The 2013 Spark is nothing like any Chevrolet we've known, and it's not even really a Chevy. But the bitty hatchback wears the bow-tie badge, it's as eager and capable as your smartphone -- and it not only embraces the technology, it swallows it whole.
The Spark, which was designed and is built in South Korea, arrives at the bottom of the Chevrolet lineup. Billed as the brand's first minicar, its spacious interior places it in the government's subcompact class, only a scant three cubic feet short of compact.
With its minicar moniker, the Chevy folks reckon that the Spark's main competitors are little shooters like the Scion iQ and Fiat 500. But there is an entire starting grid of small cars in both the subcompact and compact categories that joust with it on price, fuel economy and features. Among them: Kia Rio, Ford Fiesta, Hyundai Accent, Mazda 2, Honda Fit, Nissan Versa and even Chevy's own Sonic.
At the outset, the Spark created a buzz. Buyers flocked to dealerships and delivered unexpected sales. How much of that can be attributed to the fact that it is brand new is anybody's guess, but it does have a lot going for it.
Size is one -- an inch longer than 12 feet, with a tight turning circle. Yet it can accommodate four adults in reasonable comfort. Style is another. The Spark looks like a sporty two-door hatchback but has four doors (the rear handles are camouflaged), and it comes in a host of wacky kid-oriented colors, including salsa red, denim, jalapeno and techno pink.
But the clincher for many buyers is likely to be the Spark's smartphone-based technology, called MyLink. Instead of a whole menu of communications, entertainment and navigation systems loaded into the car, the Spark simply gobbles your smartphone. And who doesn't know how to operate one of those?
Simply plug in your iPhone or Droid, and the Spark becomes its host. There isn't even a CD player because the system picks up your music from the phone, displays it on the dash-mounted 7-inch screen and plays it via Bluetooth, a plug-in or a USB port. It also incorporates voice recognition if the phone has it.
Built into MyLink are Pandora and Stitcher radio, which expand music and talk radio choices, as well as XM satellite radio and the General Motors OnStar communication and emergency help system.
But the killer app is called BringGo, which sells for $50 and provides a full-service navigation system. Though a full test was not available for this review, the Chevrolet people say it works as well as in-car navigation systems that cost $1,500 to $2,000.
As a chasing-around car, the Spark provides a bare minimum of performance. The power comes from a 1.2-liter four-cylinder engine that delivers 84 horsepower to the front wheels through either a five-speed manual gearbox or an optional ($745) four-speed automatic transmission.
For those with the skills, the stick shift is more engaging and wrings the most out of the tiny engine, which feels surprisingly sprightly in urban and freeway traffic. But the automatic is not disappointing, though it could use a few more gears.
The ride is small-car decent, with quick steering and good straight-line tracking. City/highway/combined fuel economy of 28/37/32 miles to the gallon is respectable, but not the best in the subcompact and mini classes.
The tested Spark was an upscale 2LT model with the four-speed automatic transmission and the aforementioned high-tech wizardry. It carried a price tag of $16,720, again not the lowest nor highest in the small car category.
Standard equipment on this model also includes a hill start system, which keeps the Spark from rolling backward on hills, air conditioning, cruise control, alloy wheels and full safety equipment, including stability and traction control.
Inside, passengers sit on durable vinyl upholstery, called leatherette, and the driver looks through the steering wheel at a small pod of motorcycle-styled instruments. The steering wheel tilts but does not telescope and the sun visors do not slide on their support rods and do not effectively block sun from the side. There is no center console but the driver gets a right-side armrest.
Out back, there's a small cargo area of slightly more than 11 cubic feet, which expands to more than 31 cubic feet if you fold down the rear seatbacks. However, it takes a bit of doing and the rear headrests must be removed and stashed on the floor.
Model: 2013 Chevrolet Spark 2LT four-door hatchback.
Engine: 1.25-liter four-cylinder, 84 horsepower.
Transmission: Four-speed automatic.
Overall length: 12 feet 1 inch.
EPA passenger/cargo volume: 86/11 cubic feet.
Weight: 2,269 pounds.
EPA city/highway/combined fuel consumption: 28/37/32 miles to the gallon.
Base price, including destination charge: $16,720.
Price as tested: $16,720.
Contact Frank Aukofer at email@example.com