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First Drive: 2013 Chevrolet Spark [Review]

Chevy\'s pint-size Spark is cheap and cheerful, but is it worth it compared to more substantial larger cars?

The Chevrolet Spark is another poke at improving the lifestyle of an urban dweller who lives where parking spots cost as much as a mortgage in the suburbs.

Call it a minicar or a city car, the Spark is the latest urban vehicle to pop up on the concrete jungle. A small car revolution of sorts is under way now that cars like the Smart ForTwo, the Scion iQ and the Fiat 500 are available on our shores.

Altruists claim manufacturers now offer something for everyone, while others say they are here only to help achieve upcoming federal fuel economy requirements.

The growing Bowtie gang

Penned in Korea by what used to be GM Daewoo, the spark is actually the third generation of its world market family tree. The first-gen version was popular enough that Chinese manufacturer Chery literally copied it and introduced it to their market as the QQ. According to GM, it was such an exact duplication that almost all parts and components could be used interchangeably without modification. GM filed a lawsuit against Chery in 2004.

This latest Spark was still built and designed in South Korea, where space is a luxury. Though it might look like it's a subcompact along the lines of the Ford Fiesta, the Spark is positively tiny. In fact, it's the only five-door, four-seater minicar you'll find in North America. Similar in appearance to an oversized hightop roller skate, it also features folding rear seats that yield up to 31.2 cubic feet of storage when just two are on board.

Underhood, the Spark is sparked by a 1.2-liter four-cylinder engine with variable valve timing that makes 84 horsepower at 6,400 rpm and 83 lb-ft of torque at 4,200 rpm. Power gets to the pavement by a four-speed automatic overdrive transaxle with electric torque converter clutch or a five-speed stick. Fitted with the manual, the Spark nets 32/38 mpg with 34 combined, while the automatic dents those figures to 28/37 mpg and 32 combined. Either way, only the city numbers are impressive since many subcompacts and compacts now break 40 mpg on the highway.

Not expecting anything in the way of high-tech suspension kit, we were not disappointed with the MacPherson strut front setup with compound crank rear suspension.

All Sparks are mechanically identical, but three trim levels are on offer - LS, 1LT and 2LT. As hedonists, we tested a to-the-gills 2LT that lists for $16,720.

Outside looking in

To some, the Spark has a face only a mother could love, but more than a few called it "cute as a button.” Beauty being in the eye of the beholder, we call it mondo-bizarro, but only as a term of endearment.

Think of the Spark as the outsized automotive equivalent of a Bratz doll. In fact, they are so similar that the headlight lenses and greenhouse on the Spark are very similar in shape and style to the alluring look of the oversized head of the doll.

The two-stage Chevrolet grill area makes an appearance here; only this time the lower bout is filled in with shutters to help the overall aero of the car. Our 2LT example also featured two-toned 15-inch alloy wheels, lower body color rocker panels and unique front and rear fascias. An interesting touch is the way designers gave the two rear doors a smooth surface by hiding the door handles in the blacked-out trim of the C-pillars.

The Spark's interior is a combination of the good, the bad and the ugly. The good: The look of the leatherette seating surfaces and the wide expanse offered by the three-toned (silver, black and grey) interior, the tons of cubby holes and the audio unit with a touch screen 7.5-inch color display and SiriusXM. Also included on higher spec models is Chevrolet's MyLink Bluetooth system with smartphone/navigation functionality.

The bad: Hard, cheap surfaces surround the occupants from almost every angle, while those finding themselves in the back seat will notice that the accommodations, depending on one's size, can be less than accommodating.

The ugly: Well, it's not that ugly, but we wish it could be of higher quality. The switchgear, ranging from the shift lever to the gauge cluster that it shares with the Sonic to the other features just look, and smell, um, of petroleum by-products.

This is a small, cheap, car, but recent GM interiors - think Chevrolet Cruze, for example - have felt way classier than their prices suggested. Our expectations have become rather high.

Drive time

Again, we need to put the Spark in context. First of all, it's a city car, meaning this might not be the car to go road tripping or hot-rodding in. But it might be perfectly suited for getting from the townhouse to and from work, the grocery or local restaurant in the neighborhood. The 1.2-liter engine doesn't go very fast but is capable for the job at hand-that of providing decent transportation around the burg. With a curb weight of 2,269 lbs., the 84 horsepower/80 lb-ft of torque four-cylinder will manage to find its way, but the little mill lets you know by the extraneous noise getting inside that it's doing the best it can.

Steering from the electronic power unit is well modulated, neither overly boosted, nor floppy like fish. It provided a sure road feel that felt planted at all times until we hit road imperfections that jostled it to and fro due to its short wheelbase and sail-like proportions. The suspension tended to wallow from side to side like a large sailing ship, which erased any hopes we had that this little car might possess go kart-like dynamics.

Further nullifying matters was a four-speed automatic transmission that proved up to the task but couldn't help sounding like a droning CVT. A snick-snick five-speed manual gearbox is standard. We'll sample one soon to see if it suits the Spark better.

Leftlane's bottom line

Offering a micro motor and tiny footprint, the Chevrolet Spark could be just the thing for an urbanite looking for basic transportation.

But we can't help but think that for nearly the same price point, there is an equally diverse selection of better equipped, more comfortable and just as economical vehicles from which to cross shop.

2013 Chevrolet Spark base price, $12,995.

Words and photos by Mark Elias.

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