The new 2014 Chevrolet Spark EV is an excellent short-range commuter car, featuring surprising pep and comfortable amenities, but some typical electric-car problems keep it from being too entertaining.
If you're an electric vehicle enthusiast, the place to be these days truly is California. That's where all the new electric cars are appearing first, and that includes the 2014 Chevrolet Spark EV. Smaller than a Chevy Volt or Nissan Leaf but slightly bigger than a Fiat 500e, the Spark EV is meant to help fulfill a government mandate to sell zero-emissions vehicles in the state, but also to serve as a test for electrified technologies. The bigger question, however, is, how well does it all work? Can it be used as a normal car, or does range anxiety come into the picture?
How It Drives
Just like any electric car, slip into the seat with the key fob in your pocket and push the "power" button to switch everything on. With a faint hum of pumps and fans, the Spark EV comes to life. The single-speed automatic transmission has a normal shifter, unlike some other EVs that use buttons or toggles, making operation of the car as familiar as just about any other.
Trundle silently away from your parking spot, pull into the street and prepare to be surprised; the electric powertrain in the Spark EV quickly dispels any idea that this is an anemic golf cart. The motor puts out 130 horsepower, which is already plenty for a car this small, and also generates a whopping 400 pounds-feet of torque. In characteristic EV fashion, all that torque happens at zero rpm, meaning off-the-line acceleration is not just brisk, it's downright quick: Zero to 60 mph happens in just 7.8 seconds. By comparison, the gas-powered Spark with a 1.2-liter engine gets there in 11.2 seconds. Shaving nearly 3.5 seconds off the zero-to-60 time does not go unnoticed in average driving.
Unfortunately, the rest of the driving dynamics are not quite as entertaining as the acceleration. There's nothing wrong with the Spark EV's ride and handling, but the extra weight of the batteries slows down responses considerably. The regular Spark is nimble and feels light; the Spark EV feels heavy and uninterested in sporty maneuvers. Steering feel is a bit numb, unlike its main competitor, the Fiat 500e, which is brilliantly tossable through curves and canyons. What the Spark EV is better suited for is commuting duty, either through city streets or for short stints on the highway, where its behavior is perfectly controlled, quiet and smooth. The extra mass that prevents it from being too entertaining is an asset in highway cruising, where that added heft contributes to stability and better ride quality.
You'll get the most range while city driving, where stop-and-go traffic allows the car to recapture some energy with regenerative braking. The brakes feel artificial and are challenging to modulate, however, with regeneration kicking in and producing the typical electric-car feel. If it weren't for the fact that the Fiat 500e's brakes feel completely natural, this would likely not even be mentioned, but that car shows what is possible in a small EV's performance; the bar has been set.
As for efficiency, the Spark EV is rated 128 mpg-equivalent city, 109 highway, 119 combined. But since the public is no closer to really understanding that number today than it was when it was introduced, a better figure of efficiency is range. Overall range from the 21-kilowatt-hour lithium-ion battery that's cleverly packaged under the vehicle's floor is an EPA-rated 82 miles, but after driving the car in a calm, yet not terribly slow, manner, I was able to get the range meter to show a potential 92 miles of range, and I'm confident there could easily be more distance to be had. Recharging takes less than seven hours on a 240-volt charger but nearly 20 hours on a 120-volt household outlet. Unlike some competitors, the Spark EV offers a high-voltage DC fast-charge option. If you can find a DC fast charger (typically only found in industrial parks, for now), the battery is claimed to recharge to 80 percent in just 20 minutes.
However you classify the Spark — subcompact, city car, minicar, whatever — it's obvious from looking at the thing that there's not going to be a lot of room inside. Which is why it's a pleasant surprise to slide behind the steering wheel of the Spark EV and find a decent chair, acceptable elbow room and plenty of headroom. Both front-seat occupants can find comfortable positions, with pleasing dash- and door-material quality and solid-feeling construction. The optional seat material on my test vehicle left much to be desired, however — you can call it leatherette, but there's no fooling anyone into thinking this is anything but vinyl. It doesn't feel or look anything like leather, and it's almost tacky to the touch, gripping and holding clothes when you try to get in and out.
