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Test Drive: 2013 Chevrolet Spark

 

Eh, what the heck?

That was pretty much Chevrolet’s business plan for the 2013 Spark. It was already building the minicar in South Korea and didn’t need to spend all that much to federalize it for the U.S., so it thought it’d give it a shot in the lineup even though Americans have rarely shown much of an interest in very small cars.

But with the economy still stalled, and gas prices on the rise, it turns out a $12,995 car that gets 38 mpg makes for a good pinch hitter this year. Early sales have been so strong that Chevy put in an order for more cars just in time for the holiday season.

It would look cute with a bow on top, wouldn’t it?

Why you want one:

Location, location, location.

As with most minicars, the 12-foot-long Spark’s main selling point is its rat-like ability to squeeze into impossibly small spaces. Shorter than a Mini Cooper and just a touch longer than a Fiat 500, few lonely stretches of curb are safe from it sidling up alongside for a chat.

But the Spark is no one-trick rodent. Despite its diminutive dimensions, it has four doors and provides more front and rear legroom than the larger Chevy Sonic. The seating positions are a bit more upright, and it only holds four passengers, but the cabin is as space efficient as a dorm room furniture display at Ikea.

The interior style is contemporary, with minicar-requisite body colored panels and nicely textured, if very hard plastic surfaces throughout. A motorcycle-style instrument pod imitates the one found in the Sonic, but seems even more appropriate here. Entry level Sparks have cloth upholstery painted with silver scribbles to cheer it up, while top of the line models get two-tone leatherette that’s comfortable yet feels rugged enough to survive a 50 Shades of Grey-inspired night on the town.

Cargo room beats all other four-seat minis, and the rear seats do a neat flip and fold for trips to that Ikea. One hitch, the top tether anchor for the LATCH system is located at the front of the compartment, just below the sill. If you have a child seat installed the belt bisects the compartment diagonally and literally cuts into its carrying ability, so kids and big baggage don't mix. Seeing as this car is marketed primarily at customers who are barely out of boosters themselves, family hauling likely wasn’t a priority in its design -- but keep this in mind, because things can change quickly.

Speed may not be one of them, however. The Spark is powered by a four-cylinder engine that’s so small Chevy carries out the displacement two decimal places to make it look more impressive: 1.25-liters. That provides enough of a gasoline and air mixture to produce 84 hp, which is less than every new car currently on sale except for one, the Smart ForTwo.

Still, the Spark is a lightweight and fitted with a well-geared five-speed manual transmission that helps it deliver a surprisingly lively performance around town before things teeter out as it takes its show on the highway. A four-speed automatic is available for $925, but the operation of the clutch and shifter is so light and easy that you won’t mind using them in stop and go traffic.

Better yet, the ride quality of the Spark is, in context, superb. GM originally developed it for emerging markets and if you think your local roads are poorly maintained take a trip to the Third World sometime. The Spark doesn’t have time for your petty complaints.

This is not to say the Spark is low-tech. Need proof? It’s the first car since the cassette era that you can’t get with a CD player.

Counterintuitive? Chevy doesn’t think so. The standard audio system is an AM/FM unit with an auxiliary input for the digital media devices preferred by the youngins, and if you really want to listen to your “Now That’s What I Call Music! 2” double CD, a Discman will work just fine.

The real kicker is the optional touchscreen-based MyLink infotainment system, which adds Bluetooth and USB connectivity, XM radio and integration with a selection of smartphone-based apps that includes Pandora, Stitcher and BrinGo navigation.

If only it had a knob for the volume or changing channels. Touchpad buttons can be annoying to operate on the move. Then again, I’ve purchased several new CDs this calendar year, so I may not be the best judge of this sort of thing.

Why you may not want one:

If you know what you’re getting into, there really aren’t a lot of negatives here. After a week with the Spark, I was surprised at how much the little guy grew on me. Sure, the larger Nissan Versa sedan costs just $12,770, but it looks like a pregnant porpoise and doesn’t exactly inspire any Joie De Vivre. Buzzing around in the scooter-esque Spark is like being on a permanent vacation. Besides, good luck finding a parking space for that behemoth.

That said, while the Spark’s wide-eyed anime style may be a familiar aesthetic in its home country, here it makes a take it or leave it fashion statement that Chevy is playing to the hilt. To drive that point home, among the paint choices on offer are Denim, Lemonade, Jalapeno and Techno Pink.

Given how small it is, those sorts of colors could be considered a safety feature, the visual equivalent of loud pipes saving lives. The Spark may be tiny, but it does not keep a low profile.

No, I wouldn’t recommend it for frequent road trippers – it’s loud and just a little too unsure of itself on the highway for relaxed high-speed cruising – or for anyone who lives on or within the gravitational field of a mountain, but it is perfectly suited to its urban assault mission.

One thing you need to know:

The Spark has the footprint of any modern Chevrolet sold in the U.S., but at around 2300 pounds it’s far from the lightest. The Geo/Chevy Metro of 1989-2001 was slightly longer and wider, but tipped the scales at less than a ton. Of course, the Metro never had more than one airbag while the Spark is packed with 10. They’re in the seats, in the roof, in your face and in front of your knees. There’s no escape!

Unfortunately, safety on this level this doesn’t just sell, it is also quite heavy.

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2013 Chevrolet Spark

Base Price: $12,995

Type: 4-passenger, 5-door hatchback

Engine: 1.25-liter inline-4-cylinder

Power: 84 hp, 83 lb-ft torque

Transmission: 5-speed manual

MPG: 32 city/38 hwy