2021 Chevrolet Spark 1LT (USA)

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Although there have been a number of iterations of America “down-sizing” their cars in the last 40 or so years, the reality is that in a country where distances between places are often vast, where space is not an issue in urban areas which were designed around the car as opposed trying to retro-fit them into the streetscape and where costs of cars and fuel are still relatively cheap, then small cars still have very limited appeal in what was until recently the largest automotive market in the world. There is a place for them, and so there are manufacturers who keep trying, mainly with cars that were really intended for markets elsewhere in the world, which they have adapted to a greater or less extent for the New World. The car under review here comes in that category. Europeans will look at the pictures of this car and remark that it is an Opel Karl or Vauxhall Viva, depending on which part of the continent they hail from, and indeed to look at, the Chevrolet Spark does appear very similar. Of course there are changes not least to the engine, which is notably bigger in the US market car, but in essence what we have here is one of the smallest cars sold on the US market. Like its predecessor which was also sold in America, it has found a steady demand for those looking either for a small city car or those who want one of the most affordable brand new cars. It also has a place as the entrant in the very cheapest category of the rental fleets, and indeed, I understand that Hertz took delivery of a large number of them in 2020 to replace the bare-bones spec Toyota Yaris that they had been using as their cheapie. On a night in Phoenix when there were hardly any cars available at all, there was a line of Sparks, in a few different colours and not a lot else to choose from, so I decided that the rental gods wanted me to test US economy motoring 2021 style and picked a white Spark to drive for the day. Was that a decision I would come to regret?

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All US Sparks are powered by GM’s 1.4 litre four cylinder engine, which puts out just 98 bhp, making this the least powerful car on sale in America. Fortunately it is also one of the lightest. Even so, 98 bhp proves to be not really sufficient. At no point would you ever describe this car as fast. Or even brisk. It is fine in the city, but acceleration is leisurely and to get even this you have to rev the engine hard, which makes the car very noisy. The car also proved quite jerky as you engaged a gear and set off but once underway things were smoother. A manual gearbox is standard but the test car had the optional CVT transmission, and this worked reasonably well most of the time. The upside to the weak performance is that the Spark is economical. I drove it 149 miles and needed to put just 3.4 gallons in to fill it up, which computes to 43.82 mpg US or 52.35 Imperial, which is very good indeed.

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Conceived as a car that will spend a lot of its time in the urban environment, it is perhaps not a surprise that the Spark is not that much fun to drive. The Spark is certainly easy to position and manoeuvre, and can be parked up in small spaces which would defeat just about any other car on US roads, though getting it there may not be that easy as the visibility suffers from the combination of very thick C pillars and a slot like rear window. The rear-view camera, a legal requirement in the US now for a few years, is a real necessity. It does not help once out and about, of course and care does have to be taken at oblique junctions. The door mirrors are relatively small, too. The steering is light but there is some feel to it. Handling at moderate speeds is tidy enough and there feels to be sufficient grip from those 15” wheels, but there is plenty of understeer. Anyone coming to this from a Fiesta or a Mazda 2, both cars that use to be available in the US but are no longer offered, is going to be in for a bit of a surprise, and not a good one. At least the ride is decent, with the soft suspension and those small 185/55 R15 wheels no doubt helping. There were no issues with the brakes which seemed well up to the task of stopping this Chevrolet without fuss. There is a traditional pull-up handbrake between the seats.

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Sadly, the interior of the Spark still feels very cheap with lots of particularly hard plastics that used to be de rigeur in all economy cars before manufacturers started to improve things as they’ve done in the Chevy’s main rivals.  The steering wheel is a plastic moulded item but it was OK to hold. There is simple instrumentation, which is fine with one large dial in the cluster, for the speedometer with an overlapping part circle for the rev counter to the left and an area to the right which includes a bar chart style fuel gauge and the trip mileage data. The Spark uses some stand GM buttons and stalks that you will find in other models in the Chevrolet range. There are twin column stalks and the lights operate from a rotary on the dash. Surprisingly for a car of this price, there is an Auto function for the lights. The cruise control and audio repeater functions are on the steering wheel boss. The centre of the dash contains a small 7” colour touch screen, mounted relatively high, which has a familiar GM look and feel to it, based on the GM Infotainment 3 system. Functions are relatively basic but you do get Apple Car Play and Android Auto and a 4G LTE hotspot, but not surprisingly no satellite radio or navigation. There are four speakers and sound quality is acceptable but no more than that, but then this is a budget car. There are some physical buttons under the unit and it does have voice recognition, so the system is pretty easy to use. Beneath this are three rotary dials for the manual air conditioning.

