I like to imagine the Chevrolet team practicing some Stuart Smalley-style self-affirmation as they launched the itty bitty Spark. High in General Motors' downtown Detroit headquarters, I can see a room full of marketers starting every meeting by chanting in unison: "It's good enough, it's big enough, and doggone it, people are going to like it."
With its double-digit horsepower figure, stunted proportions, and a roof rack to compensate for the dearth of cargo space, the Chevrolet Spark seemed like an answer to a question no one asked. After driving it, I'm still wondering why you'd want such a tiny car, but I can say that relative to peers like the Scion iQ, the Smart ForTwo, and the Fiat 500, the Spark actually makes a lot of sense. Aside from being longer and offering two more doors, it's also a much better car to drive. The ride is surprisingly compliant, the interior is unexpectedly well-equipped, and the 84-hp engine is unbelievably competent. Since the Spark's fuel economy isn't significantly better than a Chevrolet Sonic's or Cruze Eco's, you'll have to look elsewhere to justify this purchase. For me, it's value that makes the Spark stand out in a crowded market. At $15,795, I was impressed that this 2LT model came standard with heated seats, a USB audio input, Bluetooth, satellite radio, power locks and windows, and a 7-inch touch-screen interface. A comparably equipped Sonic costs $3000 more.
That touchscreen also happens to be among the best in the business, a minor miracle given GM's missteps with Cadillac's Cue and the mediocrity of the MyLink found in other Chevrolets. The Spark's system is also called MyLink, and yet it both looks and acts differently than what you'll find in an Equinox or Traverse. The home screen will seem familiar to anyone who has ever used a Microsoft Zune or Windows phone and the controls are as intuitive as Hyundai's. I just wish the on-screen buttons were 10 percent larger and that the volume and power buttons below the screen were replaced by a single knob.
Eric Tingwall, Assistant Editor
The Chevy Spark is an interesting proposition. It has entered into the sparsely-populated American microcar segment with bright colors, surprisingly good driving dynamics, and a big smile. Like Eric Tingwall said, the Spark is a much more compelling option than others in the class, if for no other reason than the two extra doors. The fact that it is actually entertaining to drive sweetens the pot further. While the four-cylinder might have just 83 hp, it's a blast to wind up with the five-speed manual; it's not quick by any means, but exemplifies the concept of driving a slow car fast.
At just $15,795, the Spark gets close to stepping on the toes of larger subcompacts, but with a fantastic touchscreen infotainment system, heated seats, and power doors, locks, and mirrors, this may be the car to get for someone looking for a cheap, but still cheery, city runabout.
Donny Nordlicht, Associate Web Editor
As is custom with new GM youth-oriented products and concepts, the Spark is shrouded in marketing blather and desperate pandering, but strip away the press releases with winking nods to skinny jeans and iPhones filled with Pitchfork Magazine Best New Tracks, and the little hatchback has a secret: it's actually really good.
The goodness starts on the outside. The Spark has a distinctive exterior that should win it both fans and detractors -- its oversized headlights and choice of eye-popping colors are anything but bland. On the inside, what would normally be an ocean of gray or black hard plastic on another sub-compact is...a large metaphorical lake of bland plastic, but it is nicely accented with body-color trim pieces. My only grouse is that our 2LT model's seats were wrapped in the kind of material that you'd expect to find on 1980's pickup trucks. Stick to cloth, GM.
What's surprising about the Spark, however, is how bad the driving experience isn't. One would expect that a tall, narrow hatchback with a short wheelbase would be a handling nightmare (like, say, the Smart ForTwo), but the Spark rides and handles with the kind of maturity you'd expect from a larger -- and more expensive -- vehicle. It goes well too: the engine might have only 1.2 liters of displacement and just 84 horsepower, but it pulls reasonably well once you're in the power band (about 2500-5000 rpm, almost like a turbocharged engine), and the five-speed stick shift is slick and engaging, despite having a dated-looking urethane shifter knob.
I'd be remiss if I didn't mention the Spark LTZ's party piece: its infotainment system. GM continues to struggle with infotainment systems (see CUE), but it has hit the mark with the Spark's touchscreen unit. The (modified MyLink) system is simple -- just four touch-sensitive buttons and one generously proportioned touchscreen, a handful of major features -- but it scores points both for both ease of use and available hi-tech features like Pandora or Stitcher radio streaming and available smartphone-based GPS navigation.
In all, the Spark succeeds in being both cheap and cheerful, which is refreshing. For marketing-weary twentysomethings looking for a genuinely good car and annoyed with dubstep-heavy TV ads and marketers yelling about Foursquare, it's good to know that despite all that, at least one car fits their needs.
Ben Timmins, Associate Web Editor
How is it that a tiny, bright green, 84-horsepower economy car earns so much praise from the demanding scribes at Automobile Magazine? Simple: the Chevrolet Spark is actually a decent urban runabout. It's not an amazing car overall -- suffering mushy brakes, a gruff engine note, numb steering, and tinny plastics -- but it serves its particular purpose and market segment quite well. The driving experience is barely memorable because the Spark is designed for super relaxed commuting; it's ideal for drivers who don't particularly like driving. Visibility is great in all directions, the ride is remarkably comfortable for such a short car, the clutch and shifter are delicate enough they could both be operated with a pinky finger, and buyers who aren't familiar with manual transmissions can follow the eager "SHIFT" light above the tachometer.
Sitting in the back seat, I found there is significantly more head- and legroom than in the Chevrolet Spark's closest rival, the two-door Fiat 500. Cargo space is also better at 11.4 cubic feet, versus 9.5 in the Fiat. That makes the Spark far more useful than the Fiat, and a solid choice for anybody looking for a tiny hatchback. I'm even sold on the ultra-cutesy exterior styling and cheesy but functional motorcycle-like instrument cluster.
Jake Holmes, Associate Web Editor