2013 Chevrolet Spark First Drive

Chevrolet keeps urban dwelling lively and connected

What It Is
High quality and inexpensive subcompact for teens, tweens, and empty nesters living in cities.
Best Thing
Extra pair of doors opening into usable second row.
Worst Thing
Lack of acceleration.
Snap Judgment
City dwellers will like the Spark for its small size, utility, and price tag.


Automakers have a problem, and it's called Generation Y. Also known as Millenials, these scions of Gen X don't view cars as an aspiration, or even a necessity. They'd rather ogle the latest offerings from Apple, or update their Facebook pages than attend an auto show. Yet automakers need these customers. The market thinking is that if you can snag them to buy your products at an early age, you'll have them hooked to buy your other products as they get older and their needs change.

So it was under these circumstances we test-drove the all-new 2013 Chevrolet Spark. Actually, it was a bright but humid day, but we digress. The Chevy Spark is the entry vehicle into Chevrolet's car lineup, which consists--and in order of--Spark subcompact hatchback, Sonic compact hatch, Cruze compact sedan, mid-sized Malibu, and full-size Impala. The Spark's immediate competitors' sales numbers are as small as the cars themselves, and include the Fiat 500, Scion iQ, and Smart fortwo.

According to General Motors, the Chevrolet Spark was designed to appeal to Millenials' sensibilities: compact utility; individual style; and connectivity to electronics like their smartphones and the Internet. The Chevy Spark also focuses on urban living which, quipped GM reps, expands potential buyers to include empty nesters retired in cities. Chevrolet is also mindful of Millenials' monetary limitations. Starting price of the base Spark LS with manual transmission is $12,995 which includes $750 destination and handling fee. Mid-level Spark LT starts at $14,495 while the top-of-the line Chevrolet Spark LT begins at $16,720. A fully-optioned model tops near $17,000.

A five-speed manual is standard on all Chevy Spark models; you can get a four-speed automatic transmission for an extra $925. That's unusual, since most automakers offer only their base models with manual transmission. Unique is the Chevrolet Spark is the only five-door hatchback among its competitors.

But enough about the numbers. We have music to download from iTunes, tweets to retweet, and World of Warcrack raids scheduled once school breaks. How does the Chevrolet Spark drive? Can it handle all the latest finds from the thrift shop? And, most importantly, can I go on-line while driving? We spent an afternoon in sunny Venice, California to answer all these questions and more.

Walkaround

Meh.

That was the general reaction to the near dozen Chevrolet Spark hatchbacks filling the hotel parking lot. There's nothing inherently wrong with the Spark's design, and there's a lot of right. The hatch sports the recognizable two-tier Chevrolet grille separated by the bowtie badge. The swooping roofline and "character lines" over the wheel wells convey a sporty air. And those 15-inch alloy wheels? Standard on the Chevrolet Spark.

A Few Photos of this Vehicle

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Maybe we were blasé because the Spark resembled its slightly larger Chevy Sonic sibling too much. Or maybe we'd already seen the short-nose, swooping roof design once too often in established hatchbacks, like the Suzuki SX4, Volkswagen Golf/GTI, Toyota Matrix and, especially, the Honda Fit. Though competitors like the Fiat 500, Scion iQ, and the Smart fortwo don't have the utility of the Chevrolet Spark, most of the brightly colored vehicles didn't grab out hearts and make us go "oooh," especially against the Italian styling of the Fiat 500. Even the Smart Fortwo gets more reaction than the Chevy Spark though, for entirely different reasons.

One exception: the Chevrolet Spark in Techno Pink. Certain reporters immediately snagged it, most likely drawn to the novelty of such a combo. That's what we were telling ourselves at least.

The Chevy Spark is available in Black Granite ($195), Denim Blue, Jalapeno green, Salsa Red, Silver Ice, and Summit White. Another color, Lemonade Yellow, will be available later this year or in 2013. Both models we drove on our trip were Salsa red.

Sitting Down

Most people expect a cheap econobox when they hear a car's priced around $15,000. One look of the Chevrolet Spark's interior banished that thought from our minds and this review.

The Chevrolet Spark is a global car, and has been on sale worldwide for months before going on sale here. We could see these countries' influence on the materials used, and the fit and finish. Yes, there's a lot of plastic in the Spark's interior, but we found it to be good quality. The steering wheel had a decent heft to it, neither being too thick or too thin. The attached instrument cluster to the steering column is a bit off-putting though none of us found it intrusive or difficult to read or use. Otherwise, the Spark's dash and center stack are pleasingly simple to both look at and use, especially the latter, which splits into a large, seven-inch infotainment screen, and three climate control dials.