The seats themselves are comfortable and sufficiently adjustable, putting the driver in front of an electronic display that looks similar to the one in the Chevrolet Volt. Backseat occupants are not as fortunate, with legroom in short supply but headroom and hip room proving sufficient for short trips.
The shapes and materials on the dash are attractive, however, with a light-blue plastic band that runs across the panel in the EV. Regardless of exterior paint color, the strip is blue on the EV model — a feature to distinguish it from the gas model, which can have its interior strip in red, green or silver, depending on exterior color. It's a refreshing splash of color that adds to the Spark's playful nature.
Ergonomics & Electronics
The Spark features a surprising amount of electronic content for a tiny car, in keeping with the modern trend of packing small cars with the latest goodies. The gauge cluster is a reconfigurable LCD, while the center console's multimedia system is a touch-screen with flat, touch-sensitive control buttons on the surrounding trim. It's not my favorite method for controlling things like radio volume (a knob is always preferable to up-and-down touch-sensitive panels), but with steering-wheel audio controls, it's less of a nuisance.
The Spark EV's audio system is nothing to boast about, aimed more at conserving energy than delivering punchy bass. Connectivity is impressive, however, with the latest version of Chevrolet MyLink making full use of smartphone capabilities — even activating Apple's Siri concierge through a button on the steering wheel, provided a Siri-enabled iPhone is connected. As with most new Chevrolets, many functions can be controlled through OnStar via a remote smartphone app, as well, including monitoring the car's charge status. Three years of OnStar service is included standard, with a subscription required after that period.
Cargo & Storage
The Spark is a city car and is sized appropriately for that role. Front occupants are priority, then rear-seat passengers and then cargo room. Space behind the rear seat is tight but more useful than the miniscule area in a Smart ForTwo or Fiat 500. Flip the rear seats down and usability goes up, but this is not the car to take on a camping trip or to move into a new apartment.
The Spark EV has not been crash-tested. One of the Spark's surprises, however, is the number of airbags it contains — 10 in all, a high number for such a small car. Front-seat passengers are protected by front, side, and knee airbags, while rear passengers get side-impact airbags. All passengers are protected by side curtain airbags. You can see all the Spark EV's safety equipment here.
For now, if you want a Spark EV you have to be a resident of California or Oregon. That's where GM is initially rolling out the car to comply with local emissions mandates, but it wouldn't be surprising to see it expand to the rest of the country in the coming years, or even just to select markets that have adopted California rules. Right now, the Spark EV comes in two trim levels, starting with a 1LT that costs $27,495 including the destination charge. It's well-equipped at that price, including remote keyless entry, fog lamps, Chevy MyLink, Bluetooth connectivity, 15-inch wheels and all the aforementioned airbags. Moving up to the 2LT brings the "leatherette" seats, leather-wrapped steering wheel and the DC fast-charge-capable port for $27,820. These prices are before the inevitable incentives from federal, state and local governments, such as a federal income-tax credit of up to $7,500 one can get when buying certain EVs, or the thousands available to California residents in certain communities or working for certain companies. Suffice it to say that at the end of the day, these sticker prices are nowhere close to the net price. Option up a Spark EV for yourself here.
The field of competitors is growing, all of them featuring similar range and charging behavior. The closest competitor by size and price is the two-door Fiat 500e. Also limited to West Coast availability, it has a similar mission and handily outshines the Spark EV in the fun-to-drive department and in terms of general "cuteness," but comes up short in comfort, utility, value and especially multimedia sophistication. The Smart ForTwo is available in an electric version, as well, and for less money than the Fiat or Chevy, but it's strictly a two-seat minicar with no cargo capacity. The ForTwo's advantage lies in the available convertible version. It's the only electric convertible on the market, and losing its top transforms the ForTwo from a joyless econobox into a fun summer runabout. The most popular choice among buyers thus far has been the Nissan Leaf, which features far more interior space and similar range but is more expensive than the Spark EV. Compare them all here.