By Jack R. Nerad, Executive Editorial Director, KBB.com
One thing you can say about driving the 2013 Chevy Spark small car is it drives, well, like a small car. The Spark is 14 inches shorter than the Chevy Sonic, a car most of us consider pretty small, and it offers the expected small-car virtues - low price, high fuel economy and sprightly maneuverability. It also comes with the expected small-car downsides - choppy ride on rough pavement plus engine and transmission noise and busyness on full acceleration - but Chevy execs are confident that its panoply of positives will outweigh the question marks that naturally accompany a vehicle so much smaller than the American norm.
Fact is, while the Spark is smaller than most cars on American roads, it and cars of similar dimensions are quite common, if not dominant, on the roads in most parts of the globe. The Spark was launched in Korea three years ago, and GM now successfully peddles it in scores of countries around the world. At launch time in the United States more than 600,000 Sparks had already been sold globally, so while its minicar profile might seem a bit diminutive at first glance, it has a bigger presence once you get to know it.
Getting to know it is just what we did in an "urban-themed" drive through the Los Angeles area, which is a bit ironic since Los Angeles, a city that grew like a dandelion after the invention of the automobile, is one of the most suburb-like urban areas in the country. Be that as it may, the Spark proved itself easy to park, quick to turn, and roomier than you might guess. One of its claims to fame in the minicar segment in which it competes here in America is its four-door-plus-hatch configuration. The rear seats are much easier to get into than those in the two-door Fiat 500, and once inside you will find them more commodious than you could have expected. If you're going on a date with another couple, make sure you drive, but your rear-seat companions (our nominee for band name of the week) won't end up hating you.
Spark's two other key differentiators in the segment are its MyLink infotainment system and its tantalizingly low price. This being Kelley Blue Book, let's consider low price first. The reasonably well-equipped base Spark - featuring air conditioning, power windows, alloy wheels and 10 air bags among other niceties - has a Manufacturer's Suggested Retail Price of just $12,995 including shipping. That makes it $2,500 less expensive than its nearest minicar competitor, the Scion iQ. If you put every bell and whistle on your 2LT high-grade trim-level Spark, you would be hard-pressed to push its MSRP past $17,000, and that same $17,000 won't move you very much past base level on the Fiat 500 or Scion iQ food-chain. For bargain-buyers the Spark presents itself as an obvious choice. It's no wonder that Chevrolet execs think a substantial portion of Spark buyers will come from those who are considering used cars.
The Spark's other key claim to fame - its available MyLink infotainment system - is also worthy of explanation. All trim levels but the lowest are equipped with a full-color, seven-inch touch-screen audio-cum-information system. As Chevy infotainment guru Sara LeBlanc is quick to point out, that seven-inch screen is nearly double the size of competitive vehicles' screens, and when you're at the wheel size does matter. The system features the newest version of Chevy's MyLink infotainment system that offers an interface inspired by smartphones, and also brings with it some smartphone-like apps including Pandora and Stitcher, allowing both music and talk to flow through the car's system seamlessly. In addition, Spark's MyLink also will include the soon-to-be-released BringGo app that delivers full-function navigation including turn-by-turn directions for a one-time cost of about $50. It works just fine as long as you have a smartphone and you're in an area with cell service.
Oh, yeah, and the Spark is a car, not just an infotainment delivery device, so it does have an engine and transmission. The lone engine available is an 84-horsepower (yes, you read that right) Ecotec 1.25-liter four-cylinder with either a five-speed manual or four-speed automatic transmission. Lest you fear that 84 horsepower is just too few, you should be alerted that it is squared off against less than 2,300 pounds of vehicle mass, so acceleration is acceptable. More than acceptable is the fuel economy of 32 (city) and 38 (highway) with the manual transmission and 28 (city) and 37 (highway) with the automatic. You might wonder why such a small, light car doesn't burst into the 40-mpg-highway realm, but you can lay that to the fact that each transmission is down one forward speed (at least) from the non-hybrids that hit 40 mpg.
Even if it is not the most sophisticated fuel-saver available, it is a sophisticated money-saver. What Chevy's new minicar brings to the U.S. market is a dramatic four-door shape clothed in dramatic exterior colors and offered at a bargain price. The Spark isn't everyone's cup of chai tea latte, but it isn't pretending to be. It's designed to lure the youngest generation of new-car buyers into the Chevy brand, and we think it will do just that.