Recently, we received the news that Chevy will be discontinuing the Spark in the American market. I say good riddance. While I never drove the current Spark, I did have a stint behind the wheel of a South American rental Spark. I did not enjoy it.
In 2008, my fiancé (now wife) got a scholarship to study at a Spanish Academy in Ecuador. Of course, upon hearing this I immediately regretted being the kid in high school Spanish class who didn’t pay much attention because I stupidly thought, “When am I ever going to use this?” I now found myself living abroad, in Quito for about a month. I had taken a few classes in college and listened to some CDs that gave me enough “survival” Spanish to get by.
While my wife was attending classes all day, I managed to get a job teaching English at a school downtown. This was a great experience as I was already a high-school English teacher in New Jersey and had some ESL (English as a Second Language) training.
We decided to take an excursion outside of the city and the locals recommended a little town called Baños. For those like me with rudimentary Spanish, baño often translates to “bathroom/restroom” but in this context, the Ecuadorians are referring to “the baths” or healing hot springs that are at the basin of a volcano. We thought it was a cool getaway and hunted down a rental car.
Because my wife is a wheelchair user we needed something with a hatchback where I could easily store her chair. The rental company had two choices: a Suzuki XL7 that would have been too high off the ground to safely transfer in and out of, and a Chevy Spark (also known in some markets as the Matiz).
The Spark we got was kind of a metallic green that also had a five-speed manual transmission. The nice thing about being able to drive a stick is that it’s much easier (and often cheaper) to rent cars in other countries. It did not have power steering or much in the way of any creature comforts. I don’t even remember if it had working A/C .
What we did not know then but soon found out is that the Spark is a pretty-good city car but is not ideal for highway driving especially on perilous mountain passes. In order to get from Quito to Baños we had to drive about 100 miles along the Panamericana highway. Of course, the three-hour ETA assumes you are driving at a reasonable pace. The speed limit on the Panamericana in some areas can be upwards of 100 km/h (about 70 MPH). To which the Chevy Spark said, “Yeah good luck with that.”
As the highway wraps around the mountain it narrows down. The picture below doesn’t quite convey how dicey some of these passes are.
What will often happen is we would get stuck behind some janky truck transporting, produce, chickens, or other various things. These rigs moved slower than the Spark and if we wanted to get to our destination in a reasonable amount of time we had to get around the trucks. Passing uphill wasn’t happening, so I waited until the road pointed down the mountain. To minimize my passing space I would get right behind the bumper of the old truck and do a quick wiggle out to the left to see if there was any oncoming traffic. If the coast was clear I would scoot into the oncoming lane, drop from fifth to third gear, let gravity be my turbocharger, and pray I make the pass in time.
I did this routine about five or six times, and each time felt scarier than the last. We made it to Baños in time for dinner and had the best rotisserie chicken dinner I can remember. A whole chicken with a few sides was about $6.
We stayed the night and checked out a cool bathhouse the next day. For some reason, the drive back to Quito didn’t seem as perilous as going the other way. Even maxing out fifth gear I couldn’t really keep up with the highway traffic, but the roads got better closer to the city.
Once we got back to our apartment I looked up the specs. The Spark (Matiz) had an output of about 50 horsepower. And that is when I realized that Spark is the perfect name for the little car because that’s all the power you are gonna get when you mash the gas… a spark. Some years later Chevy announced it would be selling the Spark in the American market and while the updated car wasn’t the janky version that I rented, I just couldn’t imagine that the model would resonate with American car buyers. Frankly, I am shocked that the nameplate lasted this long.
It was a pretty awesome experience to live in another country. The Ecuadorian people were great, the food was a mix of tasty and “interesting.” And even though the Spark was a bad car, my wife and I still have some great memories of that trip.