Chevrolet Spark — A miniature delight

By Jim Meachen and Ted Biederman

Not long ago tiny cars were seldom seen on American roads. U.S. automobile buyers had placed a big "not sold here" sign on the little guys, rejected as too small and too slow to fit into the wide open spaces of America.

But times have changed thanks to ever-increasing gas prices, the need to preserve shrinking family income, and the feverish rush by automakers to raise their corporate mileage to meet government mandates.

While basic small cars have become attractive alternatives for a variety of needs their shortcomings are lack of space, lack of power and the perception that they are unsafe at any speed. Safety — outside of the fact that they are small — is not much of an issue with our modern crash standards. But lack of performance and a claustrophobic interior are issues.

Enter Chevrolet's Spark, a tiny car that measures just 144.7 inches long, two inches shorter than a Mini Cooper and just five inches longer than a Fiat 500.The biggest attribute of the Korean-built little Chevy compared to the segment competition is passenger space. The Spark is unrivaled by anything its size currently sold in the U.S.

Additionally the Spark becomes a miniature cargo hauler with the rear seats folded creating a useable 31 cubic feet of space. With seats up, there is room for a load of groceries or numerous small items in its available 11 cubic feet.

There are downsides to any vehicle that starts below $13,000 and there are drawbacks to the Spark. One of them is the diminutive 1.2-liter four-cylinder engine that makes 84 horsepower and 83 pound-feet of torque. But we found in real-world driving that the Spark, even outfitted with the four-speed automatic transmission, can, indeed, safely get out of trouble when merging onto a 70 mph interstate or overtaking and passing a slow-moving vehicle. Yes, you have to sometimes keep the right foot planted on the throttle, but the Spark's little engine never complains. For maximum performance, opt for the five-speed manual.

The EPA mileage is not exceptional for a car this size, but its 32 city, 38 highway, 34 combined for the manual and 28/37/32 for the automatic is rewarding when you check your gas expenditure at the end of the month.

The Spark's ride is well controlled and comfortable. Road and wind noise are elevated higher than we like, but again this is a small inexpensive vehicle. If you want more serenity in your driving life, fork over more cash for a bigger vehicle.

The Spark has an upright profile and is attractive in a chunky, blocky sort of way. To look at it quickly would indicate it’s actually a three-door hatchback but the designers have disguised the rear doors giving the little car a more sporty appearance by integrating the handles into the C-pillar areas.

The interior quality and design is noteworthy. Hard plastics are evident in most places, but they are attractive and don't detract from the overall ambiance. The gauges that sit atop the steering column as opposed to being imbedded in the instrument panel are a combination of analog and digital and are displayed in soft-aqua lighting. The air-conditioning vents are positioned perfectly for driver and passenger and we can attest to how powerful the output is.

Chevrolet MyLink is standard on 1LT and 2LT trim levels and MyLink-equipped models come with two apps: Pandora internet radio and Stitcher Smart Radio. In the near future it will also have BringGo, an embedded app that delivers full-function navigation and live traffic updates and be priced at about $50.

Among standard driving features are MacPherson strut front suspension, anti-lock brakes, StabiliTrak electronic stability control and a terrific technology called Hill Start Assist that prevents drivers from rolling when restarting from a stopped position on a hill. It allows drivers to take their foot off the brake long enough to use the accelerator and move forward.

The Spark comes in three trim levels starting at $12,995 — LS, 1LT and 2LT — and is well equipped in base format. Standard features include 15-inch alloy wheels, air-conditioning, power windows, 60/40-split-folding rear seats, a height-adjustable driver seat, a tilt-only steering wheel, a trip computer, OnStar telematics and a four-speaker radio with an auxiliary audio jack.

Moving up to the 1LT trim starting at $14,495 adds power-adjustable mirrors, cruise control, remote keyless entry, floor mats, and the aforementioned MyLink touchscreen interface.

We drove the 2LT top trim at $116,720 which added on fog lights, roof rails, sporty front and rear fascia treatments, chrome exterior trim, faux leather upholstery, front heated seats and a leather-wrapped steering wheel.

Base price: $12,995; as driven, $16,720
Engine: 1.2-liter inline 4
Horsepower: 85 @ 6,400 rpm
Torque: 82 foot-pounds @ 4,200 rpm
Drive: front wheel
Transmission: 4-speed automatic
Seating: 2/2
Wheelbase: 93.5 inches
Length: 144.7 inches
Curb weight: 2,337 pounds
Turning circle: 32.5 feet
Luggage capacity: 11.4 cubic feet
Cargo capacity: 31.2 cubic feet
Fuel capacity: 9.2 gallons (regular)
EPA rating: 37 highway, 28 city
0-60: 12 seconds (estimated)
Also consider: Fiat 500, Nissan Versa, Scion iQ

The Good
• Spacious interior
• Nice selection of features available
• Comfortable ride

The Bad
• Gas mileage underwhelming

The Ugly
• Turtle-like acceleration