioned-and-delivered $17K version, and I think there's a strong argument to be made for getting the $12K version over a lot of nicer cars if you're going to stay in the city.
I love the Abarth and Turbo versions of the Fiat 500, but the base version isn't quick, and it has almost no usable space, and it's still nice enough that I'd feel bad about doing something to it. The Smart gets to be pricey pretty quickly and it doesn't handle as well, move as much stuff, and isn't as efficient. It's also Audi S7 compared to a Mitsubishi Mirage. It's also the safest one of these cars.
You can debate whether or not the options are worth it to you, but that's largely going to fall on how much a few of those electronic additions matter to you. The greatest value probably lies in ditching the CVT, which not only saves you money but also will make you happier.
It's a cheap car, sure, but you don't feel cheap driving it. You feel smart, which is more than I can say for driving the actual Smart car.
Engine: 1.2-liter inline-four
Power: 84 HP at 6,400 RPM/ 83 LB-FT at 4,00 RPM
0-60 Time: 13.0 seconds (estimated)
Drivetrain: Front-Wheel Drive
Curb Weight: 2,368 pounds
Seating: 4 people
MPG: 30 City/39 Highway
MSRP: $12,170 (As-Tested 2LT $17,210 w/ Destination)