Side Effects May Include Grinning and Tire Chirping

2014 Chevrolet Spark EV

For anyone who has yet to experience the joys of indoor go-karting, you're missing out. Electric karts race around the inside of former big-box retail establishments, warehouses and the like delivering more excitement than you typically get from those rickety old concession karts powered by lawnmower engines. Since we can't afford anything wearing a Tesla badge, these usually come to mind when someone mentions an electric vehicle that's fun. After driving the 2014 Chevrolet Spark, though, our mental association might just be out of date.

Thanks to their instant torque, an EV being a hoot to drive shouldn't come as a complete surprise, but Chevy's all-new Spark EV is making its bid to rise to the top of this growing class, a field that includes the Fiat 500e, Mitsubishi i-Miev, Nissan Leaf, Scion iQ EV and Smart Fortwo ED, and it's doing so with more torque, better efficiency and a lower price. With a name like "Spark," it would be easy to assume that this small car was conceived with an EV model in mind from the beginning, but that's not the case.

Even entering its third generation in 2009 (the first two weren't sold in North America), General Motors admitted that the Spark was not designed with an EV drivetrain in mind. Just four years later, though, the Spark EV is hitting America's roads – in California and Oregon – so we headed to scenic Portland, OR to check out Chevy's new battery electric vehicle (BEV) and the first EV for General Motors since the controversial EV1.

2014 Chevrolet Spark EV side view2014 Chevrolet Spark EV front view2014 Chevrolet Spark EV rear view

The Spark EV doesn't have just instant torque, it has gobs of instant torque.

The first order of business in transforming the Spark from a standard gas-burning car to an EV involved replacing the Spark's adequate-yet-anemic 1.2-liter inline four-cylinder engine with a permanent-magnet electric motor produced in-house and a 21-kWh lithium-ion battery pack sourced from B456 Systems (previously known as A123 Systems). The result is a small car with an impressive output of 140 horsepower and 400 pound-feet of torque. No, your eyes aren't deceiving you – this car has almost double the horsepower of the base Spark and, more importantly, about five times the torque. That's not just instant torque, it's gobs of instant torque. With this setup, the Spark EV has an EPA-rated range of 82 miles to go with MPGe estimates of 128 city, 109 highway and 119 combined.

Getting the Spark EV from concept to reality didn't take long – just three years – thanks to lessons learned from the Chevy Volt, including the designs of the charging system, the trio of heating and cooling systems (for the car, electric motor and battery pack) and battery validation. The research, engineering and parts sharing from the Volt also helped lower costs, making it more competitive against other small EVs. With an MSRP starting at $26,685, the Spark EV's base price effectively starts at just over $19,000 after factoring in the $7,500 federal tax credit, and as low as $17,495 for California residents (who receive even bigger tax breaks), which means there's about a $5,000 premium to step up from the Spark to the Spark EV. The only options available on the Spark EV are limited to choice of paint color and two trim levels (1LT or 2LT), leaving our Electric Blue 2LT tester with a $27,820 MSRP. By the end of this year, Spark EV buyers will also be able to outfit their cars with the DC Fast Charge system for $750.

2014 Chevrolet Spark EV electric motor

Chevy's "confidence gauge" provides an expected range as well as minimum and maximum range estimates.

As we've come to expect from modern gas-turned-EV models, the styling changes made to the wedge-shaped Spark have been rendered in the name of aerodynamics. The most obvious change is the runabout's Volt-like upper grille, which is blocked with a silver trim; the lower grille is a little sneakier with its aero improvements, adding active shutters behind the air intake. Other noticeable EV-specific changes include lower and wider side sills and a rear fascia with diffuser-like ridges. The whole aero package is finished off with underbody panels and air deflectors in front of each tire. Just in case the Spark EV didn't look 'electric' enough, though, Chevy also added matte black stickers above the rocker panels, EV logos on the rear valence and hatch as well as staggered-width, 15-inch aluminum wheels.

Inside, the gas Spark's cabin has carried over almost untouched with the biggest change being a revamped instrument cluster. The cluster is still mounted atop the steering column, but the motorcycle-like layout has been replaced with a new display very similar to what is found in the Volt. Moderately reconfigurable, the main information displayed on the cluster includes the battery pack's state of charge, vehicle speed and an indicator to let the pilot know how efficiently he or she is driving. The Spark EV's display does introduce a new "confidence gauge" feature, which provides an expected range as well as a minimum and maximum range if the vehicle is driven most and least efficiently. There is also a new screen added to the standard Chevy MyLink home screen for "electric info" that provides further information regarding the battery's level, charging times, energy details and tips for how to drive more efficiently. This screen can be selected from the home screen menu, but there is also a leaf button on the right side of the center stack for quicker access.

2014 Chevrolet Spark EV grille2014 Chevrolet Spark EV lower grille2014 Chevrolet Spark EV side splitter2014 Chevrolet Spark EV rear fascia

We finished our drive with 31 miles left on the gauge – barely surpassing the EPA-rated range of 82 miles.

