The good: The 2013 Chevrolet Spark integrates navigation into its dashboard running off of a smartphone. OnStar provides a number of emergency and concierge services. Fuel economy is in the mid-30s.
The bad: The Bluetooth streaming tech can’t handle phone calls and audio streaming from the same device. Voice command is limited to the hands-free phone system. You get slow starts and limited passing ability thanks to the 84 horsepower.
The bottom line: The 2013 Chevrolet Spark includes some intriguing features for its price, but bizarre limitations in the cabin electronics and low horsepower create too many compromises.
As a city dweller, I appreciate the parkability and maneuverability of small cars, so was predisposed to like the tiny 2013 Chevrolet Spark. This littlest of Chevy models tries to capture the utility of the Honda Fit. Its low price makes it a good entry-level car, and high fuel economy adds to its practicality.
Small cars tend to come with extreme styling, as seen in the retro Fiat 500 and the futuristic Scion iQ. The Spark leans toward the latter, with oversize headlight casings dominating the front end and an interesting dip in the side graphic where it hits the side mirror. Chevy smooths the rear styling by having the exhaust pipe integrated with the rear fascia.
The tiny cargo area expands through folding up the rear seats, a two-stage process that involves lifting the bench, then pushing the back forward. When all is stowed the rear area becomes capacious, suitable for the worldly possessions of the typical college student.
At 32 mpg in the city and 38 mpg highway, fuel economy looks good, but Chevy achieves it the old-fashioned way, by using a very low-power engine. At 1.25 liters, this four-cylinder is laughably small, while 84 horsepower and 83 pound-feet of torque are numbers rarely seen in the U.S. automotive market. By contrast, a high-tech engine like the Ford EcoBoost 1-literboasts 123 horsepower.
Connected from the start
Although the drivetrain doesn’t make much use of modern tech, the infotainment features certainly do. In either 1LT or 2LT trims, the Spark comes with a big, 7-inch touch screen showing a menu with options for digital audio, video, telephone, and apps. That last menu item holds the holy grail of car navigation, complete integration with smartphone-based navigation.
Using an iPhone or Android running the BringGo navigation app, which was not publicly available as of this review, the navigation screens, complete with full touch control, show up on the car’s LCD. The smartphone app performs route processing and offers online search for destinations. It receives traffic data from an online source as well, using that to avoid traffic jams.
Under route guidance, the turn instructions showed up in a small inset in a corner of the map, but the app provided good voice prompts. The maps were readable, and displayed in both 2D and perspective views. The app can also download a projected route so it will continue to give guidance when out of cell coverage.
BringGo does not register as a well-known name in U.S. navigation. The app comes from a Korean company, EnGIS Technologies. I would like to see Chevy extend the navigation app integration to some of the more popular navigation apps, such as the ones I cover in this article, “Five free and mostly free iPhone navigation apps.”
Other apps available in the Spark were Pandora and Stitcher. With this platform, I assume Chevy will be adding more in the future. I noticed the system could be a little buggy when I tried to activate an app, occasionally popping up a message saying that the phone was already running something. Grabbing the phone and lighting up its screen tended to clear this error. My iPhone had to be cabled to the car, as the Bluetooth connection would not support app integration.
The Pandora integration worked very well, letting me choose from my personal list of stations and give the current song the thumbs-up or thumbs-down. However, I would prefer to see Pandora listed as one of the audio sources instead of being tucked away on the app screen.
In another step toward the future of in-car entertainment, Chevy did not bother with a CD player in the Spark, something I am quite happy to do without. Instead, the Spark offers a USB port for iOS devices and thumbdrives, an auxiliary input, and satellite radio. Bluetooth audio streaming is available with one extreme caveat: you cannot use a hands-free phone connection and streaming from the same device. That restriction is inexplicable, as that sort of simultaneous connection works with just about every other car on the road.