"Cozy" was how we found the Spark's front row. There's plenty of headroom, and the Spark's wide enough for two six-foot guys to sit in without rubbing elbows. We found those seats quite comfortable, especially in leatherette. The rear row was even cozier in the Spark, but not unbearable as long as the front seats weren't pushed all the way back. That's one of the Chevrolet Spark's main advantages over the Fiat 500 and Scion iQ: The rear seats are actually usable, and the Smart is strictly a two-seater. The Spark's front seats are hollowed in back to give more legroom to rear passengers as well. Inserts in the Spark's dash and door panels are color coded to the car's exterior paint, brightening the normally all-black interior. Texturing on the dash also livens up the Spark's cabin.

Driving

We got lost several times in the Chevrolet Spark. Both Spark vehicles. Our fault. Most people would find getting lost an irritation; we used it as an opportunity to learn about the car in a real-world situations.

Chevrolet says the Spark's aimed for the urban dweller, someone who tends to stay locally most of the time. We agree. We found the Spark worked best on the various straight, flat streets of Los Angeles, getting up to traffic speed promptly and surprisingly smoothly for 84-horsepower. But the Spark's four-cylinders whined in (loud) protest when climbing steep streets or darting into traffic, power barely changing the entire time. The Chevrolet Spark is a cruiser, not a pocket rocket, especially when equipped with four-speed automatic transmission. You definitely have to give some thought when crossing a busy street or slipping between two vehicles in rush hour traffic. We did coax more power out of the engine in our second Chevy Spark which came with a six-speed manual. Beginner drivers will especially like its forgiving clutch and precise, though long, shifter.

A Few Photos of this Vehicle

Click thumbnails for detailed view

While some complained that the Spark should offer more power--there's always somebody--we were surprised that the Spark's fuel economy wasn't better. The 2013 Chevrolet Spark with manual transmission gets an EPA-estimated 32 mpg city, 38 mpg highway, and 34 mpg combined; with an automatic, that drops to 28 city, 37 highway, and 32 combined. That's competitive with the Scion iQ and Fiat 500, but not better than either of them. For the record, we think the Scion and Fiat should do better, too.

The brake pedal felt on the soft side in the Spark thought the brakes themselves caught promptly to slow and stop the car. Not soft at all is the Chevrolet Spark's suspension system. It does a nice job absorbing the road imperfections marring Los Angeles streets. The Spark felt stable for such a short but tall vehicle. You did get jarred a little when hitting an especially deep pothole or road expansion, but the Spark never skipped to the side or felt out of control. The Chevrolet Spark just plowed on. We definitely appreciated the Spark's tight turning circle, especially during several tight U-turns made after missing the correct street for the third--and fourth!--time.

The interior is amazingly quiet for such a small car. Chevy says the U.S. Spark has thicker glass and more sound-deadening materials and zones due to Americans' idea that silence means quality. Whatever the reason, we found it easy to carry on long and distracting conversations in the Spark.

A good portion of that conversation revolved around the Chevrolet MyLink infotainment system. Standard on both our Spark LT hatchbacks, MyLink syncs with one's smartphone to bring audio and navigation capabilities to the vehicles. It's also simple to use. You select from one of the five options (Audio, picture & movie, telephone, smartphone link, and settings). The appropriate screen is displayed. You then manipulate the controls like you do with your smartphone. We found the GUI very intuitive from the audio controls to the upcoming BringGo navigation app. Unlike similar systems from competitors, we never felt the need to break out the Spark's car manual.

Summary

The Chevrolet Spark fulfills its function as an inexpensive subcompact for primarily urban dwellers. Neither the automatic or manual-transmission Spark is quick, but most city-dwellers don't need high horsepower. Drivers who want to ring out every last bit of power from the engine or want to slipslide between traffic should get the manual transmission model. The Spark's MyLink system makes syncing to one's smartphone a breeze, and it even undercuts it competitors on price. But if we had to point out a single winning attribute to the Spark, it'd be that the hatchback is small enough for city life, yet spacious inside for adults to run about with their friends and cargo thanks to the usable rear seat.

Basic Specs

1.25-liter four-cylinder, 5-speed manual transmission, front-wheel drive, 84-hp, $12,995, 32 mpg city/38 mpg hwy
1.25-liter four-cylinder, 4-speed automatic transmission, front-wheel drive, 84-hp, $13,920, 32 mpg city/38 mpg hwy

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