The rest of the interior receives less noticeable upgrades mostly centered around the center stack, including slightly different heating and ventilation controls,which can also be controlled through the MyLink screen; a glowing blue keyless push-button starter; and circuit-like etchings in the piano black center stack trim. The conventional parking brake lever found on standard Sparks been eliminated on the EV thanks to an electronic parking brake button mounted behind the shift lever (adjacent to the Sport mode and traction control buttons). Like other Spark models, the exterior color spills over into the interior on the instrument panel and front door panels, and the 2LT gets a leather-wrapped steering wheel and dark leatherette seats with blue stitching; the base Spark EV gets cloth seats with color matching inserts.

Fortunately, the packaging of the battery takes up about the same amount of space as the conventional Spark's fuel tank and exhaust system, so passenger space is not affected. Most of the time we spent in this Spark EV, there were three passengers aboard, with all having sufficient headroom and legroom. The only space that is affected by the battery pack is the cargo volume, which drops to 9.3 cubic feet behind the rear seat (down from 11.4) due a taller load floor, and a total 23.4 cubic feet (down from 31.2) due to the fixed rear bench seat. On the other hand, the lack of a folding rear seat bottom actually makes it easier to lower the seatbacks, since they do not require the removal of the headrests.

2014 Chevrolet Spark EV interior2014 Chevrolet Spark EV gauges2014 Chevrolet Spark EV electric info display2014 Chevrolet Spark EV rear cargo area

0-60 mph is estimated at 7.6 seconds, making it the quickest EV among rivals.

We started the day with a full charge, with the confidence gauge showing a range between 75 and 90 miles. Throughout the day, this gauge proved to be a useful tool, as it accurately showed the expected available range based on driving style and surrounding road conditions. At one point, while going up a fairly steep grade, our stated range dropped by eight miles, but the upper and lower limits remained the same. Within the constraints of testing an EV, our modest time with the Spark EV was limited to just under 57 miles, but we finished our drive route with 31 miles left on the gauge – barely surpassing the EPA-rated range.

During our review of the 2013 Spark, we noted the hatchback's balance and ease of driving, and despite a curb weight increase of 700 pounds, most of which comes from the 560-lb battery, the 2014 Spark EV still accelerated well and felt nimble on twisty roads. As we saw in its recent commercial, Chevy is enjoying the fact that the Spark EV puts out more torque than a Ferrari 458 Italia, but more than just a marketing gimmick, this abundance of torque makes the EV surprisingly quick and fun to drive. In fact, the bounty of torque was enough to get the low-rolling-resistance Bridgestone tires to chirp on a couple occasions. Acceleration from 0-60 mph is officially estimated at 7.6 seconds, a time Chevy says makes it the quickest EV among rivals by almost a second and a half. The aforementioned Sport mode tightens up responses a bit but doesn't add anything to the overall acceleration or performance. The balance of the Spark EV is surprisingly good – the car has a 52/48 weight distribution – and the steering is downright commendable, with good weight and a surprising lack of torque steer when trying to send all 400 lb-ft from the motor to the front wheels.

2014 Chevrolet Spark EV Test Drive

The Spark EV is cursed with the worst brakes we've felt from an electric or hybrid production car.

A major downfall for the Spark EV is that it is cursed with what may be the worst brakes we've ever felt on an electric or hybrid production car. This, friends, is saying something. We get that regen adds a little sponginess to the pedal feel, but even low-speed stops routinely took an extra foot or two longer than expected ­– not a confidence booster when constantly moving the car near to the edge of a sheer dropoff for the pictures you see here. Better braking in city driving can be obtained by dropping the shift lever into "L," which creates what amounts to a one-pedal driving mode in urban traffic. Like in the Volt, it also improves brake regeneration when coasting down a hill.

As for the battery, Chevy says that it will take about 20 hours to charge using the standard 110-volt cord supplied with the car, or a more palatable 7 hours from a 240-volt source (which it offers a discount of up to $500 for customers to purchase). The big news is that the Spark EV will offer the capability of a DC quick charge option that will be able to charge an empty battery to an 80-percent charge in about 20 minutes (the remaining charge taking an additional 10 minutes). Moreover, Chevy says that the Spark EV is capable of receiving multiple quick charges per day. Interestingly, Chevy reps admit that BEVs are still an urban solution, noting that the focus of charging locations should be on the home and workplace rather than public charging stations – officials say more than 90 percent of charging takes place at home.

2014 Chevrolet Spark EV rear 3/4 view

Genuine fun in a small and relatively affordable package.

By their very nature, economy cars aren't supposed to be entertaining, and perhaps neither are most electric vehicles. Yet here sits the 2014 Chevrolet Spark EV, delivering genuine fun in a small and relatively affordable package. No, it can't lay claim to the longest range (Fiat 500e), the lowest price (Smart Fortwo ED) or the best efficiency (Scion iQ EV) in its class, but it's about as much entertainment as you'll find in a mass-market electric car.

While there are plenty of reasons to enjoy the Spark EV – even for people who don't use "hypermiling" in their daily vernacular – the bad news here is that GM currently has no plans to release the car anywhere in the US outside of the "key influencer markets" of California and Oregon, although sales are eventually planned for Canada, South Korea and China.