THE PROS & CONS
- What’s Best: Good crash rating, funky styling touches, two distinct generations
- What’s Worst: Air conditioner saps engine, sleepy acceleration, 1.2-L consumes oil
- Typical Used Prices: 2013 - $9,500; 2017 - $13,500
Some motorists go to great lengths to eke out better fuel economy, such as tossing the weighty spare tire, dismantling their roof racks and donning an “ice vest” in hot weather in place of turning on the air conditioner. No, really.
All good ideas in these times of escalating gas prices, say hypermilers – those fuel-efficiency fanatics who make attaining higher mpg numbers worthy of an Olympic demonstration sport.
Smarter drivers may be contemplating downsizing their ride, and some are even considering slipping into something a little less comfortable. Which brings us to the Chevrolet Spark.
The Spark hatchback came to life in 2009 based on the 2007 Chevrolet Beat concept car, which had won a beauty contest of sorts (no, really). It rode on GM’s new Global Small Vehicles front-drive platform developed by GM Daewoo engineers in South Korea, which also underpins Chevy’s Sonic and Trax crossover. While international sales began in 2010, the Spark didn’t arrive in North America until later in 2012.
Needless to say, the Spark is tiny. How small? You have to step out of the car to change your mind (very sorry). It’s one metre longer than a Smart car, but shorter than a Mini, just big enough to offer four doors. Its tall, stubby profile pays dividends inside.
“I am six feet, two inches. Both legs could almost stretch out straight. Once you get in you have to get back out and take a look at what you just entered to make sure it was the same car,” posted a 2013 Spark owner online.
The front seats are upright and well off the floor, offering decent room for big people. The rear bench is better suited for smaller adults and children, as the cushions are lower. The Spark only furnishes four seatbelts, so it doesn’t pretend to accommodate a fifth rider. Good call, that.
The stylish interior features slashes of body-colour accents on the dash and door panels. Some surfaces are well-textured plastic, a nice surprise at this price point. Motorcycle-inspired gauges add visual interest, featuring both an analog speedometer and a multifunction digital display.
The available MyLink touchscreen provides helpful menus and crisp graphics, although the screen sometimes fails to register user inputs. Still, it works better than the MyFord Touch interface in the Fiesta and Focus, for example.
Cargo space is limited, needless to say. Folding the 60/40-split rear seats isn’t entirely simple, since the seat cushions must be flipped forward and the headrests removed before flopping the seatbacks. All that work yields a fairly flat floor and a more accommodating cargo hold.
Standard safety gear included four-wheel antilock brakes (front discs, but rear drums), hill-hold assist, electronic stability and traction control, front and rear side airbags, side curtain airbags and front-seat knee airbags. U.S insurance industry (IIHS) crash testing saw the minuscule Spark get the top “good” rating in all but the front small overlap collision test, which was rated “acceptable.”
2013 Chevrolet Spark
SPARKING IT UP
Powering the wee Spark is an unremarkable iron-block 1.2-L DOHC port fuel-injected four cylinder that churns out 84 horses and 83 lb-ft of torque. It came attached to a five-speed manual gearbox or, optionally, a conventional four-speed automatic. Hard to believe this was a 2013 model, but then again Chevrolet marketed the base model for the same price as a Nissan Micra: $9,995.
For 2014 engineers swapped out the ancient slushbox for a continuously variable transmission to improve both fuel economy and acceleration, and reduce engine noise on the highway. The CVT is sourced from Nissan’s Jatco subsidiary, a little ironically. In keeping with Chevy’s pledge to connectivity, 2015 models featured an enhanced version of OnStar with a 4G LTE Wi-Fi hotspot inside.
Given its advanced age when it arrived here, the Spark was due for a rethink by 2016 and, in fact, got one. The next-generation car features an all-new platform and a body that’s more sculpted but slightly smaller than that of the outgoing Spark. Legroom suffers a bit in back, but otherwise buyers likely would not notice the tighter dimensions.
GM’s new Ecotec small-engine family provided an all-aluminum 1.4-L four cylinder for the Spark, making 98 hp and 94 lb-ft of torque. The two-mode CVT transmission simulates lower gears when quicker acceleration is needed, and can mimic higher gears for highway cruising. The stiffer chassis allowed for better suspension tuning and a safer car, supplemented by 10 airbags.
DRIVING THE SPARK
Weighing in at a little more than one metric tonne, the Spark ought to be reasonably fleet, but it isn’t. Even with the manual transmission, it takes a mollusk-like 11.2 seconds to reach 97 km/h. There are very few cars that are sleepier. The CVT automatic transmission in the 2014 and newer models actually boosts the performance to an even 11 seconds, while toning down the cacophony. Tiny cars are where CVTs can do some social good.
The redesigned 2016 Spark with its larger and more modern engine could barely muster a better acceleration time of 10.8 seconds with the CVT, which makes you wonder why they spent so much time and resources re-engineering the little tyke.
Body motions are well damped, thanks to the front strut and simple rear torsion-beam suspension. The electric steering is light, but disciplined, by resisting tramlining on worn asphalt. Stability at highway speeds is remarkably good for such a stubby vehicle. The brakes are merely adequate, but at least they don’t fade during repeated hard stops.
And what about fuel economy – the reason we’re all here? It is decent, but not nearly as stellar as its toy-like profile and teeny engine would have you believe. Count on about 8 litres/100 km (35 mpg) in city driving, and 6.5 litres at highway speeds (44 mpg). Good but not great when you consider a larger Honda Civic can duplicate, or exceed, those numbers – and without hypermiling.
Chevy Spark owners recognize a good buy when they see one. They like their little car because it provides basic transportation at an agreeable price, yet it doesn’t feel entirely cheap, the cabin is spacious for what it is, and there are some high-tech features that can surprise and delight.
As always, buying used means casting a critical eye at reliability issues, and that’s where we’ve come to rely on real-world reviews by actual drivers. Number one is an unsettling number of owners reporting disappearing motor oil in the 2013-15 models that use the 1.2-L four cylinder.
“Car starting ticking. Pulled into a gas station to check my oil: nothing on the dipstick, no oil light came on. Put three quarts of oil in the car and it just touched the bottom of the dipstick,” reads a not uncommon complaint. Chevy dealers can conduct a compression test; if any cylinder shows less than 80 psi (typically #4 is the culprit), the engine is an apparent candidate for replacement under the powertrain warranty.
Another big weakness in the early Spark is an underperforming air conditioner that cycles between hot and cold – hardly a relief on a scorching day. GM recalled the a/c compressor and a related sensor, but not everyone is satisfied with the fix.
Some CVT automatic transmissions that started appearing in 2014 models failed at relatively low mileage, a common scourge of supplier Jatco. The units were replaced under the powertrain warranty. Beware of high-mileage examples, too.
The redesigned 2016 and newer Sparks have been noticeably better. The larger 1.4-L engine doesn’t appear to consume oil, and it handles the air conditioning load better. The few complaints lodged online appear to focus on a fussy MyLink displays and bad audio systems.
Overall, Chevy’s Spark appears to hit a little above its weight class, and it makes people happy without cleaning out their bank account. We recommend the 2016 and newer models for their well-sorted powertrain. Owners of earlier Sparks need to monitor their dipsticks.
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