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2013 Chevy Spark Road Test Review by Tim Healey

2013 Chevrolet Spark Road Test Review

By Tim Healey

Green Car Buyer's Guide - RTM's Top 10 Picks for 2013

Chevy Malibu Eco

Hyundai Sonata Hybrid

Chevy Spark

Kia Rio SX

Most new-car press launches are set in places that offer twisty roads and elevation changes. Even when they're set in urban environs, the automaker seeks out the curviest possible nearby roads.

Not so with the 2013 Chevrolet Spark. Chevy invited us to Chicago so we dutifully shuffled off to the West Loop (home of meat-packing plants and tastefully decorated loft condos) to sample the Spark. With Chevy's new minicar being aimed at an urban audience, perhaps it should've been no surprise when the drive route turned out to be all urban.

The Spark truly is a city car. Chevy execs said so themselves, suggesting the brand's subcompact Sonic or compact Cruze as alternatives for those who do most of their driving outside of the confines of the concrete jungle. At just 144.7 inches long (the wheelbase is 93.5 inches long), the Spark will be competing with other mighty mites like the Scion iQ, the Fiat 500, and the Smart ForTwo. It's the only five-door hatchback in the segment.

Features & Prices

Chevrolet is keeping it simple by offering just one engine, two transmissions, and three trim levels (base LS, midlevel 1LT, and top-trim 2LT). The cheapest Spark starts at $12,995, including $750 destination fee. A manual-transmission 1LT will start at $14,495 (again, including destination), while a fully-loaded automatic 2LT will set you back $16,720. Chevy says it's keeping a $2,000 price gap between each Spark trim and the corresponding Sonic, in order to keep sales of one car from encroaching on sales of the other.

Available features, depending on trim, include: Chevy's MyLink infotainment system, air conditioning, a USB port, body-color interior trim, power windows, 15-inch wheels, a flip-and-fold rear seat, a hill-start assist system, satellite radio, Pandora streaming music, Bluetooth, a rear spoiler, OnStar, remote keyless entry, and power windows. The Spark is also available (on LT trims and above) with the BringGo navigation app, which uses the driver's smartphone to provide the functions of a typical navigation system. BringGo also allows owners to play movies and slideshows when the car is parked.

Spark buyers will also find that no CD player is available. This isn't a concession to cost, but rather to marketers' suspicions that young buyers will be listening to music either straight from their phones or Pandora.

On the Road

With only 84 horsepower and 83 lb-ft of torque, the 1.25-liter four-cylinder engine doesn't offer a lot of pep. It’s adequate for around-town driving, but we'd be wishing for more guts in certain scenarios, such as when merging onto the freeway. Switching from the four-speed automatic to the five-speed manual helps, although it's hard to tell how much. Still, we'd probably choose to row our own. Should you make the same choice, be prepared to do a lot of rowing, since you'll need to in order to keep the car in the power band.

We found the manual's shifter to be a bit ropey, with long throws, and the clutch is on the light side. Not surprising in this class, but not satisfying, either.

We didn't get much of a chance to test handling on Chicago's gridded (and grid-locked) streets, but we suspect it's acceptable from what little sample size we had. The ride is sprung on the sporty side but generally affable around town, although one of the Windy City's notorious pizza-sized potholes nearly swallowed the Spark after we failed to take evasive in time. The resulting crunch and sharp rebound were unpleasant, to say the least.

Steering feel from the electric power-assisted unit is a tad on the light side, but it feels appropriate enough for the class.

Interior

We liked the body-color interior inserts, and we dig the Sonic-style gauge cluster (Chevy says the cluster is inspired by motorcycles). The MyLink system looked cool and was easy to use.

Headroom upfront was plentiful for our six-foot-one test driver, but the same can't be said about legroom. We felt a little short on space even with the seat all the way back. We also noticed that the driver's seat seemed over bolstered.

Rear-seat entry is easy enough, thanks to the four-door setup, but the back seat of this four-passenger car will be tight to anyone on the tall side. The cargo area appeared to be sufficient for most urban needs, but we could see how it might get tight when trekking to the airport, luggage in tow.

Exterior

We like the car's "baby Sonic hatch" look, although we're not as sold on some of the color schemes as the marketing staff would like. The Spark looks squat without looking cheesy, and it's easier on the eyes that the gawky iQ or nerdy Smart, but subcompact style freaks will still likely choose the Fiat 500 for pure eye-candy value.

Fuel Economy and Safety

The Spark has the standard complement of airbags, plus a front knee airbags and rear side airbags. That's in addition to ABS, traction control, and an anti-skid system, not to mention OnStar and the hill-start assist system.

Fuel-economy is listed at 32 mpg city and 38 mpg highway on manual-transmission cars, and 28/37 on automatic-transmission cars. Those numbers are in line with the competition.

Final Thoughts

The Spark is pleasant enough around town, and it's far more practical than the transmission-challenged two-seat ForTwo. We haven't driven the iQ, but colleagues we quizzed said the Spark was better.

That leaves the Fiat 500 as the Spark's stiffest competition. We're fans of the 500's style and sporty performance, but thanks to the available MyLink system and the four doors, the Spark seems to be able to appeal to a broader audience.

Enthusiasts might spring for the 500 (or Chevy's own upcoming Sonic RS), but value shoppers with practicality on their mind will likely take a long look at this short car. The Spark has its shortcomings--we'd shy away unless our commute was 90 percent urban or more--but young urban buyers might finally have a city car that compromises little.

For more information on Chevy cars, click here

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