The tiny Chevrolet Spark from General Motors is about as bare bones as cars come these days, with hand-crank windows, no floor mats and one of the smallest engines of any car. Air-conditioning is optional. But to the surprise of even GM itself, which has traditionally struggled to sell small cars, the Spark has become an unlikely hit as many American buyers warm to a car that is cheap to buy and to operate.
The Spark, made in South Korea, seats four, has room for groceries — and starts at $12,170. It's also inexpensive to run, getting about 35 miles to the gallon.
In July, sales of the Spark increased 163 percent over the previous year, its introductory month, to a record 3,847, showing that a stripped-down minicar can succeed in a market crowded with costlier rivals that have more features and technology.
"To me, it's an appliance," says William Wortman of Ohio, who in April bought a Spark with manual transmission for his weekly 250-mile commute to his job as a toolmaker. The Spark's 1.2-liter, four-cylinder engine makes it the smallest in the Chevrolet lineup.
"It gets me back and forth," he says. "All I wanted was a radio."
Even GM did not expect it would resonate this way with consumers. "We're very surprised with how well the vehicle has been selling," says Cristi Landy, Chevrolet marketing director.
Beyond its cost, what separates the Spark, buyers say, is that it's the only minicar sold in the United States with four doors.
"The ability to get four adults in a minicar like that is what sells the vehicle," says Andy Lilienthal, of Portland, Ore., who has run a blog on small cars, called Subcompact Culture, since 2008.
GM's decision to market a minicar like the Spark was a logical one, analysts say. With gasoline nearing $4 a gallon, many Americans are seeking better mileage. But automakers also need to make their fleets more efficient to meet strict new federal fuel-economy standards that take effect in 2016, says Michelle Krebs, a senior analyst for Edmunds.com.
"Everybody's going in that direction," Krebs says, "but no one expected GM to do it as well as they have."
More broadly, minicars and subcompacts, which like the Chevrolet Sonic are slightly bigger, now make up 5.9 percent of overall vehicle sales, according to Edmunds.com. That is compared with 3.1 percent in 2007.
The Spark and its competitors, including the best-selling Nissan Versa subcompact and No. 2 Kia Soul — which are slightly bigger and have four doors but cost about the same — come with features that were never included in subcompact cars, from air conditioning and power locks to Bluetooth and smartphone navigation.
Now, buyers ask themselves, "Do I need to buy a full-size sedan, or can I get away with a Nissan Versa?" Lilienthal says.
Automakers have also taken a different tack in marketing the cars, promoting them as fun to drive and easy to maneuver around the city, as well as the cost advantage.
Brad Johnson, a minister from Thousand Oaks, Calif., paid in the mid-$12,000s for a Spark. He found that he can pick up groceries, hang up his dry cleaning and park downtown while getting about 35 miles to the gallon.
At 53, Johnson is not the first-time car buyer Chevrolet is aiming for, but he was attracted to the car's styling nonetheless.
"It felt a little young," Johnson says, "but it fit my personality."
With a quarter of buyers under 35, the Spark is crucial to attracting younger drivers who are critical to GM's longevity, analysts say. About 60 percent of Spark buyers are new to the Chevrolet brand.
"The under-35s is a huge population that everybody wants to get," Krebs says. "Once you get them, you have an opportunity to keep them."
Marketing to this group meant that Chevrolet avoided television spots in favor of social-media networks and events popular with the millennial generation.
"We're getting out where they're having fun," Landy says. "We know a lot of these younger buyers are not watching TV."