In a few months Chevy will be thinking small. When the 2013 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, lightweight city cars like the Spark traditionally have a little bit of a stability problem (6.5-inch wide tires don’t help either.) What General Motors has done to combat this is give the car one of the widest stances in its class. So it takes more than a stiff breeze to cause havoc. The McPherson strut suspension up front and torsion beam rear is a configuration shared by many in the class, but the dampers are set up to inspire driver confidence. 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 in our tester and achieves a combined 46 mpg in Europe. This engine is capable of providing good power in the urban jungle, and when equipped 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 receives 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 extra grunt will make the difference.
The interior utilizes similar comfort 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 far away from the driver help contribute to the Spark’s big boy feeling. The fit and finish of the driver’s gauges is a step down from its larger 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 money is 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 the Nissan’s 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 back there, 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 advantage, the Spark is about buying basic transportation with a little element of fun thrown in for a fringe benefit. The Fiat 500 is the class king at offering this kind of personality, and since the Spark can’t match the Fiat in this department, hopefully the Chevy’s lower price will keep it competitive.
The Spark will be in Chevrolet dealers with an MSRP starting at $12,245, which is a decent undercut from the $14,635 Sonic. Economic pricing 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 of transporting the Geek Squad. 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.