Who's Going To Hear Chevy's Sub-Sonic Statement?



The annals of "Hey you kids, get off my lawn!" took an interesting turn in 2005, when a British inventor developed The Mosquito, an ultrasonic alarm that can only be heard by teenagers. Deployed by convenience stores, property managers and even municipal governments, the device emits sound waves at frequencies high enough that most adult ears are no longer sensitive enough to perceive them. Young people, however, having yet to suffer the effects of presbycusis, hear the loud screeching and thus, scram.

Like every other marketer on the planet, General Motors would like to develop its own Culicidae – but one that works in the opposite fashion, attracting the young and hip while keeping those image-killing oldsters at bay. Its latest attempt is the 2013 Chevrolet Spark, an A-segment car in the fashion of the Scion iQ, but with features GM thinks millennials will find as attractive as having their parents pay their credit card bills.

Chevrolet gave us the opportunity to take a new Spark for a quick spin in downtown Detroit and we found the hatchback played a welcoming tune. Looking like a Chevrolet Sonic bred with a pygmy horse, the Spark isn't exactly cute even in Techno Pink, but at least it resembles the hippest car in the Chevy stable. We're most fond of the way the five-door Spark employs the same trick rear door handles as its big brother, hidden in the C-pillar to give the appearance a three-door. The extra set of doors certainly eases entry into the two rear seats, which Chevy says gives the Spark a distinct advantage over the minicar competition.

2013 Chevrolet Spark side view2013 Chevrolet Spark front view2013 Chevrolet Spark rear view

If you're scratching your head trying to name them, you're certainly forgiven for forgetting that Smart is still selling the ForTwo here. Besides the aforementioned Scion, Chevrolet also counts the Fiat 500 as a foe, though that association strikes us as forced. The Fiat may be built in Mexico with a Michigan-sourced engine, but it appears as Italian as grappa and functions as a fashion statement as much as a car. The Spark, on the other hand, is from South Korea and nothing about it suggests otherwise.

The company has already been selling the Spark overseas since 2009, so coming up with an Americanized model isn't such a huge investment.

The 500 is currently the only one of the trio selling in appreciable volumes, with Chrysler moving about 3,500 of them a month. The Scion and Smart are changing hands in the triple-digit range, with the iQ coming up dead last among the bunch in July at just 557 units. What this says about the Spark is that GM isn't jumping in the mini car business in the U.S. hoping to get rich. Rather, the company has already been selling the Spark overseas since 2009, so coming up with an Americanized model isn't such a huge investment. And again, it's all about the youth market.

That's why Chevy offers the Spark with a rather large 7-inch touchscreen MyLink radio bereft of a CD player. Like the MyLink units in other Chevrolet vehicles, it can run apps when paired with a smart phone. Pandora and Stitcher are available at launch and Chevy is promising a special navigation app later this year, called BringGo (not to be confused with Bringgo.com, which appears to be selling counterfeit products from China). We got to sample a preproduction version of the mapping software running on an iPhone during the 30 or so miles we drove, and it not only looked great but performed perfectly, including restarting its guidance after we turned the car off and temporarily undocked the phone. We are firm believers in using portable navigation technology and glad to see Chevy adopting this solution rather than spec-ing a dedicated nav unit.

2013 Chevrolet Spark interior2013 Chevrolet Spark gauges2013 Chevrolet Spark audio system display2013 Chevrolet Spark multimedia system display

If we wrapped things up here, The General would probably be pleased: In summary, the Spark is cool, it has two extra doors, and it starts at just $12,995 including destination or $14,995 including that big touchscreen.

It's over three inches narrower and almost half a foot taller than a Mini.

But that doesn't begin to address the fact that the Spark is a car. You know, with wheels and stuff. Of course, we're constantly reminded – not just by GM, but other carmakers, as well – that those pesky kids could care less about the machine itself, focusing mainly on whether it is compatible with their phone. Okay then, but we're not so sure we buy into this notion that all it takes to sell a car to a millennial is a trick head unit loaded with apps. That might be the cost of entry into their myopic little worlds, but if there's one thing the children of the self-centered Baby Boomers aren't going to settle for, it's settling for anything.

Bonus then for the Spark: It's actually a real car. At 144.7 inches long, the Spark is within two inches of the Mini Cooper hardtop, and its 93.5-inch wheelbase is almost two inches longer than the Mazda MX-5 Miata roadster. But the Spark is over three inches narrower and almost half a foot taller than the Mini. (For those of you who might have dropped freshman Physics in favor of something less math-y, short and squat is as desirable for handling as it isn't for getting a date.) At 11 cubic feet, cargo capacity isn't huge, but it's better than the others in this class. On the plus side – pun intended – the Spark's EPA passenger volume of 86 cubic feet is fairly huge, topping the Ford Fiesta hatchback, which is ostensibly a class up in the B-segment.

2013 Chevrolet Spark front seats2013 Chevrolet Spark rear seats2013 Chevrolet Spark folded rear seats2013 Chevrolet Spark rear cargo area

Fuel economy is good, but not great, with EPA estimates of 32 mpg city, 38 mpg highway.

