September 12, 2012

News & Features

Auto review: Chevy Spark is thrifty and city-smart

New York Times News Service

w-AUTOS_CHEVROLET_SPARK_ADV09_2_805386.jpg

The Chevy Spark starts at $12,995. (General Motors)


At the 2001 Detroit auto show, before he was pulled back into the family business like the movie mobster Michael Corleone, General Motors' godfather-for-hire, Robert A. Lutz, gravely assessed the design studies on display: "A whole family of angry kitchen appliances, demented toasters, furious bread machines and vengeful trash compactors."

Lutz, 80, is now retired from GM, again. But I thought of him when I drove the new Chevrolet Spark: Lutz, your toast is served. With a nice coating of green marmalade.

Yes, the Spark looks as though it's about to spit a load of brioche from its roof. But as strange as this mini city car may appear, the oddest thing about the Spark is the Chevy bow tie that gleams from its grille and hatch.

Lutz, long associated with steroidal specials like the Dodge Viper, once pronounced global warming a "total crock." Yet the Berkeley-educated former Marine fighter pilot — always a blend of contradictions — was soon shepherding the Chevy Volt plug-in hybrid to production, saying the electrification of the automobile was inevitable.

This Spark is not battery-powered, not yet, though the model will lead GM's electric car efforts with a low-volume, limited-market edition set to arrive next year. But the Spark's name, styling and park-anywhere size did lead one Manhattan onlooker to assume that a cache of batteries was on board.

Whether a gasoline version or electric, the Spark also suggests a road to Damascus experience for GM. The company's obsession with paramilitary Hummers and other expressions of SUV overkill nearly brought it to ruin when fuel prices ran up and buyers ran away.

Currently earning billions as the "new" GM, the company is not out of the woods. But while this 1.2-liter 84-horsepower urban runabout is about the slowest thing on wheels — and as much a niche car in America as any Hummer — its very existence says something good about GM. On all fronts, the company is at least trying to anticipate market trends, rather than propagate an action-movie fantasy worthy of Michael Bay.

That is not to say there isn't room for cinematic Camaros or modern SUVs. What it does mean is that the parochial Midwestern bubble that once surrounded GM — and in which Chrysler and Ford happily floated as well — seems to have popped for good.

The Spark also illuminates GM's greater global focus, having been designed, engineered and built in Korea. The littlest Chevy, which replaces the larger Aveo, has been on sale internationally since 2009.

This demented toaster is barely larger than a breadbox, 14 inches shorter than Chevy's Sonic hatchback and roughly 2 inches shorter than a Mini Cooper. Although a Mini or a Fiat 500 is sexier, sportier and much more expensive than the Spark, neither has a back seat nearly as habitable.

The Spark is ultra-affordable, starting at $12,995, rising to $15,795 for the line-topping 2LT, and it never feels cheap or chintzy. That's especially true of the interior, which mimics style leaders like the Mini with swoopy shapes, body-color trim and an instrument pod that sprouts from the steering column.

My test car was laden with standard features that included stability control, 10 air bags, Bluetooth, cruise control, keyless entry and a leather-clad steering wheel with audio and phone buttons.

The styling follows a trend of cars like the Nissan Leaf EV, which, deciding they can't be pretty, choose to be out-there instead. That defiantly frumpy approach can be charming, as Nissan has managed with its Juke crossover.

But I confess to feeling more silly than edgy at the wheel of this narrow, squashed-face carnival buggy, even as it showed me a responsible 42 mpg on the highway and about 37 mpg overall. The manual-shift Spark easily topped federal estimates of 32/38 mpg in city and highway use.

The green paint didn't improve my self-esteem, either. Chevy calls it Jalapeno, but I'd never touch tongue to any chili with this irradiated shade.

But then the Spark isn't aimed at people like me, who thought '80s hatchbacks were small. Instead, Chevy seems convinced that millennials, the much-sought demographic segment ranging in age from about 16 to 31, are the Spark's natural audience. I picture more Gulf Coast retirees than Brooklyn hipsters in the Spark, but what do I know? I still think of Pabst Blue Ribbon as factory-town swill.

To that youthful end, the Spark's cabin is rich with connected technology that may well make its way to top luxury models rather than the usual trickle-down from posh to poor. Its Chevrolet MyLink system integrates all its functions — phone, music, video and navigation — through an iPhone or Android phone. There's not even a slot for CDs.

It's all managed, with reasonable smoothness, through a passive 7-inch display screen that doesn't require navigation or other systems to be embedded in the dashboard. Those systems can add thousands of dollars to the window sticker, and their maps and other features can quickly grow obsolete. In contrast, a phone-based system can be updated as easily as downloading a new app. SiriusXM satellite service, as well as apps for Pandora and Stitcher Smart radio, are installed at the factory.

There are pitfalls to current phone-based systems: They can eat up cellphone minutes, and smartphone antennas are not as good as a car's antenna. Spark's apps, including route guidance, won't work in a tiny town or barren wilderness with no cell service. The familiar "Can you hear me now?" will become "I'm lost, can you find me now?"

The Spark could also use one or two more dedicated buttons on the dashboard or screen, including a simple map button to return to the main view and an easy-access volume control. But one thing is certain: The Spark's controls were more advanced and easier to operate than those of many cars that cost more.

If only the Spark drove as well as it dialed calls or summoned Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds from the bowels of, um, an iPhone.

The barely 2,200-pound microcar gets the job done on city or suburban streets for which it's intended. There's decent bump control and just enough urge to keep up with traffic, despite a zero to 60 mph time well into the double digits.

My test car's 5-speed manual shifter, roughly the length of a croquet mallet, would have been at home in a school bus. A 4-speed automatic is available for $925, though some critics have found it douses the Spark's already tepid acceleration.

As speeds increase, the Spark's short wheelbase, underdamped suspension and meager power make for rougher going. Road imperfections crashed and boomed in the high-decibel cabin. Heaven help you if you get caught in the wrong gear on a highway on-ramp.

The car itself feels solid and well built. But with its flaccid suspension and lifeless, overboosted steering, the Spark charted a wobbly highway course; there's none of the fun and nimbleness you'd prefer in such a tiny car. Flogging the little green goblin, I managed to keep pace, barely, with BMWs on the Interstate. But the Spark is more at home in the slow lane.

Consider the Spark a city-centric econobox — with a clever bonus box inside for iPhone or Android users.

Advertising

Partner video

Advertising