Spark ignites interest in GM’s small cars

The streets of Toronto were the ideal proving ground for the new Chevrolet Spark.

The 2013 Chevrolet Spark has a vibrant

The 2013 Chevrolet Spark has a vibrant

Some launch events include scenic drives along mountain roads and coastal highways—even racetracks—to showcase a new vehicle’s character and driving dynamics.

The streets of Toronto set the stage for the new Chevrolet Spark, and despite my usual gripes about the city’s traffic, year-round construction and general state of asphalt disrepair, it was the ideal proving ground for this urban mini car.

Our day began in Parkdale, thankfully just after rush hour, in front of the hip and historic Gladstone Hotel.

This restored Victorian landmark, which is a hub for the indie arts scene, was a perfect backdrop for GM’s smallest production car to date—dipped in a variety of colours that included jalapeno, salsa, lemonade and techno pink.

It’s a perky little hatchback, tall and relatively narrow, but with pronounced wheel arches and standard-equipped 15-inch alloys that are pushed to the corners for a more planted look than small Chevies from the past.

With door handles hidden in the C-pillars, the Spark looks like a three-door, but is actually a five door, and the only one in a segment that includes Fiat 500, Scion iQ and smart fortwo.

I’m not sure whether to call it a large mini car or small subcompact.

The Spark is 128 mm longer than the Fiat, 640 mm longer than the Scion and nearly a metre longer than the smart, yet it’s smaller than its stablemate, the subcompact Sonic.

It’s also taller than all of these, which means headroom isn’t an issue, and it beats the competition in rear leg room. The Spark will comfortably seat two modestly-sized adults in back, with enough space behind the 60/40 split bench for a sizeable load of groceries. Drop the seatbacks and the class-leading 323-litre cargo hold expands to a surprising 883 litres.

Indeed, there’s a practical element to this vehicle, not to mention a low starting MSRP of $13,495, but I wouldn’t call it cheap and cheerful.

GM sees mini cars as a more premium segment, which is evident in the Spark’s chic competition.

Consequently, they’ve zeroed in on what matters to its young, urban and tech-savvy target demographic, which aside from affordability, includes style, connectivity, nimbleness and fuel economy.

In terms of style, the Spark comes in eight tones, several of which are continued inside on dash, door and seating inserts. These splashes of colour, and the motorcycle-inspired instrument layout, are part of a funky, upmarket interior that doesn’t say ‘entry-level.’

Opt for the top-trim 2LT model ($18,495) and you also get side sill extensions and a chrome exhaust outlet, neatly integrated within the rear fascia.

But you don’t have to spend large to get some of the extras typically missing from base econocars. All Sparks come with a sporty roof-mounted rear spoiler, and instead of crappy steel rims (standard fare on most small cars), you get 15-inch alloy wheels—an upgrade that is part of the vehicle’s mid-cycle refresh and debut in North America.

It may be new here, but the Spark has been around for over two years, with more than 600,000 sold across 80 countries.

Other enhancements for 2013 include bumping engine size a little for more mid-range torque, larger 185-series tires for better traction and handling, variable-assist electric power steering, hill start assist, more sound deadening material, and a new mirror design to reduce wind noise.

Connectivity is also key for Spark’s younger demographic.

Chevrolet’s MyLink infotainment system, with seven-inch colour touch screen, is optional on the base LS model, but comes standard in the 1LT ($16,695). It provides Bluetooth phone and audio streaming, USB port, photos and video, and Stitcher internet radio on demand.

A delightfully inexpensive add-on is the BringGo navigation app (available this fall), which for around 50 bucks, will provide full-function navigation using  your phone as the signal carrier. It will include local search via Google, live traffic reports, points of interest, turn-by-turn directions, 3D maps and more.

Nimbleness may be a priority for potential Spark buyers, and although GM has delivered in some respects, don’t assume the Spark is quick. It’s DOHC 1.2-litre four cylinder engine makes 84 hp and 83 lb/ft of torque—a little less than Scion and Fiat, but more than smart.

Numbers aside, this tiny mill delivers enough pep to meet the demands of city traffic. It’s a bit buzzy, but no more than I’d expect at this price point and displacement.

Where it struggles is on the highway, with merging and passing requiring substantial effort from the 1.2-litre’s tiny pistons. This is somewhat mitigated by transmission choice.

I drove both the four-speed automatic (a $1,250 option) and the five-speed manual, and my choice would be the latter. Gearing is a bit tall (better for fuel economy), but acceleration is more lively than the autobox, with zero-100 km/h taking approximately 12 seconds.

The Spark is no ‘hot hatch’, and should you go hard into a corner, expect some body lean. But the suspension soaks up road imperfections, and with its light, precise steering and good manoeuvrability (with a five-metre turning circle), this car is ideally suited to the inner city.

And although mini cars aren’t entirely about thrift, good fuel economy is a must.

Here, the Spark does not disappoint with 7.1/5.2/6.2 litres/100 km (city/hwy/comb – automatic) and 6.3/5.1/5.8 litres per 100 km (city/hwy/comb) with manual.

What GM hopes will win over consumers, in particular from automakers like Kia and Hyundai, is a long list of standard equipment. The base five-speed manual Spark LS isn’t in the lineup just to get feet into the showroom.

It includes the wheels and spoiler mentioned above, along with power windows, tinted glass, driver info centre, tilt steering wheel, four-speaker audio system and six months of OnStar.

And on the safety front are 10 airbags, stability control, traction control, hill-start assist, and a tire pressure monitoring system.

Air conditioning is extra at $1,150.

The 1LT and 2LT trim levels include all of the above, plus such niceties as MyLink, upgraded audio, heated leatherette front seats and more exterior bling.

With the Spark, GM’s first mini car in U.S. and Canadian markets, the company now has three vehicles under $20K.

And they’re all highly competitive within their segments.

Gone are the days when people bought small cars because they couldn’t afford to go big. Vehicles like the Spark are more a fit with one’s lifestyle.

Which for today’s young urbanites (and even families who need a second car), dovetails nicely with the Spark’s main attributes: Compact size, fuel economy, technology and panache.

Chevrolet Spark 2013

Body Style: five-door hatchback city car

Drive Method: front-engine, front wheel drive

Engine: 1.2-litre DOHC, 16-valve, four cylinder with variable valve timing (84 hp and 83 lb/ft of torque)

Fuel Economy: 7.1/5.2/6.2 litres/100 km (city/hwy/comb – automatic) and 6.3/5.1/5.8 litres per 100 km (city/hwy/comb) with manual

Cargo: 323 litres behind rear seats, 883 litres with seats folded

Price: base LS $13,495; 1LT $16,695; 2LT $18,495; 4-spd automatic $1,250; air conditioning $1,150


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