So Chevy is pitting a bigger car against littler ones. Indeed, the Spark is some two feet longer than the iQ and has five inches on the 500, yet its powertrain is remedial compared to its classmates. The Spark's 1.2-liter four-cylinder (actually 1249 cc, the extra 50 cc being a concession to U.S. market tuning) employs variable valve timing to make all of 84 horsepower and 83 lb-ft of torque, meaning that with a curb weight of 2,237 pounds, each of the Spark's horses has to move almost 27 pounds of weight. By comparison, the Fiesta's ratio is only 1:21. Both the iQ (94 hp, 89 lb-ft) and the 500 (101 hp, 98 lb-ft) offer more power and torque, and the accompanying better power-to-weight ratios, as well.

Fuel economy in the Spark is good, but not great, with EPA estimates coming in at 32 miles per gallon city, 38 mpg highway, and 34 mpg combined for the five-speed manual models, while the optional four-speed automatic is good for 28 mpg city, 37 mpg highway, and 32 mpg combined. If you're thinking you might be able to beat that last number in a Chevrolet Cruze Eco, especially if you do a fair amount of freeway driving, you're right. Chevy acknowledges that fact, explaining that aerodynamic considerations favor the longer Cruze and stressing the low sticker price of the Spark, which precludes fuel saving technology like direct injection and a six-speed automatic.

2013 Chevrolet Spark engine

It certainly felt like it took as long to accelerate from 60-70 mph as most cars do 0-60.

Speaking of which, we drove the automatic – and it wasn't as retrograde as you might think, at least not in the Spark's sweet spot, which is toddling around the city. While adequately powered to move its own weight in low speed driving, freeways are challenging, especially above 55 miles per hour. Driving the Spark on the open road involves at least some recalibration of your sense of time and space. Like back to the Reagan administration. We did not do any instrumented testing, but it certainly felt like the Spark took as long to accelerate from 60-70 mph as most cars do 0-60. Wide open throttle didn't seem to offer much more acceleration than what's available without trying to push the gas pedal through the floor, but the four-speed box is admirable in that it does absolutely no hunting for the right gear, there not being any extra gears to be had. Perhaps the Spark will be all the rage among retro-living hipsters who never got a chance to drive a Toyota Tercel in period.

We'll be honest, we didn't get nearly enough time behind the wheel to make an informed assessment of the Spark's driving dynamics, but we're confident in saying that it is no Sonic. Our version of the Spark did receive a number of changes in this area: 15-inch aluminum wheels and tires that are wider than those offered in other markets, a retuned suspension with different springs and dampers, and the first application of electric power assisted steering, an upgrade that is also being added in other markets. But in the Spark we drove, the steering felt mostly lifeless and the brake pedal was soft. The ride was, for the most part, smooth, at least until encountering one of those big, high-amplitude bumps that revealed the limited amount of suspension travel in this little car. Handling occurred, but that's the extent of it.

2013 Chevrolet Spark headlight2013 Chevrolet Spark wheel2013 Chevrolet Spark door handle2013 Chevrolet Spark taillight

For its size and price, the Spark is a quiet car. Serenity now!

So the Spark is clearly not going to win any sort of head-to-head performance competition against most other cars on the market, which tend to be bigger, faster and stronger. That doesn't make the Spark a bad car, but it does force you to look elsewhere to find the appeal. Most noticeable is something GM has excelled at of late: Making its cars quiet. The Spark has additional sound insulation for the U.S. market, and the isolation from the road was noticeable. For its size and price, the Spark is a quiet car. Serenity now!

It also has 10 airbags, which is three more than the 500's seven but one less than the iQ's 11. Of course, these are just numbers – while today's kids that have lived every moment of their lives in a child-proofed cocoon may not believe us, we remember when only the driver got an airbag, just one. Carmakers have been adding more ever since, but this numbers game isn't nearly as important as how well the vehicle will actually protect the driver and occupants in a crash. The Spark has yet to be tested by either the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration or the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. It does have standard Panic Brake Assist and electronic brake distribution, along with stability control, which will undoubtedly help drivers avoid accidents to begin with.

2013 Chevrolet Spark rear 3/4 view

While we've already mentioned the main interior attraction in the MyLink radio, the rest of the cockpit isn't a bad place. Chevy tells us it opted to "let plastic be plastic," which is a refreshing approach, though thankfully some nice textures keep the dashboard plastic from being ugly plastic. The Spark borrows its approach to the gauge cluster from the Sonic, only the big analog tachometer is a speedometer in the smaller car. This inversion says as much about the differing character of the Spark as it does about the prospective buyer for GM's smallest and cheapest car.

While it may be impressive compared to the few other mini car offerings here in the U.S., that's damning with faint praise, at best.

While we're not about to write off the Spark before living with it for a week or two, we got enough of a taste to see how rapidly – or not so rapidly, as the case may be – its limitations are revealed outside the urban milieu. We do suspect that most buyers looking for a full-featured car with a low sticker price will be better served by the Sonic, regardless of whether they know what "rpm" stands for or the marketing demographic. Not to sound like one of those senior citizen gym rats who proclaim that age is a state of mind, but when it comes to car buying it is, and your car cares even less about generational jargon than you do.

While the Spark may be impressive compared to the few other minicar offerings here in the U.S., that's damning with faint praise, at best. They all suffer from the same not-quite-enough-of-a-real-car shortcomings to various degrees. Like the MP3s the kids love so much, minicars are cheap, compact and good enough for casual use, but fall short when you pay close attention.