Matt Davis, European Correspondent
It was one of GM's most enlightened moves maybe ever when it decided back in the still relatively happy days of 2007 to introduce three bold minicar concepts at the 2007 New York Auto Show. The Trax, Groove and Beat appeared (perfect for New York, since urban citizens generally speak only in monosyllables), and a little contest ensued to pick a favorite.
And now we've just driven around Athens, Greece, in the production version of the Beat, apparently the winning entry. Eventually to be known to us as the 2013 Chevrolet Spark, the new mini-size car will go on sale in Europe this coming March.
We really love these proper European minicars in the context of stressed-out city streets. The 2013 Chevy Spark is not a revelation, but it is what one should expect for this market segment in European terms, and that's saying a lot for a car that must fit into a genre that has become a sort of art form.
But when it comes our way as currently planned in 2011, can the 2013 Chevy Spark excite Americans for more than one selling season? The appeal of the Smart Fortwo in America suggests that so far we see a tiny tot like this as a bauble, not a necessity.
Pressure To Be Hip
While we could sort of tell back in 2007 that GM really wanted Internet voters to choose the Beat from the selection at the New York show (the spotlights glowed a little brighter on its electric green paint), we recall actually pulling for either of the other two. The Trax had a really interesting face, while the Groove had a great body. But the prevailing "bold-fresh-edgy" thingy in green got picked as low-hanging fruit by the vast majority.
So now the Beat has morphed into the 2013 Chevy Spark. That face is just too big. And those eyes straight from an aggressive re-stretch at the plastic surgeon. Dunno, really. It's not bad, yet it still seems like something of a fashion victim. Both the new Ford Fiesta in its definitive North American form and the Ford Ka (sadly, plans have changed and it won't be coming to us after all) also use the disco-headlights trick to make a tiny car look bigger, and these headlights strike us in the same way. These are all designs that lose their freshness after two years.
All of these cars could learn a lesson from the Volkswagen Golf, a car with a look that never grows old. Chevy itself has done a much better job with this company facial expression on the 2011 Chevrolet Cruze.
Bigger Inside Than Out
Stylistic grousing aside, the rest of the 2013 Chevy Spark looks really good. Even better, we like sitting in the five-passenger space within this car, which measures only 143.3 inches overall. There's plenty of head-, shoulder and legroom for the two people in front, while it's livable for two people in back with really good knee room thanks partly to a fairly generous (for this category) 93.5-inch wheelbase.
Best deal in here, though, is the trick interior execution. The inspiration for the driver's forward view is a motorcycle instrument cluster, and we like it more than the current overbaked feel of the Mini dash and instrumentation. Full aux-in and USB connection with iPod and MP3 is standard fare in the Spark across all of its trim levels. Buyers can also opt for a good hard-drive-based onboard computer and satellite navigation system with a 4GB internal memory and a straightforward 4.3-inch touchscreen.
And you want luggage space? Well, when all the seats are up, the rear cargo space is a marginally useful 6 cubic feet, or about as much as in the 2011 Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG we recently tested. Once you knock the rear seats forward, the cargo capacity climbs to a very acceptable 20.1 cubic feet.
Does It Fizzle on the Road?
No, it does not. Correction: The Spark with the base-model, DOHC, 1.0-liter inline-4 and rolling on 13- or 14-inch rims is asthmatic compared to sun gods in glowing chariots ascending the heavens (hey, we're driving in Athens, remember?). But the Spark in full LT trim with the 81-horsepower, DOHC 1.2-liter inline-4 driving 15-inch wheels goes nicely, especially since the car weighs only 1,905 pounds. Still, it takes 12.0 seconds to get to 60 mph on hard throttle, and the five-speed manual is too fiddly about its imprecise shift action.
This modified semi-new chassis referred to as the M-car platform is the latest front-wheel-drive setup based on the original M-class global chassis developed back in the mid-1980s for the 1989-'94 Suzuki Swift and Geo Metro in North America — good-handling cars, actually, especially the Swift. The suspension scheme is not innovative but it behaves obediently via MacPherson struts up front and a torsion beam in back.
Most satisfying of all at this dimension and weight, of course, is poking the 2013 Chevy Spark through serious traffic or hammering down the challenging rural roads. To say it is tossable and tough in these scenarios is an understatement. Made for it is more like it. On the turnpikes, you'll have to get after it if you want to stay with the 85-mph traffic flow in Greece, as the 1.2-liter engine runs out of guts and buzzes loudly as you might imagine. Hit an uphill and shift to 4th gear early, sometimes even to 3rd as the little four-pot engine strains with your foot on the floor. In this way, the Spark is no better than a top-end Smart Fortwo.
Speaking with GM's James Trucksis, director of program management for the Chevy Spark, we're assured that the American version of the car will get a more robust engine, probably along the lines of the Daewoo-built 1.4-liter inline-4 seen in the Chevy Aveo. In addition, there is an ongoing debate about including a five-speed automatic in the product mix. Best of all, we're promised 22 pounds of overall acoustic insulation and other noise countermeasures.
The Spark can be as good as it likes for the citizens of ancient European cities and kei-car-obsessed Japanese and Nano-craving inhabitants of the Indian subcontinent, but it's a major challenge for us to visualize this current version of the Spark being very well accepted by anyone who uses the American road network every day, with its current engine array, at least.
In European terms the 2013 Chevy Spark badly needs a sophisticated, 1.3-liter turbodiesel like the Fiat-built unit that appears in GM Europe vehicles. Regardless, functionality and style are high and the price is pretty low, so the Spark should do well. Overall, the drive is absolutely competitive even when we stuffed five mere mortals in it and drove the gnarled streets once trod by Greek heroes and heroines while being pestered constantly by the holier-than-thou residents of Mount Olympus.
Built by Daewoo in both South Korea and Taiwan, the Chevrolet Spark is the second truly global car model from the new GM world initiative that started with the Chevy Cruze. After these two big vehicles take their place in the A and C segments, then it's time for the small crossover called the Orlando and the hotly awaited 2011 Chevrolet Volt. In there somewhere, too, comes the new and improved Chevy Aveo.
So GM's very survival depends on this little army of world conquerors, and GM in turn must convince Americans that we need these international darlings on our great big roads. To help in this, GM is also creating an electric version of the Spark that should (if the planners are smart) be available right when the regular car comes to market here. As for the chances of building the 2013 Chevrolet Spark on American soil, think Mexico rather than suburban Detroit for that. We build the Aveo in Orion Township, Michigan, and that's a stretch already.
This latest chapter in GM going global and reaping the efficiencies thereof, therefore, is only partly convincing in what will ultimately be the 2013 Chevy Spark. It needs more guts and even a five-speed automatic, or it will not ignite a buying frenzy in North American, we fear.
Edmunds attended a manufacturer-sponsored event, to which selected members of the press were invited, to facilitate this report.
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