- More adult looks
- Really fits four adults
- Large-car safety features
- Up-to-date infotainment
- Gas mileage good, not stellar
- Safety ratings mostly absent
- Air conditioning marginal
The 2016 Chevrolet Spark is an all-new version of the minicar that actually seats four adults; its more "adult" styling, higher-quality materials, and optional active-safety features may make it the best of the tiny cars.
The 2016 Chevrolet Spark five-door hatchback is an all-new version of the smallest Chevy made. The new generation has more substantial and adult looks, slightly more power, and some sophisticated features found neither in other minicars nor its predecessor. It's offered in three trim levels: base LS, mid-range 1LT, and top-of-the-line 2LT.
The Spark will never be Chevy's best-selling car, though the previous generation sold better than expected over its three-year life. Still, this car's biggest audience is buyers in more than 40 other countries around the world where a car this small is basic family transport. In North America, it's more likely to be bought as a city car or a first vehicle—one reason it's built in South Korea, closer to its market.
The 2016 Spark remains essentially a tall box, but its wheelbase is incrementally longer and the car is about an inch and a half lower than it was last year. Chevrolet's designers say the new Spark's sheetmetal is "shrink-wrapped" over the cabin, with a wheel at each corner. As before, elliptical headlights sweep back around the top corners of the hood, almost to the base of the windshield.
More substantial styling
This time, though, the Spark has a more defined hood and nose, with a vertical grille and horizontal bar giving it more presence and stance than the wedge-shaped front of the last version. It's still very small, but it's less toy-like now. Accent lines across the sides break up the slabby shape, and the taillight lenses protrude from the body to add further visual interest.
Inside, the dashboard and doors still have body-color panels in places, silver trim in others, but the dash center now has a more traditional center stack. A more substantial instrument cluster features a new dot-matrix LCD display between real gauges, and the MyLink radio system includes a 7-inch touchscreen display in the center of the dash.
The 2016 Spark is powered by a 98-horsepower 1.4-liter 4-cylinder engine, 16 percent more powerful than the previous 84-horsepower, 1.2-liter four. Once again, the Spark's engine drives the front wheels through either a 5-speed manual gearbox or a continuously variable transmission (CVT). The CVT version gets slightly better EPA fuel-economy ratings, at 31 mpg city, 41 mpg highway, 35 mpg combined, while the 5-speed is rated at 30 city, 41 highway, 34 combined. Note that the larger (but pricier) Honda Fit gets slightly higher ratings.
Drive it like you stole it
The manual Spark is more fun to drive enthusiastically, though, which is really the best way to use a small and not very powerful car. The CVT will give you as much power as it can, but it does suffer from the usual engine howl under maximum power, when the engine runs up to high speeds to generate as much torque as possible. Especially from a standing stop, or on sudden acceleration after loafing along, there's just not a lot of power there, but it can be hustled enough to keep up with traffic—if you flog it.
That lack of power also showed up in an unexpected place: on a sunny, hot, and humid Detroit day, the air conditioning barely kept up even set to maximum output and fan speed. It was okay with all vents pointed at a single driver, but we question its ability to cool four adults.
Handling and roadholding is typical of a small car with soft enough springs to keep it comfortable on lousy roads. That is, the Spark is no Volkswagen GTI, but it strikes a reasonable balance between comfort and handling. And it's certainly small enough to park easily. Not as easily as a Smart ForTwo, perhaps, but it's shorter than a new Mini Cooper (and holds a whole lot more inside too).
The front seats look small, but for this driver they proved just big enough and bolstered in just the right places. The seats are slightly lower now, which Chevy says is "more engaging" and lets occupants sit "in the seats rather than on them." We'd concur. Chevrolet also says the materials--everything from seat fabric to cushion foam--are of a higher quality, contributing to a feel that's less like an economy car than before. Headroom continues to be remarkable for something with such a small footprint, and four adults can be accommodated, in somewhat upright seating positions. And the tiny cargo bay will actually hold soft luggage despite its minimal appearance.
10 airbags, optional active-safety features
The 2016 Spark hasn't yet been rated at all by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) has rated it only partially, giving it the top score of 'Good' for moderate-overlap front crash and side impact tests only. Chevy says its new body shell is stronger and more robust than before, and it's worth noting that the previous Spark was one of very few small cars to be named an IIHS Top Safety Pick. The 2014 Spark was the sole small car of 11 tested to be given a rating of "acceptable," due to its good performance on the new and tougher Small-Overlap frontal crash test.
Still, the new Spark stands out from competitors like the Mitsubishi Mirage is its level of standard and optional safety equipment. Both a rearview camera and rear parking-assist sensors are standard on every model, as are no fewer than 10 airbags. New camera-based optional safety systems, only rarely found on cars this small, include lane-departure warning, side blind-spot alert, and forward-collision alert.
All 2016 Spark models come standard with power windows and door mirrors; air conditioning; the MyLink display system with an icon- and swipe-based interface like those of smartphones or tablets; OnStar with 4G LTE connectivity capability; and a built-in WiFi hot spot. The base Spark LS with manual gearbox starts at less than $14,000, including mandatory delivery fee, and adding the CVT boosts the base price by $1,100.
The mid-level Spark 1LT version includes power locks, cruise control, steering-wheel audio controls, satellite radio, remote keyless entry, and a theft-deterrent system. The top Spark 2LT trim adds a leather-wrapped steering wheel, enhanced driver-information display between the gauges, rear park assist, and chrome body trim. A power sunroof is optional on either LT trim, and the electronic active-safety features are options only on the top 2LT model.