First it was BMW with its Mini, then it was Mercedes-Benz with its Smart: cars that packed style into a small package.
Now we've got small cars from Fiat (the 500) and Scion (the iQ), but the relevance of microcars as a segment may rely mostly on the new 2013 Chevy Spark.
It's hard to imagine a domestic automaker developing a well-rounded, affordable and shockingly roomy microcar with top-flight technology, but that's what Chevrolet has done with the 2013 Spark.
The fact that it's a very small car can't be escaped, though. The laws of physics are impossible to defy, even with great engineering, and the Spark's performance is certainly not for every shopper.
The beauty of the Spark is really in its deceptive size.
On the outside, the 144.7-inch-long hatchback is just 2 inches smaller than a Mini Cooper hardtop and more than 15 inches shorter than a Ford Fiesta hatchback. Chevy's own subcompact Sonic hatch is 14 inches longer.
Inside, though, passenger volume is rated at 86.5 cubic feet, versus the Fiesta's 85 cubic feet. The Sonic is rated at 91 cubic feet.
It's this spaciousness that drivers will appreciate when behind the wheel. The tall roof and ample headroom especially resonated with me; I've always felt cramped in the Fiesta, though it's otherwise good in many ways.
Even more shocking is that rear passengers won't have to practice their contortionist skills just to get in the car, thanks to the four full doors — the hidden door handles outside almost make the Spark look like a two-door — and there's even decent knee room for full-sized adults.
Look at the 11.4 cubic feet of trunk volume with the rear seats in place, and again the Spark holds up well, falling between the Fiesta, at 15.4 cubic feet, and the Mini Cooper, at 5.7 cubic feet. I hit the home improvement store for a 30-pound bag of grass seed and one of fertilizer, and both fit flat on the floor. A large potted plant didn't quite make it; I had to fold the seats down.
And that is not an easy task. To maximize space, the Spark requires the seat bottoms to flip forward before the seatbacks can fold flat. This was common in SUVs in the past, but I never saw one that allowed the seat belt buckles to fall out of place and be entirely covered when putting the seat bottoms back in place. You'll need to hold onto the Spark's belt receptacles as you complete the maneuver.
Despite that issue, the Spark doesn't feel that cheap inside, even with the heavy use of clearly fake leather — vinyl — and lots of plastic. Geometric patterns are ingrained in both types of materials to add some "edge," and some models bring the exterior paint color inside.
I didn't like the small display that's mounted next to the speedometer. The readout includes most information you'll need in a very tight space, so it's hard to see trip information or gas level with a quick glance.
Eighty-four is a decent basketball score or temperature for the beach, but it's not a great horsepower rating, even if the car it's powering weighs less than 2,300 pounds.
Luckily, when teamed to the four-speed automatic transmission, acceleration around town comes in the fashion you'd expect from a typical compact. Getting on the highway, however, takes a long time, with a slow build-up to get to cruising speeds.
I also tested the Spark with the base car's five-speed manual transmission. The long shifter had somewhat rubbery throws, and the clutch popped in and out in a perfunctory manner, but I found it to be about what you'd expect from a car in this price range. The four-speed automatic stood out among our editors as being surprisingly efficient.
Mileage is rated at 32/38 mpg city/highway and 34 mpg combined with the manual, 28/37/32 mpg for the automatic. That's behind the iQ, which is rated 36/37/37 mpg with its standard automatic, but similar to the Fiat 500, at 31/40/34 with the manual and 27/34/30 with the automatic — but the Fiat requires premium gas to get those figures. You can compare the three models here.
While the Spark's size is meant to be an advantage for city dwellers, a car this size will always have inherent problems. Despite a rather lengthy wheelbase for its size, the Spark was obnoxiously choppy on the highway. Every expansion joint or undulation in the pavement had the entire car pitching up and down. After one particular commute home, I was thrilled to see my exit because I was getting queasy from being tossed about.
Over pothole-strewn city streets, including a stretch in the meatpacking district where the term "road" is used loosely, the Spark did a better job than I expected. The suspension takes the bumps fairly well, and at slow speeds the jostling isn't as severe as those smaller imperfections felt at highway speeds.
Because the Spark gains so much interior volume by making the car tall, I was expecting a tipping sensation during tight cornering, like on highway off-ramps. But the Spark — which comes with standard 15-inch alloy wheels — is quite stable, exhibiting little body lean.
It also stays well-planted at highway speeds. During severe rain, I felt very secure piloting the tiny car down the road.
Unlike many subcompact cars that deliver just an average experience in all situations, the Spark definitely excels in one and lags greatly in another. Shoppers looking for a car to complete a short commute or daily runs around town will find the Spark alluring. Anyone who commutes or spends much time on the highway should look elsewhere.
Features & Pricing
If life isn't a highway for you, the Spark delivers on content and value. At a starting price of $12,995 including a $750 destination charge, you get standard alloy wheels, air conditioning, cloth seats, power windows, an AM/FM stereo with four speakers and a manual transmission. An automatic adds $925 to any model.
Move up a trim level, and the 1LT ($14,495) is outfitted with the new MyLink multimedia system with six speakers, steering-wheel audio and phone controls, and cruise control.
The 2LT adds vinyl seating, a leather-wrapped steering wheel, unique wheels and exterior tweaks like fog lights, roof rails and more for $15,795. You can compare the trim levels here.
The multimedia system is really cool, and I'd guess most buyers will opt for the 1LT because of it alone. The 7-inch touch-screen looks like a high-end smartphone, not an outdated piece of technology. GM promises software updates to keep it fresh.
It has the features of very expensive units in other cars, including iPod integration, voice control, Bluetooth for phone and music streaming, and apps like Pandora radio. Later this year a navigation app will be available. So instead of having built-in navigation, owners will pay approximately $50 for a navigation app via the iPhone or Android app store and download it to their phone. Plug the phone into the car's USB port, and the navigation app displays in full on the 7-inch screen.
I saw a demo of the beta version and its functionality was good, but the graphics weren't as stunning as what you get when using the system's phone or music functions.
As of publication, the Spark had not been crash-tested by either the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration or the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.
It comes with 10 standard airbags, including seat-mounted side airbags for front and rear outboard passengers and knee airbags for the driver and front passenger.
Spark in the Market
The microcar segment is expanding, but it's unknown how much demand is out there for these cars as a whole. Ones like the Fiat that play to style-conscious buyers make sense because the small size is hard to sell on a practical basis.
If there were a practical microcar, though, it would be the Spark.
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