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Seats are trimmed in a cloth material in this trim, synthetic leather coming on posher versions of the car. Adjustment is all manual, and that does include the height for the driver’s seat but not the passenger. The seats themselves are on the small side, and there’s not that much padding so whilst they proved comfortable enough for me during the time I had the car, I suspect that if you do actually go on a longer journey they may be found wanting. The steering wheel does telescope in/out as well as up/down. There are very small armrests which are attached to the seat sides.

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The rear of the Spark is not at all spacious even bearing in mind that this is a small car, and most adults would not want to sit here for long, with leg room very tight even with the front seat set well forward and there’s not that much headroom, either. It is definitely a place only for two, as there is a moulded recess and cup holder in middle of the seat cushion. You do not get pockets on the doors, but there is a single map pocket for odds and ends.

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There is a particularly tinny feel to the tailgate. It opens to reveal a very small boot, which is also quite difficult to access as the opening is a bit slot like. There is a parcel shelf but this does not raise when you lift the tailgate. More space can be created by folding the rear seats. To start, you need to pull the seat cushion up and then the backrest drops down, but the resulting area is not flat. The front seats need to be well forward to allow the seats to go down too. Inside the cabin, oddment spaces are quite generous with a good-sized glovebox and some recesses and cupholders in the console as well as door pockets.

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The 2021 Spark comes in four trim levels: LS, 1LT, Activ and 2LT. Every Spark is powered by the same 1.4-litre four-cylinder engine making 98 bhp and 94 lb/ft of torque. You can choose between a five-speed manual transmission or a continuously variable transmission (CVT) on all four trims. For a low priced car, even the base LS trim has quite a long list of standard equipment, which includes a  7-inch touchscreen with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto compatibility, Bluetooth connectivity and two USB ports and a four-speaker audio system as well as GM’s  OnStar emergency communications with onboard Wi-Fi hotspot and there is manual air conditioning. You will stand out, though with 15-inch steel wheels and you might be a little frustrated with the manual windows, mirrors and door locks. These are both addressed in the 1LT which gives you 15-inch alloy wheels and power windows, mirrors and door locks. You also get audio and phone controls on the steering wheel, cruise control, remote keyless entry and a six-speaker audio system. The next step up the range is the Activ and this one looks a little different with a custom grille, bumpers and black exterior accents, suspension with 0.4 inch more ground clearance, daytime running lights and foglights as well as roof rails and unique 15” alloy wheels whilst inside you will find heated front seats, simulated leather upholstery, and protective door plates. The top level trim is the 2LT. This takes the 1LT equipment and adds push-button start, chrome door handles and trim, an upgraded driver information display, heated front seats, simulated leather seating surfaces and rear parking sensors. There is a Driver Confidence package which can only be added to the 2LT trim with the CVT. This includes automatic emergency braking, forward collision alert and lane departure warning.

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Chevrolet’s promotion of the Spark focuses very much on value and a low cost of ownership thanks to its fuel economy, which are indeed both strong attributes and its compact dimensions do make it an excellent city car, but despite the decent levels of equipment in 1LT guise, the Spark still feels very much like a cheap car and that thrashy engine is not really adequate once you get out of town. In isolation, it would be a hard car to recommend. It is not the only new car offered at this price point, with Nissan’s Versa and the Kia Rio available for similar money. The Nissan only comes with a saloon body, but it is noticeably roomier inside and the Kia has the choice of hatch or saloon bodies. I’ve not driven the latest generation of either, but understand the latest Nissan is light years better than its rather unrecommendable predecessor and when I tried the previous generation Kia a few years ago, I found that it had lots to commend it. I strongly suspect that both of these are a better bet than this Chevrolet. Both models feature in quantity in the rental fleets, so I am sure that I will get the chance to validate this hypothesis before too long.

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