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The success of the 2014 Chevrolet Spark, and how it fits right into a niche that didn't exist just a few years ago, serves as a reminder that small-car tastes sure have changed. Interest in small cars has surged over the past several years; factor in the idea that, for younger people, smartphones and connectedness often come before wheels. In all, you end up with a new batch of small cars like the Spark, for which styling and features aren't thrown to the wayside.Addressing both of those new concerns is the Spark, which is a very small five-door hatchback that, at exactly three feet shorter than the Chevrolet Cruze compact sedan, fits into the city in ways that few other cars on the market do. But with somewhat more 'grown-up' proportions than most other cars in this class, the Spark doesn't quite look as small as it is at first--provided you haven't parked it next to a Chevy Suburban, that is. Overall, accent lines, black-plastic panels that continue the window line, and a large Chevy twin-opening grille help to hide the slab-sided, snub-nosed box-on-wheels look. A long roof spoiler extends to frame the rear window opening, giving depth to the rear and improving the Spark's aerodynamics, too.
The Spark makes no attempt to be especially upmarket inside--just cheap and cheerful. The textured hard-plastic dash isn't particularly uplifting, while the synthetic cloth seats won't have anyone fooled as upmarket. But we like the body-color inserts on the door trim, inside the door bins, and on the dashboard; they bring in some attitude, and recall the painted interior metal found in economy cars (and sports cars) of the Sixties. Inside, the instrument panel has a motorcycle-influenced instrument panel, with a pod mounted on the steering column and a small vehicle information display. All LT trim levels feature a 7-inch color touchscreen display in the center stack.
The 84-horsepower, 1.2-liter four-cylinder Ecotec engine included in most Spark models provides a decidedly old-school economy-car performance. The Spark comes standard with a five-speed manual gearbox, and if you drive aggressively you can hustle it along; a new continuously variable automatic transmission (CVT) replaces the former four-speed automatic transmission this year. While we haven't driven this model with the new CVT, we hope it's faster than the former automatic, without too much of the coarse engine drone that afflicts small cars with such a transmission.
With the manual transmission, the Spark is EPA-rated at 32 mpg city, 38 mpg highway, for a combined rating of 34 mpg--as good as anything in the class, but slightly lower than various larger compact sedans. The new CVT does improve fuel economy to 30 mpg city, 39 highway (34 Combined)--up 2 mpg versus last year's automatic.
One other model, available only in California and Oregon, is the Spark EV. This is the quickest of the new crop of 'affordable' all-electric models, with a 0-60 mph time of just 7.6 seconds, and up to 400 pound-feet of torque on tap from its 105-kW electric motor system. Meanwhile its 21-kWh battery pack helps provide an EPA-rated 82 miles of driving range—and based on what we saw on this first drive, that will be quite easy to achieve. GM has also claimed that it's the world's most efficient production passenger car—at least, on an mile-per-gallon-equivalent basis.
No matter which model, the ride quality isn't great, and you'll feel nearly every bump, pothole, ridge, and ripple. It's tall enough that passengers will feel the Spark leaning on hard corners, while its relatively small wheels and tires worked hard to hold the road. The electric power steering offers some road feel, and while it's hardly as fun to toss around as the MINI Cooper, the Spark can change lanes into spaces other cars couldn't fit into, and it's a joy to park.
Seats in the Spark in front are a little small and narrow for American-sized pilots and passengers, and taller drivers might find their knee brushing the climate controls at times (a little more rearward travel would be useful). The rear seatback is upright, but with a little negotiation between front- and back-seat riders, four adult male humans can occupy the Spark and travel in reasonable space. That's more than can be said for the MINI Cooper or Fiat 500. With the rear seat up, the Spark has 11.4 cubic feet of cargo space--enough to hold 10 to 12 full paper grocery bags with ease--which expands to 31.2 cubic feet when the 60/40 split rear seat is flipped and folded down.
Ten airbags are included as part of the Spark's standard equipment, as are electronic stability control and anti-lock brakes. Outward vision is good, too, despite the lack of a rear camera system. The Spark earns a four-star Overall rating from the federal government, with impressive five-star side and side pole ratings. And in Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) crash tests, the Spark and Spark EV were the only minicar models to achieve an 'acceptable' in the tough new small overlap frontal test.
The base LS model of the 2014 Chevrolet Spark starts at $12,995. For about $1,500 more, the 1LT adds MyLink with the 7-inch touchscreen dashboard display, a USB port, Bluetooth audio pairing, audio controls on the steering wheel, and built-in Sirius XM radio with 3 months of free service. It also includes remote keyless entry, power door locks, an anti-theft system, power door mirrors, cruise control, and floor mats. Add the 2LT and you get 15-inch alloy wheels, fog lamps, leatherette seats with heated fronts, a leather-wrapped steering wheel, plus a long list of cosmetic upgrades. For 2014, the Spark gets new automatic headlamps and daytime running lamps, while the 2LT model gets heated power-adjustable body-color side mirrors with integrated turn-signal lamps.
All Spark models come standard with air conditioning, power windows, a rear-window wiper, and a trip computer. And even base cars have 15-inch painted aluminum wheels--no plastic covers over slotted metal wheels here. Infotainment is actually much better than what's offered in most other small cars, and even better than the systems in some much more expensive vehicles. The Chevrolet MyLink infotainment system includes an AM/FM stereo with the 7-inch display (Sirius XM can be added), Bluetooth streaming, and compatibility with Pandora and Stitcher apps. The Spark is the first Chevy to offer a navigation system that's not built into the car, but runs via an optional $50 smartphone app called BringGo. It compresses the entire North American map database into a 2GB app that runs on the user's smartphone and essentially transmits the display to the vehicle system. New for this year, if you have an iPhone, you can use Siri hands-free through the system (using your smarphone's data connection, again). Altogether, we think this is a great solution, as Chevy says its Millennial buyers wanted in-car navigation, but compared its cost to running Google Maps on their smartphones.Exterior colors remain wild, with Lime and Grape Ice are new hues introduced for 2014; and this year there are a few more dealer-installed accessories, such as roof-rack cross rails, a fog lamp kit, and interior trim kits.