By the middle of next year Chevy will be thinking small. When the Chevrolet Spark makes its way to the U.S., its 143-inch length will make it the tiniest 5-door offering ever from the bow tie brand. That's right, the Spark is smaller than a 5-door Geo (Chevrolet) Metro, and thankfully, it is vastly better.
So, before the dealerships start receiving the little Sparks by the pound, we tested the version that has been available in Europe for over a year.
Small, light city cars like the Spark traditionally have a little bit of a stability problem (6.5-inch wide tires don't help either,) but the Chevy engineers did their homework on the Spark. The McPherson strut suspension up front and torsion beam rear is a configuration shared by many in the class, but the Spark has been setup to inspire driver confidence. A wider stance than some of the competition also helps greatly. The result is a car that is not as fun to drive as a FIAT 500, but there is still some spice of life that makes it through the steering wheel.
One place where the Spark will always feel small is in the engine compartment. The largest powerplant currently available is a 1.2-liter that makes 80 hp and achieves a combined 46 mpg in Europe. This engine is capable in the city, and with a five-speed manual transmission, it can sometimes be fun.
The power shows its limitations when this city car takes ride out to the suburbs. The handling on the interstate remains stable, but the engine begins to get a bit frantic. The Spark can keep up on the highway, but with a 0-60 time going over 12 seconds, it may take a while to get there. Because of this, the four-cylinder motor will receive a 5 hp bump for the American market. It may not initially seem like much, but that is a 6.25% improvement. Let's hope the upgrade will make the difference.
The interior maximizes its room by utilizing similar tactics as other city cars like the trendy Fiat 500 and the modern-edge Scion iQ. This means upright seating that creates more space for decent interior legroom. In fact, the back seats will be quite comfortable for two adults with possible room left over to squeeze a small child (our tester had seating for five, but Chevrolet's press release lists the U.S. version as a four passenger vehicle.
Up front a long dash and instruments set away from the driver help contribute to the big boy feeling. The fit and finish of the driver's gauges is a step down from its bigger brother, the more expensive Chevrolet Sonic. Still, there are plenty of Sonic bits instantly recognizable in the Spark. For example, the Sonic's nifty rev counter and digital speedometer combo pack reappears in the Spark as a traditional speedometer with a multi-function digital display.
GM is positioning the Spark as a compact vehicle that will fit well in a city setting. Still, there will be customers who consider the Spark simply for its price. This puts the littlest Chevy in stiff competition with the 2012 Nissan Versa sedan - the leader in providing quantity in the cheap car class. So although the Versa sedan is larger, it is a Spark competitor because the pricing will likely be close. Aside from similar headroom, the Spark loses to the Versa in just about every other interior dimensional category by a few inches. Also, the Spark may be a hatchback, but the extra overall length of Nissan's economy sedan gives it almost two and a half times the Chevy's cargo room. The Spark can carry a duffel bag and a few trinkets behind the rear seats, but owners will have to get creative when packing for a weekend getaway with four people.
Where the Spark makes up for this lost ground is personality. The Versa is not a bad car, but it is a personality black hole. The Spark looks like an eager Cocker Spaniel on the outside, but rides more like a sure-footed Saint Bernard. So just like buying a dog as a pet and getting home security as an added benefit, the Spark is about buying basic transportation with a little element of fun thrown in as an unexpected extra. The Fiat 500 is the econo car king at offering this kind of personality, and since the Spark can't match the Fiat, hopefully it is reflected in a lower price for the Chevy.
The Spark will be in Chevrolet dealers with a final cost expected to well-undercut the $14,635 Sonic. Economic pricing like this will put a new Spark in direct competition with larger pre-owned cars, but that is probably not the worst news. Fleet customers will likely flock to the Spark to use as everything from tech service vehicles to rental cars. That means the Chevrolet Spark may have to combat the image being the next Geek Squad transport of choice. Still, there will many Sparks that make their way into the hands of young urbanites, and at this price point, they likely won't be disappointed.