What It Is
The reinvention of the urban runabout for those on a tight budget.
Loads of technology and flashy enough style to keep young shoppers interested.
Some cheapish materials and semi-truck shifter.
The real economy car is back, but you won't hate yourself for driving it this time.
About five years ago, when gas shot up to $4 per gallon for the first time, insufferable Podunk "economy" cars from the 1990s started surging in value. In some cases, the Ford Aspire and Chevrolet Metro, both lowball Asian-market jalopies reassigned for the U.S., went from sub-$1,500 throwaways to the next Tickle-Me-Elmo overnight. But they were terrible. Heck, they weren't all that great when they were new, and the years weren't kind. When new they traded hands for well under $10,000. Playing with an inflation calculator, their prices would start at just under $13,000 in today's money.
Well, fancy that, so does the 2013 Chevrolet Spark. It's a little more powerful than the cars of yore, boasting a ferocious 84 ponies under the hood, via a 1.2-liter four-cylinder. The Spark is also safer than those cars could've ever been, even if they were wrapped in foam and passengers were forced to wear helmets and fire-retardant race suits. And it comes with some trick technology available. Still, cheap is as cheap does, they say. Or is it? Is it possible that a car that comes with standard power windows, aluminum wheels, and a price you could afford on minimum wage be any good to drive? It wouldn't take long to find out.
What We DroveStarting at $12,995, including destination and handling, the GM Korea-engineered and built Chevrolet Spark comes in quite cheap, so you don't expect there to be much standard equipment. With progress comes price cuts, though, so you're able to reap the benefits. The Spark features standard power windows--because they're cheaper to install than crank windows these days--and power door locks in addition to air conditioning and aluminum wheels; those were all options on the Metros and Hyundai Excels that haunt your low-hanging expectations.
Our 2013 Chevrolet Spark rang in with the top-level 2LT package, coming with all but an automatic transmission and roof rack crossbars. You'd still think a car like this, priced at $15,895, including $810 for destination and handling, might be a barren wasteland of amenities. However, with OnStar, including turn-by-turn directions; MyLink infotainment with Bluetooth, Pandora, and satellite radio capabilities; power mirrors; remote keyless access; fog lamps; floor mats; and a driver information center built into the motorcycle-like gauges, it's very well-equipped. Note that a 2014 model comparable to ours would ring up at $16,115.
On the safety front, the Spark comes with forward and knee-mounted airbags for the driver and front passenger and side and head airbags for all four occupants--10 airbags in all. The Spark hasn't been crash tested by either the NHTSA or IIHS yet.
The CommuteWeighing just more than a ton, we were expecting the Spark to be a little buzz box, fraught with enough noises to make you want to spend a little more on a larger Chevy Sonic. Remarkably, it wasn't. Sure, you can hear the wheezing four-cylinder engine as it huffs and puffs and fails to build a whole lot of speed as you rev it, but it's fine once it gets up to speed. The rest of the car is otherwise refined, with just a slight whistle of wind around its pillars and a bit of road noise that won't make you want to turn the radio much louder.
Speaking of the radio, it's encased in a version of Chevrolet's MyLink infotainment system that's channeled through four speakers throughout the cabin. You can only hear the two front-mounted speakers, which sound a little dull and flat. But when you're looking at a car that's almost completely optioned at under $16,000, what do you expect? The speakers might not draw in your typical stereophile, but we enjoyed the MyLink system--its touchscreen and flush, pressure-sensitive buttons included--combining Bluetooth phone pairing and audio streaming, satellite radio that was deactivated in our tester, and downloadable smartphone apps like BringGo, a somewhat rudimentary but perfectly usable navigation system that shows up on the MyLink screen. So much for having to spend hundreds of dollars for an in-dash unit; BringGo is 99 cents.
The car's users probably haven't touched a CD in years, so Chevy didn't include a CD player. Our Chevy Spark featured a USB port for music streaming, too, making the little runt a somewhat charming roadtrip vehicle once it got up to speed. That's enough technology to impress anyone born after 1990.
The Grocery RunOne thing you don't quite realize when looking at the Spark from the outside is that it's decently comfortable, too, with space for four average-height adults. Front passengers in our 2LT model enjoyed a simple on-off heated chair on each side, and all of the seats were covered in Chevrolet's premium "leatherette," fashioned with funky circles pressed into the material.
