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 change, as the arrival of the Chevrolet Spark certainly shows.
Based on a Korean-developed model that once would have been considered simply too small for American drivers, the Chevy Spark makes plenty of sense today for post-recession households and young buyers lucky enough to land that first real job. Chevrolet's entry-level hatchback is stingy with fuel, and its city-friendly dimensions are in tune with our increasingly urban-centric times. Moreover, although 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 feature content that inexpensive economy cars of the past almost universally lacked.
Current Chevrolet Spark
The Chevrolet Spark 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). The base Spark LS provides niceties such as air-conditioning, power windows, a tilt steering wheel, four-speaker audio and a height-adjustable driver seat, as well as safety features that include stability control and knee airbags for front-seat occupants.
Going to the midlevel 1LT brings enticing items like cruise control, remote keyless entry, Bluetooth phone and audio connectivity, a six-speaker audio system and a 7-inch touchscreen interface with Chevy's MyLink smartphone integration. 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. The standard transmission is a five-speed manual, with a continuously variable automatic (CVT) available as an option. Fuel economy approaches 40 mpg on the highway with either transmission, an impressive rating that a few rivals nonetheless exceed.
In reviews of the Chevrolet Spark, we've lauded its appealingly modern design and straightforward controls. Motorcycle-inspired gauges, a conceptual hand-me-down from the larger Sonic, give the Spark an extra injection of style inside. The available 7-inch MyLink touchscreen is a surprisingly high-tech touch for this segment, giving smartphone users all the connectivity they could ask for. Seat comfort is adequate in front, though rear passengers may complain unless they're subcompact themselves.
On the road, the Spark's modest engine output is apparent, but acceleration is generally sufficient to keep up with traffic. Drivers who want a bit more punch are advised to check out a used turbocharged Sonic. In terms of handling, the Spark's minimal weight, short wheelbase and light-touch 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.
Used Chevrolet Spark Models
The current, first-generation Chevrolet Spark debuted for the 2013 model year with a different optional transmission: a four-speed conventional automatic. We found this transmission to be fixated on fuel economy and thus reluctant to downshift unless we floored it. The manual Spark still managed to be a bit more fuel-efficient. In performance testing, the automatic needed about 1.5 more seconds to reach 60 mph, so even with the pedal to the metal, it gave up considerable ground. The CVT replaced it for 2014.