2014 Earth Aware Vehicle Buyer's Guide
Featuring Top 10 Green SUVs & CUVs
2014 Chevrolet Spark EV Road Test Review
by Martha Hindes
Road & Travel Magazine's Top 10 Picks
While we were driving this morning we couldn't help but notice the signs at gas stations that displayed their continuing yo-yo prices: Up a little today, down a little yesterday, up the day before. Trying to find the most economical way to fuel up is enough to make someone seasick. And it could have for us if we hadn't been driving the 2014 Chevrolet Spark EV for the past few days.
Having an all-electric vehicle doesn't mean it won't need an energy refill from time to time. But, of course, with no on-board gas tank on the Spark EV and no way to use it if there was, we simply ignored the gasoline postings and (would you believe) continued down the road to our nearest Ford dealership for a quick refill.
No that's not a misprint. After taking the controls of our test all-electric Chevy Spark EV, RTM's Midwestern test drivers discovered a surprising willingness to share among the various companies selling plug-in electric vehicles. (Yesterday it was a nearby Nissan dealership.)
Since 240-volt charging stations are required by law at every auto dealership that sells plug-in vehicles, we quickly found that many in our area will honor any plug-in auto or CUV that needs an energy drink boost. (We can't vouch for electric vehicle haven states such as California or Oregon.) At least at our home base near Detroit, Michigan – with a heavy automotive corporate presence, including Ford and General Motors, the parent company of the Chevy Spark EV – it appears there's a tacit agreement among some companies to allow a competitor's plug-in customer to charge up without charge. (Pun intended.) So breakfast at a nearby family restaurant gave us enough time to top off our energy requirement and add some more stops to our itinerary. All at no cost to us – at least for the foreseeable future.
Just getting behind the wheel of an all-electric auto is a kick in itself. When we hit the start button of the Spark EV there's an eerie silence, not the usual exhaust rumble as an engine fires up. Lack of noise doesn't mean waiting, however. A short, colorful ballet of icons on the central gauge, including estimated travel range in miles, lets us know we're ready to drive. Putting the Spark into drive gets us immediate forward thrust as the electrical energy that powers it kicks in with no lag, like an incandescent light bulb that instantly brightens when the switch is turned on. (Fluorescent's are a different story.)
Chevy says the Spark EV's motor and drive unit produces 400-lb.ft. of torque, more than some high-end European sports cars, and has a top speed of 90 miles per hour. It is rated at 105 kW and 140-horsepower. The lithium-ion battery pack that allows such a powerful electric motor boost lives under the trunk flooring which eliminates room for a lot of cargo under the rear lift gate, or for a space saving spare, replaced by a tire repair kit. Folding rear seats expand the available rear storage space.
The EPA rating for a full charge is an 82 mile range, depending on the driving habits of the driver. The Spark EV we tested was fitted with a 7-inch touch-screen driving information center with MyLink electronics audio system, heat/cool comfort functions, heated seats and push button start. The electricity needed for those functions can diminish some of the vehicle's expected driving range.
Among the unexpected pluses of driving the Spark EV is how smoothly and effortlessly if goes, gaining surges of power at the slightest tap on the accelerator pedal. There's no transmission hunting for gears, just a smooth acceleration that can be gentle and timid or aggressively claiming ownership of the road, depending on the driving habits of the captain at the time and the length of trip one plans before recharging.
We had heard that some of the most appealing driving can be in an electric vehicle with its fluid handling, when one can jump away quickly from a stoplight, carve around corners with aggressiveness and stability (probably somewhat due to the battery weight anchoring the center of gravity), and gun it quickly up to high speeds to easily overtake a semi on the highway, especially in Sport rather than Normal mode.
Of course, unclogged express roads are not the inherent ideal driving venues for the Spark EV. Think more in terms of California's daily freeway jams (also known as temporary parking lots), where there can be an authorization to drive solo in the high occupancy vehicle lane if one is in a low/no emissions vehicle like the Spark EV. That can make it possible to actually get to work that day. And that's assuming one can plug in at the office after arriving, following up an overnight charge in the home garage.
What about the drawbacks? As anyone who's been behind the wheel of an all-electric vehicle soon learns, it becomes second nature to watch the declining battery power gauge when factoring whether an additional side trip can happen or will have to wait for a more sufficient charge.
A common household 120-volt outlet can charge the Spark EV but expect that to take 17 hours from empty. A special, dedicated 240-volt charger is costly but can be installed at one's home. When we plugged into one, the instrument gauge told us how many hours it would take to completely recharge (in the 4-to-7 hour range depending on remaining battery power). There are a few super-fast DC charging stations at commercial locations, such as auto development centers, that can do an 80 percent charge in about 20 minutes. (The Spark EV is the first to offer a combination charger that can connect with the DC fast charger, according to Chevy.) Most of those currently are not open to the public, however. And some dealers we've talked with say they are reluctant to sell, or simply won't sell (probably lease) an EV to someone who does not have access to a second, conventionally-powered vehicle because of the distance limitations of a pure electric vehicle.
During our time in the Spark EV, we came away with a greater appreciation for the work that Chevy put into an auto that can run on a few cents worth of electricity each day, and can be set to start charging at a specific time, such as midnight when electricity costs are lowest. We appreciated the available smart phone app that could show a map with the nearest charging station so we wouldn't be stranded (many near theaters or shopping centers so the time to charge could be used for other activities). We appreciated the Spark EVs regenerative braking that can add miles to the expected driving range once one learns to take advantage of it -- like letting brake drag, especially in the "B" gear, boost the available electric power or driving at the "sweet spot" speed of about 38 MPH.
Although the Spark EV is not yet rated, we appreciated the safety features one would especially want on such a small auto with only a 93.5-inch wheelbase. Those include four-wheel anti-lock braking system with brake assist, hill start assist, rollover sensing system, StabiliTrak electronic stability control and 10 air bags (with rollover sensing), plus GM's OnStar communications. And we appreciated the 8 year/100,000-mile battery and propulsion component limited warranty.
Chevy calls the subcompact Spark EV five-seater a "pure electric mini car designed for fun driving and easy ownership." At $27,820 including destination charges, our top level 2LT model (there's also a 1LT) beats out some competitors in pricing. With estimated fuel economy at 119 MPGe (the way electric vehicles are categorized) Chevy cites an estimated annual fuel cost of $500 or a $9,000 fuel savings over five years compared with a new, conventionally-powered vehicle. If one doesn't mind frequent coffee-house visits during brief recharging rituals that could save a lot of java.
For more information on Chevrolet green vehicles, click here.