It’s 2016 and cars are more of everything – they have more features, more safety equipment, more space and all that comes for more money.
Engine: 1.4-liter 4-cylinder
Power: 98 hp and 94 lb-ft of torque
Transmission: 5-speed manual or CVT
EPA Fuel Economy (MPG): 30 city, 41 highway (manual)/31 city, 41 highway (CVT)
CAN Fuel Economy (L/100 km): 7.8 city, 5.8 highway, 6.9 combined (Manual)/ 7.6 city, 5.7 highway, 6.7 combined
Price (USD): Starts at $13,535
Price (CAD): Starts at $9,995
If that’s a problem for you, there are a few cars that come with limited equipment and a low price tag, but be warned that when you make the jump to the ultra-basic cars, there’s a huge chance you may regret it and miss all those niceties you take for granted.
A week of testing the new Chevrolet Spark LS exposed the flaws of the cheap-car market, but there are fewer compromises in the small hatchback than I expected. This is a car that can be had for $13,535 and arrives with practically nothing. Forget about power windows, locks and mirrors or even air conditioning. There are also no buttons on the keys, so getting in requires a twist of a lock and when you get out, you have to lock the door manually before you take off.
All you get is a 1.4-liter four-cylinder engine that puts out under 100 horsepower and a five-speed manual transmission. There are, however, automatic headlights and a backup camera, split folding rear seats, four doors and 10 airbags.
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Living Without the Fancy Stuff
It’s been some time since I’ve been in a car so basic. The need to pull out the key and stick it into the door seems foreign and awkward. Is this really how we had to do it before we became so used to remote locks? When friends and family need a ride, I have to stretch out and unlock the car by yanking on the door pin. It’s inelegant to say the least, but I eventually started opening doors for my passengers, which brought out comments about how chivalry is dead and that I’m a rare breed.
Other throwbacks seem less noticeable. The lack of power adjustable mirrors is something you only need to deal with once. It’s not a big deal unless there are different people driving the same car.
And while being unable to roll down the rear or passenger windows while driving can be a pain, it’s not something you’d have to deal with every day. And as the test took place through the denouement of winter, I had no need to worry about air conditioning.
As basic as it seems, however, the Spark does have a few smart standard features: automatic headlights, for example, are nice since other cheap cars without this feature can be safety concerns at night. Or worse, an owner can leave their lights on and return to a car with a dead battery, which isn’t a concern in the basic Spark. A rear view camera is also a handy standard feature.
The Killer App
One other piece of standard equipment that stops the Spark from being a retro car for hipsters who prefer analogue experiences like record players and French-pressed coffee is the infotainment system. Yes, the Spark LS, a car without AC or power mirrors, has a seven-inch touchscreen with Android Auto and Apple CarPlay support as standard equipment.
It’s the one standout luxury that makes the Spark feel more modern and liveable rather than drab and mindless, like other cheap compacts including the Mitsubishi Mirage. In my experience, Android Auto is the Spark’s killer app. If you don’t have a phone with Android Auto support or Apple CarPlay (I’m looking at you Blackberry and Windows Phone users), forget this car.
It takes a moment to embrace Android Auto – you can’t use your phone while it’s plugged in (it’s a safety measure to prevent distracted driving) and instead are forced to access functionality by using the car’s touchscreen or voice recognition. If you need extra information, it uses your phone’s data connection. Fortunately, the Spark is offered with a fast LTE internet connection, so you don’t use up all your data.
For Android Auto, the voice recognition is powered by Google’s software, and it’s surprisingly accurate and helpful. I can not only dictate texts, navigation destinations or music to listen to, but I can even ask questions about the weather, travel time to a certain location, and even when my favorite sports teams are playing. The car talks back to me like it’s my own personal assistant.
Apple iPhone users get a similar experience. While my time with Siri and iPhones is limited, those who are comfortable and happy with their iDevices should be content with the Spark’s setup.
Slow but Steady MPGs
On the road, it’s noticeable that the Spark isn’t a speed demon. The five-speed manual helps you eke out every pony available and is a solid transmission for cog-swapping. I’d have no worries about a manual newbie learning to drive with a Spark’s stick shift, especially when other compact cars have horribly vague throws. In addition to being more fun to drive than the automatic model, the manual model also returns some decent fuel economy too. Rated to return 30 mpg in the city and 41 mpg on the highway, my week-long test of the manual model returned 33 mpg. That’s not bad a bad figure for drivers on a budget.
Yes, it’s slow to pass and the engine buzzes to keep you at highway speeds, but in the city and in suburbia, the Spark works well. Parallel parking this small car is an effortless task, and the engine has plenty of pep at low speeds.
Other cheap cars can feel like a penalty box for having limited liveability, and in a few ways, the Spark isn’t immune to this either. The seats don’t offer much support, although there is a helpful armrest. The rear seat, though a bit small, can accommodate people under six-feet tall. The trunk can be a little limiting – a gym bag pretty much filled it up, but the rear seats fold down 60/40, so if you need extra storage, it’s available. It’s also worth pointing out that there’s no release for the trunk. That means there’s no button or lever — you have to take your key and physically unlock the hatch to open it. It’s an annoyance if you’re picking someone up and they have stuff to throw in the caboose, since you have to turn off the car, exit the car, and then use the key to open the hatch.
The Verdict: 2016 Chevrolet Spark Review
In many cases, a cheap car is a compromise and a lopsided one at that. While the Spark lacks several amenities, it makes up for it in other areas. It’s fuel efficient, easy to drive and liveable. The inclusion of standard Android Auto and Apple CarPlay balances out other feature deficiencies, and gives the car a serious leg up when matched up against its competition. There’s something about the Spark that makes it not feel like the lowest priced vehicle that Chevrolet offers and that’s the details. Every Spark owner gets their keys given to them in a smartphone-like box, a gimmick that I think really appeals to this car’s demographic. If you’re in the market for a cheap no frills city-car, the Spark is the best option.
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