The hassles of urban life often conflict with car ownership; finding and affording a parking spot, and the ability to make monthly payments are chief among them. Assuming no financial obligation, however, cars best-suited for the city are light, chuckable, and fit in tight parking spaces. Enter the 2013 Chevrolet Spark: General Motors’ answer to the likes of the Smart Fortwo, Scion iQ and Fiat 500. On Tuesday, Autosavant had the chance to put Chevy’s newest minicar through its paces in New York City, its natural environment.
Unashamedly marketing to “millennials,” who can add apps to smartphones for free, and often, Chevrolet is positioning its South Korean-built Spark to offer the most value for money in the supermini segment. Potential Spark buyers will likely be drawn in by its lengthy features list and its low, low price of entry. For approximately $13,000, the base Spark offers a, well, basic introduction to transportation for four occupants. Econocar luxuries, such as air conditioning, power windows, and alloy wheels, are standard across the lineup. Compared to so-called value leaders in the segment, like the Nissan Versa, the Spark is gambling on younger buyers preferring a well-equipped, inexpensive first car.
The Spark’s unique selling point, however, is Chevrolet’s MyLink infotainment system, which is available on all but the base models. The system makes use of smartphone connectivity to integrate audio, video, and telephone capabilities through a 7-inch display mounted prominently on the center stack. Touchscreen-based, MyLink is simply designed, easy to use, and caused only a minor panic attack when my co-driver and I couldn’t figure out how to get our Spark to realize we weren’t in Brooklyn yet. It’s a factory-installed feature that none of its major competitors have — yet.
The Spark is distinguished among most new-car offerings in the United States by its double-digit horsepower and torque figures: 84 and 83, respectively. Power comes from a 1.2-liter, four-cylinder engine — the only engine choice in North America — and is routed through either a 5-speed manual or a 4-speed automatic. Thanks to a curb weight under 2,300 pounds, the Spark moves, but with no sense of urgency. The shifter is fairly rubbery and clutch take-up is exceptionally light: neither of which will cause a headache in urban driving. Because, despite the presence of an engine and a durable chassis, our drive route through along the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway and the FDR Drive confirmed that a Sonic or Cruze might be a better highway cruising machine.
Small footprint, could be smaller
Buyers are also likely to care about the Spark’s fuel economy, which is 32/38 with the manual transmission (28/37 with the automatic). Compared to my sometimes-daily driver, an ancient Toyota Land Cruiser, it’s an improvement of 20 mpg. Next to its top competitors’ fuel economy figures, the Fiat 500-sized Spark falls slightly short. And there are more powerful cars in Chevrolet’s own lineup — see: Sonic and Cruze — that achieve the magic 40-mpg EPA figure.
With big, stretched headlights, a short rear overhang, and tall proportions, the Spark does not lack for personality. Given the awkward styling proportions, the Spark likely to attract more gawkers than, say, a Sonic. Along our test route, which covered some of the trendiest neighborhoods in Manhattan and Brooklyn, the Spark’s suspension — developed in BRIC markets before fine-tuning in North America — offered a compliant ride in both the front and back. Trust me: I rode in the back along some of the toughest road surfaces in New York. The interior is reasonably quiet at speed, and steering is fairly communicative, but the Spark seems to lack the refinement that turns even a base Fiat 500 into a car for driving, rather than simply an appliance.
Will ‘millennials’ bite?
Most importantly, the experience of driving the Spark requires neither a learning curve (see: Smart Fortwo) or inherent sacrifice (see: aforementioned Versa). For the cost of a three-year-old Toyota Corolla, or a four-year-old Camry, the Spark offers all the amenities of a new car without the worry of a used model, a new-car warranty. If the smartphone-toting millennials are listening — rather, reading this article on said smartphones — Chevrolet might have a success on its hands.
I attended a press event in New York City on behalf of Autosavant, at which there was no shortage of Chevy Sparks in a variety of colors, samples of sweet-smelling perfume, treats from a trendy Manhattan bakery’s Brooklyn outpost, and the word “millennial” was uttered with alarming frequency.