City cars aren’t just for congested Asian and European metropolises anymore. A growing contingent of automakers are bringing mini-cars to American shores, be they stylish examples like the FIAT 500, youth-oriented fuel-savers like the Scion iQ, or curiosities like the Smart fortwo. Chevrolet has stepped forward as the very first U.S.-based car company to import its own city car, the 2013 Chevrolet Spark.
The Chevrolet Spark isn’t just the smallest vehicle ever offered for sale in North America by the bowtie-wearing brand, it’s also designed to go after a different demographic when compared against its would-be competitors. We spent some time behind the wheel of the Chevrolet Spark and were surprised by several aspects of its character that indicate it might not be as much of a risk for General Motors as we had initially thought.
The first thing that most potential buyers will notice about the 2013 Chevrolet Spark is also the primary feature that sets it apart from other ultra-subcompact cars: the fact that it offers four doors. In a field of two-door hatches, the four-door hatchback design of the Spark is a significant advantage when looking at day-to-day utility. Opening those rear doors reveals the second major advantage that the Spark can count on in its battle with European and Japanese rivals. The Chevrolet hatchback is a legitimate four-seater, with reasonable accommodations in the rear for full-size adults. This more than can be said for either the Fiat 500, which struggles to handle three, or the Scion iQ, which boasts a “3+1” seating configuration. The Fortwo doesn’t even offer a rear row of seats.
The bonus of a larger interior doesn’t stop with passenger room – it also extends to the cargo capacity of the Chevrolet Spark. 11.4 cubic feet of space between the hatch and the rear seatbacks is enough room to stow a couple of backpacks or grocery bags, and it’s almost three-and-a-half times the amount found in the Scion iQ. With the seats behind the driver folded forward, the vehicle can handle as much as 31.2 cubic feet of gear.
Interior fit and finish is concomitant with what one would expect from a vehicle at the Spark’s price point. Plastic trim abound, color-cued to the exterior hue of the vehicle, but the hatchback doesn’t feel as cheap as its MSRP of $12,245 would suggest. A surprising number of features, including air conditioning, heated leatherette seats, and even the MyLink interface are available with the Chevrolet. MyLink replaces a traditional radio, providing streaming via Bluetooth from paired mobile devices as well the eventual introduction of a navigation app that can work with the LCD touchscreen by way of a smart phone. No other mini-car competitor provides anything like MyLink.
Surprising Road Manners
There’s a simple secret behind the 2013 Chevrolet Spark’s competent driving experience, and that is that the hatchback’s platform has been designed with lightness in mind. The Spark weighs roughly 2,300 lbs, which means that it has no hesitation about pulling itself happily through corners. Despite a tall roofline, it’s hard to get into trouble when pushing the Chevrolet harder than one might consider prudent. Certainly, the Spark is no performance car, but it never felt unsafe on the narrow country roads that dot the landscape surrounding California’s Bay Area. Picking nits, the electric power steering’s isolation from feedback was something we weren’t especially happy with, but could easily tolerate given the car’s affordable pricing.
The low mass philosophy behind the Chevrolet Spark also means that the vehicle’s 1.2-liter, 84 horsepower four-cylinder motor is more of an asset than a liability. The Spark we drove featured a five-speed manual transmission, and while the small power plant generated a noticeable amount of noise from under the hood when asked to deliver all 83 lb-ft of torque, thrust was much more acceptable than the numbers on the spec sheet would seem to imply. Despite instances where the four-cylinder felt as though it were trapped between gears (offering not enough grunt to pull up a hill in third, but spinning the engine too fast to be of use in second, for example), by and large our experience with the drivetrain was a positive one. We didn’t get the chance to pilot an example outfitted with the optional four-speed automatic transmission, but our experience with the manual box suggests it is to be avoided.
A Bold Move From Chevrolet
Our biggest question coming into the 2013 Chevrolet Spark drive was ‘why?’ As in, why produce a vehicle so much smaller than the subcompact Chevrolet Sonic and price it within a couple of thousand dollars of its lineup-mate – especially when they boast almost identical fuel efficiency ratings.
Jim Federico, chief engineer of GM’s small car program, answered us by explaining that the Chevrolet Spark isn’t aimed at shoppers who are looking for ‘the most’ car for the money when it comes to power and size. Instead, General Motors is aiming the Spark at city dwellers who want the convenience of car ownership without the headaches associated with paying for larger parking spaces – or even finding a parking space, period. This lifestyle niche has been the guiding force behind the decision to bring the Spark to the United States, and when examined through that particular lens the hatchback makes a whole lot of sense for value-focused urban dwellers.