We tend to use the words cheap and inexpensive interchangeably. Yet, they mean two slightly different things. Cheap has a negative connotation of something that’s less than you expected or paid for. Inexpensive, simply refers to price. Chevy Spark proves inexpensive does not have to mean cheap.
Take for instance our LT-grade car with body color trim on the dash and doors, inside the door pockets, and even under the armrest. It’s the down-market equivalent of finding stitched leather in a Jaguar’s cubbies. Swirl patterns on the molded plastic dash are creative. Motorcycle-inspired gauges—large analog speedometer with LCD for tachometer and trip computer beside—are pretty sporty. Power windows and air-conditioning are standard.
There’s more. Heated leatherette seats, leather-wrapped steering wheel, and blue lighting for the climate controls, door switches, and storage area beneath the dash echo Buick. Smoked faux carbon fiber looks primo around the Chevy MyLink touchscreen that commands mobile devices for access to apps like Pandora, Stitcher, TuneIn global radio, and BringGo navigation. Bluetooth enables hands-free calling and streaming audio. Naked, it is not.
Stylists saved effort for the flanks. Large headlamps nearly reach the A-pillar, deftly-formed hood edges are worthy of a Lexus, and details like a mesh grille, chrome bezels around the foglamps, and carbon-fiber-look plastic add dimension. Accent creases on the side and standard 15-inch alloys (no chintzy hubcaps) distinguish what would otherwise be a tall blob.
Around back, an integrated spoiler, door handles hidden in the upper trim, chrome within the taillamps, and an exhaust that exits through the bumper are anything but cheap. My partner is still having disturbing visions of the Jalapeno paint, but he’d probably find Salsa Red, Denim, Lemonade, Black Granite, Silver Ice, Summit White, or Techno Pink more delicious.
There’s less variety with the one available engine, an 84 horsepower 1.2-liter four-cylinder smooching a standard 5-speed manual or optional four-speed automatic transmission. Fuel economy is rated 28/37 mpg city/hwy. For 2014, a continuously-variable transmission replaces the four-speed and increases mpgs to 30/39 city/hwy. While the car is small and light, boxy cars—no matter how flamboyantly styled—deliver less-than-stellar fuel economy. For a non-hybrid, the digits are pretty good.
If you do not love the slightly-underpowered and not-quite-miserly gasoline version, hold your wall sockets because a plug-in electric is charging up. It’ll go 82 miles per charge, deliver 119 MPGe, generate 400 lb.-ft. of torque, and zip from 0-60 mph in 7.8s! For now, it is only available in California and Oregon.
A little more power wouldn’t hurt the gas version. I’d certainly go for a Spark RS with the Sonic’s 138 horsepower turbo-four. Maybe give it the Abarth treatment with leather- and suede-lined cabin with sport buckets. The Spark could be pretty special.
Until then, I’ll appreciate the Spark’s ability to rebuke rough pavement and hard bumps with barely a thump. Flog a corner and the chassis does its best to keep up. Sure, the car makes do with a torsion beam rear suspension that’s necessary at this price point, and it is a tall little weeble, but engineers gave it their all.
Even with additional sound deadening for the U.S. market, you’ll hear the hamsters running for their lives every time your foot gets too excited. With all of the focus on easy connections for iPods, touchscreens, and Bluetooth, there’s no premium audio system that comes close to the Beats system powering the Italian invasion. Young drivers may go for an inexpensive first car, but they’ll expect big-money audio. A friendly chat with Boston Acoustics or Bose would quickly remedy the situation.
While Spark is a little out of the norm for Chevrolet in Mother America, it is core in global markets where its size and comfort would qualify it as a luxurious family car. That importance justifies a first-rate effort, and Chevrolet delivered just that. In almost every facet, you get more than you paid for: four-door convenience in a world of two-door mini-mites. Played right, Spark could evolve into a very special Chevrolet—inexpensive, but certainly not cheap. In this case, it retails for $16,720 completely loaded.
2013 Chevy Spark
Four-passenger, FWD sedan
Powertrain: 84hp 1.2-liter I4, 4-spd auto trans
Suspension f/r: Ind/Torsion beam
Wheels: 15-inch/15-inch alloy f/r
Brakes: disc/drum f/r with ABS
Must-have features: Style, connectivity
Fuel economy: 28/37 mpg city/hwy
Assembly: Changwon, S. Korea
Base/as-tested price: $12,170/$16,720