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There was a time when enticing Americans with any kind of subcompact car -- much less an urban runabout with a footprint at the starting end of the Environmental Protection Agency's definition of "subcompact" -- was a hopeless task for Detroit's automakers. People in a nation of big spaces, big roads, big parking lots and cheap gasoline just weren't interested. But times do indeed change, as the arrival of the Chevrolet Spark certainly shows.
Based on an Asia-developed model that once would have been considered utterly too small for American drivers, the Chevy Spark might make sense to post-recession households and young buyers lucky enough to land that first real job. Chevrolet's entry-level hatchback is plenty stingy with fuel and blessed with a city-friendly size. And though it weighs barely more than a ton and is one of the least expensive new cars available, the Spark has the "real car" driving characteristics and real-car content that inexpensive economy cars of the past almost universally lacked.
Current Chevrolet Spark Specs
The Chevrolet Spark, a new model for 2013, comes only as a four-door hatchback with front-wheel drive. It's sold in just three trim levels -- LS, 1LT and 2LT -- with almost no stand-alone options (save for an automatic transmission), so buying one is easy. The base Spark LS comes standard with niceties such as air-conditioning, power windows, a tilt steering wheel and a height-adjustable driver seat, as well as a long and comforting list of safety features that include stability control and even knee airbags for front-seat occupants.
Going to the midlevel 1LT brings comforts and conveniences like cruise control, remote keyless entry, Bluetooth connectivity for mobile phones and streaming audio, all controlled via Chevy's MyLink touchscreen interface. The top 2LT trim adds exterior and interior cosmetic upgrades plus leather-like upholstery, a leather-wrapped steering wheel and heated front seats.
As the starting point of the Chevrolet lineup, the Spark has the brand's smallest engine, a 1.2-liter four-cylinder that generates 84 horsepower and 83 pound-feet of torque. It's not as bad as all that might sound, though, as the Spark's stoplight getaways are competitive with the rest of traffic, as are freeway merges. In Edmunds' track testing, a Spark with the standard five-speed manual transmission reached 60 mph in 10.5 seconds, making it about as quick as a Toyota Prius. The Spark's optional four-speed automatic slows things to a less amiable 12.2 seconds, however.
With just four forward gears, the Chevy Spark's automatic transmission is a relic (you have to cut costs somewhere in inexpensive cars), but it still does an effective job of managing the engine's 84 horses. Mountainous climbs are the transmission's only real curses.
Although the Spark is no hot hatch, its light weight, short wheelbase and light-touch electrically assisted power steering make for a nimble partner in the cut-and-thrust of city and suburban traffic. Even better, its suspension can soak up a fair amount of abuse before the ride gets jarring or noisy. Braking is confident, too.
In reviews we've found the Chevrolet Spark well-equipped, particularly the midlevel 1LT trim, which brings the kind of infotainment and convenience content that formerly was the territory of much costlier vehicles. The MyLink touchscreen interface, for example, is useful without being loaded with overly cute functionality, and the system even accommodates certain app content carried on your smartphone.
The interior's mostly hard surfaces are generally well-disguised and friendly, and some of the panels are matched to the body color of the car. The nighttime lighting is unexpectedly upscale. The big central speedometer and ancillary digital gauge that flanks it on the right are straightforward and easy to read, as is the three-knob control layout for the climate control. The unassuming gauge presentation looks like the mark of an inexpensive car but also lends a certain refreshing simplicity to the Spark's cabin when coupled with the MyLink central screen.
If you are looking for newer years, visit our new Chevrolet Spark page.