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September 27, 2012

First Drive: Chevy's New Spark Ignites Fun

119_3761Funky, youthful Venice Beach is not a usual destination for an automotive event. But that is where Chevrolet's marketing team chose to introduce the latest addition to their line of small vehicles: the Chevy Spark.

The location was chosen to reflect the young, urban city dwellers the company is targeting for the new mini car. Its dimunitive size, aerodynamic design and array of zingy colors make a statement: that the Spark is not your mother's Chevrolet.

The Chevy Spark is based on the Beat concept car that was introduced at the 2007 New York Auto Show

119_3762Most of all, the folks at Chevy really want you to know that the Spark is FUN -- like "We Are Young," the hit anthem that was featured in the company's advertising earlier this year. (And as if to underline the theme, that song is by a band called -- FUN.)

Best of all, the Spark rounds out Chevrolet's portfolio of small cars that start for under $20,000 (the other two are the Sonic and the Cruze). Chevy Spark Marketing Manager Michael Weidman noted that the new mini car is in a segment with just a few competitors, including the Fiat 500, Scion iQ and Smartfortwo.

Spark Value

Spark's base price is just $12,995 (INCLUDING dealers' charges, like transportation). noted that price point is about $3,000 lower than the competing Fiat and Scion. And a fully loaded Spark LT tops out at just about $17,000.

119_3764But price isn't everything. Weidman noted that shoppers in the mini car segment will also be attracted to Spark's new infotainment center, price point, interior room, and safety features.

He noted that Spark features "the tightest vehicle package we've ever offered," with just a few variations: trim level, transmission and color. Even the base model comes with standard 15" alloy wheels ("significant at this price point," Weidman said). 

And Spark is spacious. Weidman, who is 6'2", says he can sit comfortably in back with room to spare. I tried the back out myself and found it comfortable (although I'm a foot shorter than Weidman, so will have to take his word on how much legroom he has back there).

The car's high ceiling definitely adds to its feeling of interior spaciousness. We heard an unverified rumor that attributed that feature to GM's design team in India, which set the height to accommodate passengers who might be wearing a turban. 

Spark's Global Outlook

GM has already enjoyed success with the Chevy Spark in Europe, Africa, Asia, Australia and South America. "The United States is one of the last places the Spark is going to, but it was designed from day one to be marketed here too," said Jim Federico, Executive Chief Engineer for Chevrolet's small cars division.

The Spark marketed in the United States has been enhanced to make it more appealing to American drivers. The footprint is wider and the wheels are larger, to give the car a steadier ride. GM added a new four-cylinder Ecotec engine, which gives it more torque (and a better feeling of power). 

“Making the Spark drive well in the North American environment was only part of the equation,” said Federico. “We also had to make it a little quieter for American tastes.”

Those 15" aluminum wheels help deaden outside sounds. The engineering team also added new body seals and baffles and thicker windows for a quieter ride.

119_3759Spark Technology

The Spark features the latest incarnation of Chevrolet's MyLink infotainment system, including a 7" full-color touchscreen that was developed with LG and designed to work with smartphones. 

"It includes a simple radio, because that equals safe," said Sara Leblanc, Global Program Manager of MyLink Infotainment. "Simple also means it's easy to operate," she said.

There are only three buttons on the console: Volume, power and home. Everything else done on the touchscreen (which also has just five choices on the home screen: Audio, Picture & Movie, Telephone, Smartphone link and Settings).

I found the Picture and Movie option most intriguing: If you have these loaded on a device (like an iPod or your smartphone), you can view them through the vehicle's system on the screen.

"But only when you are in Park," Leblanc said.

I spend a lot of time sitting in my parked car, waiting for my teenager to emerge from her classes or athletic events. I could see myself using this feature.

The Smartphone link allows you to access apps like Pandora and Stitcher Internet radio. GM has also developed a new navigation app called BringGo, which will allow drivers to access up-to-date maps and directions without having to install a dedicated nav device or purchase an expensive in-car system. 

Spark buyers also get six months' free access to navigation services from OnStar, which comes standard on all models.

2013-Chevrolet-Spark-251-mediumDriving Spark

We tested two models, with both an automatic transmission and a manual. The latter took a little time to get used to, but I attribute that to how rarely I get to drive a car with a stick these days.

The four-cylinder EcoTec engine has plenty of power for the kind of city driving the Spark's designers envision. Hill Start Assist (standard!) made it a breeze to climb hillside roads; and thanks to the electric power steering, the car was easy to maneuver through L.A.'s winding canyons. (The electric power steering also has adds to the Spark's energy efficiency and has an environmental benefit, as there is no need to add -- or dump -- power steering fluid. It doesn't use it!)

Many people I know worry about safety in mini-cars, so I was pleased to learn that Spark comes standard with a whopping TEN airbags. The vehicle has been manufactured with 60% high-strength steel, for crash resistance. Other safety features include Stabilitrack, ABS, a rollover sensing system, three point safety belts, a collapsible steering column, and of course, OnStar. A list like that makes me feel confident about giving my teenager the keys to my Spark and letting her drive in peace. 

You expect a mini car to get good mileage. The combined EPA rating on the Spark is 34 miles per gallon. On our long city drive in both cars, we averaged 29. All in all, not a bad tally for a first drive.



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