We've seen some leatherettes in our day that could pass for the real thing; the Spark's felt more like what it actually was: rubberized vinyl, colored red. At least it's easy to clean up, as are all materials in the Spark. Perhaps too much so. The Spark has color-coded, gloss-finish accents in most models, with a built-in cubby hole on the passenger side. We had no qualms with that. But the dash and door plastics were all rock-hard and it became painful to use the door-mounted armrest on extended journeys. If we were to own a Spark, we'd cut out a mouse pad in the shape of the arm rest and glue it in place.
But driving the Spark was as hassle-free as you'd imagine this micro car to be. No parking space proved too narrow, nor too short. The Spark was even easy to parallel park, thanks to its rear window being just inches above the end of the car. In our standard testing, the Spark held just five grocery bags behind its rear seats, with Chevrolet claiming a respectable 11.4 cubic feet of space back there with the seat up, but we weren't able to sit any flatly when we loaded in our stroller. The Spark can accommodate two child seats, but space from the rear seatback to the back of the front seat can make installing a larger child seat a bit tight.
The Weekend FunThere's an old saying among car enthusiasts that it's sometimes more fun to drive a slow car fast than a fast car slow. The Chevrolet Spark is a shining example of this. According to all of the spec sheets I read, it generates peak torque--pulling force--at just over 4,000 rpm, 83 pound-feet in all. So I shifted late to get the most out of the engine, expecting the car to pull with some authority. Nope. No matter what you do, it's going to go about its business at a relaxed pace--but never to the point where it feels unsafe around town or on the highway. Optimized for maximum fuel efficiency, we saw 32.6 mpg over a week of mixed driving, on the low side of the Spark's 32 mpg city/38 mpg highway ratings.
Routing that power to the ground is a five-speed manual with long throws from gear to gear. Not horrible by most accounts, the shifter's gate pattern was truck-like and the shifter handle would often jam into my thigh when shifting into second gear. And we had fun driving the Spark, something we're not sure we could have said had the car been saddled with the available, slower four-speed automatic transmission; a new, more-efficient continuously variable automatic replaces it for 2014.
With each of its tiny 15-inch wheels mounted at the corners, the Spark proved nimble, almost fun, in quick bends. It helped whisk away the fear of a milquetoast on-road performance that often plagues small cars that don't have Corvette levels of development dollars thrown at them. We're not calling it sporty by any means, but it's not a total drag, either.
SummaryThe Chevrolet Spark far exceeded our expectations for what you could get at bottom-feeder money. Think about this: Last year, for the first time, the average transaction price of a new car was $31,000, twice that of the Spark. Part of that is explained by cars becoming more expensive; part of it stems from new-car financing becoming easier to attain. And part of it comes from stretching one's budget to get what he or she wants instead of needs or possibly can really afford.
The Spark is modesty all embodied in a wrapper you won't be embarrassed to be seen driving, priced to sell and powered by an economical engine that almost ensures Junior will never get a speeding ticket. Believe us, it takes a conscious effort to go fast in this vehicle, even if theoretically it tops out at 116 mph; maybe if you push it out of an airplane or something.
Outside of its hard and sometimes uncomfortable plastics, a manual transmission not placed well for those of us with American-sized legs, and a power issue that a small turbocharger could easily fix, the Spark's pretty good. It's honest; it makes no predications with what it is or isn't. But it throws in a good helping of technology as a side to sweeten the its market position over the two-door-only Fiat 500 and Scion iQ, capturing those who are light of wallet but heavy of expectations in good stead. If you can get past its relatively minor faults, all things considered, it's a perfectly charming second or third car, a sensible choice for your kid in college, or just a substitute for buying used. Without a doubt, it sure beats most any of the dreaded little "fuel-miser special" hatchbacks on your local used budget car lot.
Spec BoxPrice-as-tested: $15,895
EPA City: 32 mpg
EPA Highway: 38 mpg
EPA Combined: 34 mpg
Cargo Space: 5 grocery bags/0 with Britax stroller
Child Seat Fitment, Second Row: Fair
Estimated Combined Range: Combined multiplied by fuel tank size
Intellichoice Cost of Ownership: pull Intellichoice ranking; Excellent, Good, etc.
Notebook Quotes"The shifter is easy; gearbox is fluid when up shifting, but you have hunt for gears when you downshift. They only issue I have with the shifter--it hits my leg when I'm working with first and second gear. The whole box needs to be pushed forward two inches or be given a shorter throw." -Melissa Spiering, Truck Trend Associate Editor
"I'm surprised by this little car, in a good way. Overall, considering the price--in fact, just for the duration of these notes, think 'considering the price' when I issue praise for the Spark--it's comfortable, quiet, and feature packed. But save yourself some misery and skip the terrible and vague five-speed manual." -Keith Buglewicz, News Director