First Drive

2013 Chevrolet Spark

GM’s newest, smallest, most affordable car is an urban delight

2013 Chevrolet Spark - Front Side

TORONTO, ON – Chevrolet says its 2013 Spark mini-car is designed for city dwellers. To prove the point, a group of journalists were turned loose for a day in traffic-clogged downtown Toronto.

The result: the Spark lived up to its billing. Its street smarts are impressive.

This little five-door hatchback is amazingly agile – its turning radius is just five metres, half the distance required by its sub-compact sibling, the Sonic. It can dodge through gaps in traffic, squeeze its way past semi-blocked lanes and easily zip into curbside parking spots on a crowded city street.

I know these moves are possible because I made them all – and more.

2013 Chevrolet Spark - Rear.JPGThe Spark is the smallest – and most affordable – car General Motors has ever offered. It’s just 3,675 millimetres long – that’s 364 mm shorter than the Sonic – and sits on a 2,375-mm wheelbase. It manages to slip through tight spots because its overall width is just1,598 mm.

Yet it’s still the largest car in its segment – it’s 128 mm longer than a Fiat 500, 630 mm more than a Scion IQ and nearly a metre longer than a Smart Fortwo.

Room for four

It also has two more doors than the others, which makes access and egress considerably easier, especially when gaining entry to the rear bench.

The 60/40-split back seat isn’t exactly generous, but two adults can sit back there and still have some room for their legs. I did manage to get my "ample" six-foot-one frame parked in the back, though I wouldn’t want to strike out for Florida in that position.

Up front, the Spark’s cabin is quite roomy. A couple of robust adults can occupy the twin bucket seats and their elbows won’t connect. Leg room is generous and there’s headroom aplenty, due mainly to the Spark’s overall height of 1,549 mm, which is actually higher than the larger Sonic hatchback at 1,517 mm.

The Spark also has a surprising amount of cargo space, considering the overall dimensions of the vehicle: 323 litres (11.4 cubic feet) with the rear bench upright, 833 (31.2) with the seatback folded.

Common design elements

The Spark’s styling lacks the cuteness of the Fiat, but it is functional. Actually, it looks like a Sonic hatch that was left in the dryer too long.

Not surprising, really. Both cars came out of GM’s South Korea design studios, although corporate spokespeople swear different teams worked on the Sonic and Spark. They must have had a coffee or two together, though, because both cars share several design features, including the rear door handle hidden in the C-pillar to create the illusion of a two-door.

2013 Chevrolet Spark - Interior.JPGInside, they both have a motorcycle-inspired gauge cluster, which, I must concede, does add a unique touch to the instrument panel.

There’s also a funky, cool look to the interior, with bold splashes of paint on the instrument panel and door panels, plus complementary colours on the seat coverings. Rather than the typical sea of grey/black plastic, the Spark’s cabin has an uplifting décor – just what the urban commuter needs while sitting in gridlock.

Connected

Connectivity, of course, is essential to the "Now Generation" and the Spark won’t disappoint. A seven-inch, full-colour touch screen dominates the centre stack in the 1LT and 2LT trim levels.

It’s packaged with MyLink, an extension of your smartphone that features Bluetooth, a USB port, Stitcher radio on demand and XM satellite radio. It’s also capable of displaying digital photos and video – when the car is not moving, of course.

Coming in the next few weeks is a full-function navigation app, BringGo, that can be purchased for about $50 from Apple and Android app stores and downloaded to your smartphone, then linked to the Spark.

Safety a priority

Safety strategies were a priority in the Spark’s design and all models come fitted with 10 airbags, disc brakes with a four-wheel anti-lock system and electronic brake assist, full-function traction control, GM’s StabiliTrack electronic stability control system and standard OnStar service.

It also has hill start assist as standard equipment – the only mini-car with this feature.

In addition, 66 percent of the chassis is comprised of high-strength steel and 16.5 percent is ultra-high-strength steel, wrapping the occupants with a strong safety cage in the event a crash occurs. North American crash test results are not yet available, but the Spark does have a four-star rating on the European scale.

Paucity of power

The Spark gets its motivation from a 1.25-litre four-cylinder that sips regular-grade fuel at the rate of 6.3 litres/100 km in the city, 5.1 on the highway (with the manual gearbox.) An electric version of the car, the Spark EV, is scheduled to join the lineup in 2014.

With an output of just 84 horsepower and 83 lb-fteet of torque, don’t expect to set any records at the local drag strip – it takes 12 seconds to reach 100 km/h.

It trails the Scion (94 horsepower) and Fiat (101) in power, but it still does feel perky on city streets. Both the standard five-speed manual gearbox and the four-speed automatic (a $1,250 option) were geared to make the most of those 84 horses on initial launch, providing acceptable acceleration.

On the highway, however, be prepared to be patient. While I did manage to nudge the needle to 130-plus on a flat, straight strip, overtaking really should be a well-planned move. The manual required a couple of downshifts to build up sufficient steam to pass and the automatic had the four-banger buzzing as well.

Both in town and on the highway, I found no fault with the car’s dynamics. With an independent McPherson strut arrangement up front and a compound crank system in the rear, the Spark tracked true, the electric rack-and-pinion power steering had some feel, unlike the numbness some of these units exhibit, the ride was decent and the car behaved well when pressed through corners and highway ramps.

Well equipped

Chevrolet expects the base LS model, starting at $13,495 in Canada, will account for the bulk (55%) of Spark sales. This trim level has a lengthy list of standard features, including 15-inch alloy wheels, power windows and tilt steering wheel. Air conditioning is optional ($1,150).

The next step up the price ladder is the 1LT, which starts at $16,695 and includes air conditioning plus numerous other upgrades.

About five percent of Spark buyers are expected to opt for the 2LT at $18,495. That starting price includes a special front grille and fascia, carbon fibre accents, unique alloy wheels, roof rails, heated front seats with leatherette coverings and more.

All Sparks come with a segment-leading 160,000-kilometre/five year powertrain warranty. The Spark is now on sale at Chevrolet dealers across Canada.

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