A car sold overseas since 2008, the Chevrolet Spark will arrive stateside by mid-2012. At the L.A. Auto Show, Chevrolet had four Sparks on hand, but just one — a well-equipped 2LT trim — was open. So we poked around that one.
Chevrolet says the car will start below the Sonic's $13,735 base MSRP. It had better start thousands lower. The Korea-built Spark has upscale styling, a livable backseat and flashes of interior ingenuity, but too many areas remind me of the ill-executed Chevrolet Aveo.
The show cars looked good — a wide-eyed smile to the Sonic's snarl — with a lot of upscale elements: body-colored moldings, alloy wheels with contrasting finish, fog lights that float within chrome runners, an exhaust pipe dressed into the bumper. No doubt about it, the Spark's exterior writes big checks.
Alas, the interior can't cash them.
Chevrolet's MyLink system looks promising, with lightning-fast response and intuitive menus. It's what MyFord Touch should have been all along. The Spark's gauges ape the Sonic's, with an information display flanking a single gauge. It moves as you adjust the steering wheel, but customary of entry subcompacts, it doesn't telescope.
Elsewhere, the Spark shows its roots — an entry-level car that was designed three years ago. The steering-wheel controls feel plucked from 2005, mounted as an afterthought on the steering wheel hub at 4 and 8 o'clock. The doors feel tinny, and the plastics are as cheap as they come. Some of this is likely to change between the auto show and the dealership, but the early signs show little promise. I hopped in a Sonic, and that still-small Chevy feels distinctly richer. The Spark is an urban runabout — its 85-horsepower engine and 32.5-foot turning circle should signal as much — but among Fiat 500s and Scion iQs, the car seems insubstantial.
The cabin feels narrow, with paper-thin doors that pull everything outside perceptually closer. There's room to spread your knees, and the driver's seat tracks back far enough, but the car's huge windows make you feel like you're in a fishbowl — and a small one, at that. Visibility, at least, is excellent. Those huge windows come courtesy of a belt line that starts at wrist level near the A-pillars. The Spark's length — 14.3 inches shorter than a Sonic hatchback — makes the rear window sit smack-dab behind the rear seats. It's huge, and the rear head restraints retract out of the way. Nothing behind you will stay hidden. Traffic in the next lane, however, could be another issue. The Spark's backseat door handles mount behind the windows, blending a solid panel into the C-pillars. The whole of it takes a big chunk out of over-the-shoulder visibility.
Backseat legroom is decent, but pop the hatch, and the cargo area is city-car small. If you have even a little cargo, you'll have to fold the seats down. It's a two- to four-step process, depending where the seats and head restraints are. Have fun with that.