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The 2015 Chevrolet Spark may shock buyers who think minicars are too tiny for all circumstances. If, that is, they can be persuaded to climb inside the smallest Chevy on the market. Turns out it will actually hold four adults capably, if not luxuriously, and comes with some neat advanced-technology features to boot. That may be why Chevy has had to boost its import numbers a couple of times on the Korean-made Spark, which was launched in the rest of the world as a mainstream vehicle back in 2009.
While it's exactly 3 feet shorter than the Chevy Cruze compact sedan, the Spark offers ample headroom for those four adults. It may be the best value among a growing number of competitors in the minicar and subcompact category that offers the most basic transportation. While it's inexpensive, the stylish (if somewhat stubby) lines of the 2015 Spark should banish any bad memories of the old "econobox" tin cans of the 1990s.
Competitors to the Spark, which is now in its third model year, include the underwhelming, underpowered Mitsubishi Mirage, which is just incrementally larger in some dimensions--and the only other five-door hatchback this small, which is to say, smaller than subcompacts like Chevy's own Sonic, the excellent Honda Fit, and others that include the Ford Fiesta and Toyota Yaris. Other Spark competitors are all far less practical: the two-seat Smart ForTwo, the soon-to-be-discontinued Scion iQ with its "3+1" seating, and the more stylish but also more pricey MINI Cooper and Fiat 500 ranges.
The proportions of the 2015 Spark hide its size, and it doesn't look as small as it is unless you park it next to something really big--a Chevy Suburban, say. Up front, the traditional Chevrolet twin-opening grille and big wraparound light units eliminate much of the snub-nosed look. Its accent lines, exaggerated wheel-opening flares, and black-plastic panels that continue the window line all help alleviate the tall-box-on-little-wheels look, as does a spoiler at the top of the tailgate that extends the horizontal line of the Spark's roof.
The materials used for the interior don't make a lot of attempt to be upmarket; the dash is textured hard plastic, and the synthetic cloth seats look like what they are. But the body-color trim inserts on the dash, doors, and inside the door bins are a nice touch that harkens back to painted metal panels on inexpensive cars of the Sixties.
The instrument cluster is "motorcycle-inspired," meaning it's a small pod mounted on the steering column, and has one large dial gauge and quite a few colored lights and monochrome graphics. We give the Spark's interior designers credit, though, for lots of useful storage in the doors, console, and the dash face itself--including a slot on each side of the center stack that's perfect for a smart phone. On the top-end LT trim levels, a 7-inch color touchscreen display sits in the center of the dash.
The Spark is powered by an 84-horsepower, 1.2-liter four-cylinder engine, with a five-speed manual gearbox standard and a continuously-variable transmission (CVT) as an option. The manual can be hustled along to keep up with traffic if you drive it aggressively; the CVT gives automatic ratio adjustment and still delivers tolerable performance while avoiding the drone that can afflict small cars with CVTs. Fuel economy is 34 mpg combined and 39 mpg on the highway cycle with either option; the manual's city rating of 31 mpg is 1 mpg better than the CVT's 30 mpg city.
While the Spark holds the road decently, the ride is somewhere between firm and hard, and passengers will feel nearly every bump, pothole, ridge, and ripple in the road. They'll also feel some body roll on corners, the inevitable price of a narrow car in which passengers sit up tall and ride on small wheels and tires. While the Spark is no MINI Cooper, its electric power steering provides some road feel, and it's easy to slip into vanishingly small spaces in traffic--or parking spaces--that other cars won't attempt.
Inside, the front seats are small and and a little narrow for American-sized occupants--and a little more rearward travel would be good too. Taller drivers may find that their right knee brushes the climate controls at times. With a bit of negotiation between front- and back-seat riders, four adult humans can occupy the Spark and travel in reasonable space--even in the upright rear seat--which can't be said of the Fiat 500, MINI Cooper, or the two-seat Smart ForTwo. The Spark offers 11.4 cubic feet of cargo space--enough to hold 10 to 12 full paper grocery bags with ease--with the rear seat up, which can be expanded to 31.2 cubic feet if you flip and fold down the 60/40 split rear seat.
The Chevy Spark was the sole minicar to receive an "Acceptable" rating in the new and tough small-overlap frontal crash test from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS). It also earned a four-star overall rating from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), with impressive five-star side and side pole ratings. Outward vision is good, too, despite the lack of a rear camera system. Ten airbags are included as part of the Spark's standard equipment, as are electronic stability control and anti-lock brakes.
The base 2015 Chevrolet Spark LS starts at about $13,000. 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.
Throw in an extra $1,500 to upgrade from the base LS to the 1LT model, and you'll add Chevrolet MyLink with the 7-inch touchscreen dashboard display, audio controls on the steering wheel, a USB port, Bluetooth audio pairing, 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.
Move up to the top-of-the-line 2LT model and you add 15-inch alloy wheels,leatherette seats with heated fronts, a leather-wrapped steering wheel, fog lamps, and a long list of cosmetic upgrades. Automatic headlamps and daytime running lamps were made standard last year, along with heated power-adjustable body-color side mirrors with integrated turn signals on the 2LT model. For 2015, the main changes are 4G LTE connectivity through the OnStar built-in cellular connection, and an available WiFi hot spot. The array of dealer-installed accessories has grown somewhat, and colors include both predictable hues (white, silver, red, black) and some startling shades like Techno Pink, Lime Green, and Denim (a kind of baby blue).
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 smartphone's data connection, again). It's a smart solution and works well, although we don't know whether Spark owners will pay even $50 to get a more integrated solution or simply spend $12 on a bracket to hold their smartphones running Google Maps (or listening to the voice instructions with the phone tossed in a cupholder).
That the Chevy Spark may be the best all-around value among its varied small-car competitors is a real testament to the little minicar, which sells in much higher volumes in India and Asia (where it's sometimes known as the Beat).
There's another Spark model, the Spark EV battery-electric version, but it's sold only in small numbers and only in California and Oregon. It's by far the most powerful Spark--and hence the most amusing to drive--with a 105-kilowatt (140-hp) electric motor powered by a 20-kilowatt-hour lithium-ion battery pack. (A new and slightly lower-capacity pack for 2015 delivers the same range and efficiency as its predecessor). Chevy quotes a 0-to-60-mph time for the Spark EV of just 7.6 seconds, and the EPA rates the electric Spark at 82 miles of driving range and 119 MPGe, making it the second most-efficient car sold in the U.S. this year.