We hear a lot these days from marketing types about urban centric Gen Y. About how they place an emphasis on connectivity, on individuality and use their smartphones as a primary means of communication. For these would-be big city dwellers, the idea of a car is perceived as very different from previous generations.
|1. A 1.25L 4-cylinder in the Spark makes 84-hp and 83 lb-ft of torque and gets 28/37 mpg with a 4-speed automatic.
2. Compared to a Smart car it’s roughly 6-inches wider and three feet longer.
3. Available high-impact colors include Denim, Jalapeno, Lemonade, Salsa and Techno Pink.
4. MyLink integrates the users smartphone and stored media via Bluetooth, a plug-in outlet or USB port.
5. Pricing starts at just $12,995.
Not only are so called Millennials deemed less brand loyal than Gen-Xers or Baby Boomers, they’re more likely to only use a car when needed or if they do decide to purchase one, want to ensure it delivers maximum feature content for a minimal price. General Motors has two offerings aimed squarely at this Gen Y set, the Chevrolet Sonic, introduced in 2011 and now this, the even smaller Spark.
Although the Korean assembled Spark has actually been available in other markets for a couple of years, this is the first time it’s wound up on North American shores. However, GM says that the 2013 model, the first Spark we get, represents a mid-cycle product refresh, so there are a number of upgrades.
One of them concerns an ever so slightly larger engine, up from 1.2 liters to 1.25. (Hold your applause, please). The Ecotec four-cylinder sports a dual cam cylinder head plus continuously variable valve timing, helping it crank out 84 horsepower at 6400 rpm and 83 lb-ft of torque at 4200 revs. Other features include revised exterior mirrors to reduce drag, an available 7-inch dash mounted screen for MyLink, Chevrolet’s connectivity suite (that includes Stitcher smart radio, and soon GogoLink, an imbedded smartphone app with navigation and live traffic functions), plus standard 15-inch alloy wheels, air conditioning and hill start assist.
Chevrolet labels the Spark as high on volume for its size, so when you jump in it, there’s quite a feeling of spaciousness for such a small car. The ceiling towers over average drivers and there’s decent front legroom (42-inches).
In back, while two adults can fit, the result isn’t particularly comfortable for those over 5 foot 10-inches. The back seat also feels a lot like sitting on a park bench, so although this is a five-door hatchback, the rear chair is best reserved for occasional occupancy.
A gripe we found, concerned the way in which the rear seat folded. Because of the angle and the location of the cup holders and rear seat belt receptacles, it doesn’t fold that far forward, so compared to the slightly larger Sonic, practicality is significantly reduced.
Also, in an effort to make this a four-passenger vehicle, trunk space is also relatively minimal (just 11.4 cubic feet with the seat fully up), so if you’re planning a road trip, either two of your friends stay at home or you get a bigger car for the journey.
In an effort to simplify model and trim designations, the 2013 Spark is offered in three configurations, LS, 1LT and 2LT. The base car starts at $12,995 and for that you get standard power windows and locks, air conditioning, a five-speed manual gearbox, an auxiliary input jack and OnStar with a six-month complimentary subscription. Options are limited to a four-speed automatic and an engine block heater.
The $14,495 1LT adds standard MyLink with a 7-inch touch screen, Bluetooth connectivity, Sirius XM satellite radio and standard steering wheel audio controls, while the $15,795 2LT gets a slightly different front fascia with integral foglights, a unique 15-inch wheel design, special rear bumper cover incorporating an exhaust outlet ring, standard roof rails, plus a leather wrapped steering wheel, leatherette upholstery and heated front seats. On both the upper trim levels the only option is the choice of manual or automatic transmission.
BETTER THAN EXPECTED, JUST
So, given that Chevrolet already has the Sonic, a replacement for the rather awful old Aveo, does the even smaller Spark really make sense in North America? Well, in terms of driving dynamics it isn’t quite the penalty box you might expect. The steering is a little light perhaps, but this car boasts a tight turning circle (32.5 feet from curb to curb) and the variable assist, lighter at lower speeds, firmer at higher ones, makes city driving pretty much a doddle.
Despite its diminutive size, the 1.25-liter Ecotec isn’t as coarse as you might think and is certainly far smoother than GM captive import mini cars from a generation ago. Remember the Geo Metro? That said it takes quite a few revs to really get it moving, though at highway speeds, punch the throttle and there’s enough thrust to handle most driving situations.
The five-speed manual sports long throws and clutch action is a little awkward. The location of the armrest between the front seats means that second and fourth gear go right under it, which we found irritating after a while. That said, having full control of each ratio does help make the driving experience that little bit more involving.
The automatic is hard to fault, except that with just four-gears the Spark can feel a little overstretched on the highway at times. Fuel economy is billed at 28 miles per gallon city, 37 highway, or 32 mpg combined, which isn’t impressive for a small car at all. The manual is only marginally better at 32 city/ 38 highway (34 mpg combined). By comparison the Sonic gets 25/36 on base trims and can achieve 29/40 mpg.
Considering its height (61-inches) relative to length (144.7-inches) and width (62.9-inches), the Spark actually feels fairly stable through the corners. A 185 series footprint offers fairly good levels of grip by mini car standards, while maintaining a fairly compliant ride, whether traversing city streets or running along highways.
In terms of safety, the Spark comes with 10 airbags, a rollover sensing system and besides the usual nanny aids, such as Stabilitrak, ABS and anti-lock brakes, features a body structure made from 60 percent high strength steel. The trouble is, perhaps because it was designed as a lightweight car (weighing in at 2,237 lbs), it feels tiny and not that safe when in motion, almost as if other cars would rip through the Spark’s sheetmetal like steel through tin foil in the event of a crash.
Another issue concerns interior quality. While ergonomics are fairly sound and the motorcycle-like instrument cluster is a neat touch (we wish more cars had this), the quality of the materials is still lacking, with the dash and door panels feeling flimsy and cheap, even at this price point.
While cars such as this definitely make sense in parts of the world where narrow roads are the norm and open space is at a premium, in North America, given this car’s overall fuel economy, and certain compromises in packaging (rear seats), you can’t help but wonder if it’s a bit superfluous.
After all, the Sonic, which boasts similar styling and is priced only slightly more (a starting MSRP of $14,765 at post time), offers better build quality, improved fuel economy (40 mpg highway) and a more spacious interior, plus with the addition of the sporty RS for 2013, it’s simply a far more attractive proposition as a small, economy minded car. The Spark, by contrast, feels only a few steps removed from walking, cycling or taking the bus.