The touch screen makes it easy to select music from devices plugged into the USB port, and had no problem reading an iPhone 5 with its Lightning cable connection. With a USB drive filled with MP3 tracks, the head unit cataloged the music by ID3 tagging, organizing the library screen into album, artist, and song categories.
Strangely, the car’s voice command did not let me request music by name, or offer any control over the audio system. Chevy brands this head unit under its MyLink name, and its other models with this system offer that functionality. I believe Chevy is using an essentially different electronics platform for the Spark than it does for other models, and referring to both systems as MyLink. Apparently GM’s restructuring did not eliminate bad product-marketing decisions.
This voice command did let me place phone calls by name, using my Bluetooth-paired phone. The phone screen also gave me access to my phone’s contact list. The Spark also features OnStar, one of the best telematics systems available, which has its own hands-free phone system and concierge services for navigation and emergency services.
The audio system in the Spark we tested consisted of two speakers and not much amplification, making the car essentially a boom box on wheels. I wanted to hold the Spark over my head and stand under GM CEO Dan Akerson’s window, a la Lloyd Dobler in “Say Anything.”
Sound quality from the system was fairly atrocious, lacking any sort of power or tangible bass. There was a little clarity in the treble, but most of the frequencies on a track were compressed into one muddy audio stream. For example, the vocals on Florence and the Machine’s “Dog Days Are Over” were nearly indistinguishable from the midrange instrumentation on the track. According to GM spec sheets, our 2LT-trim Spark should have come with six speakers, but the remaining four were not in evidence.
At 1.25 liters, the engine seemed as minimal as the audio system. This car came with a five-speed manual transmission, while a four-speed automatic is available. Given the limited horsepower, I would opt for the manual, as it is easier to control engine speed and get boost when you need it. A six-speed probably would have improved fuel economy, as the engine had to run at 3,000rpm when driving at freeway speeds in top gear.
The shifter, which felt a little floppy in neutral, slotted through its gate with reasonable precision. The Spark seemed like a good car for people learning how to drive a manual transmission. The clutch take was a bit high, but it is impossible to know whether that was set at the factory or the car had suffered abuse in the hands of previous reviewers. The car purportedly includes a hill hold feature, but it seemed to work intermittently.
Driving a car with such low horsepower takes a little getting used to. With barely any power at idle, I had to rev it up high for first-gear starts. It certainly doesn’t leap off the line, giving anemic acceleration even when I tried to get going fast. The manual transmission let me run the engine up to 6,000rpm in third gear, the sole conditions for some feeling of power. The Spark requires a full exploration of the digital tachometer’s limits, and even then I would be very leery about attempting to pass other cars on the highway.
Heading up most hills, fifth and fourth gears became useless, the car slowing down and the gas pedal making no difference. Third gear was the savior for any situation where some power was required, despite what the little upshift icon on the instrument cluster might be suggesting.
In typical mini car style, the Spark’s front wheels connect to the drivetrain, while the rears spin free. The fronts get disc brakes, while the rears sport drums. Likewise, the rear suspension is much simpler than the front, and less capable. The Spark let me know when I was driving over any rough stretch of road, with bumps and potholes communicated firmly to my rear end.
Through the curvy bits, the Spark felt tippy, but actually proved capable of maintaining reasonable speed on the corners. I noticed the traction-control warning light blinking overtime when testing the car, its little 15-inch wheels and 185/55R15 all-season tires not offering much intrinsic grip.
Electric power steering, another feature becoming common today, felt overboosted in the Spark. At a stop, I could turn the wheel with one finger. It firmed up a bit on the road, and even showed a precise tie to wheel angle. There was very little play in this steering system.
A base price of $12,995 is low enough to get the 2013 Chevrolet Spark initial attention, but you will need to go up to the 1LT level to get the so-called MyLink system in the dashboard. The 1LT is $14,595 with a manual transmission, still undercutting most of the small-car competition. The price and utility make it a good choice as a first car for a high school or college student, not to mention a means of teaching aforesaid student how to drive a manual.
Although the size of the car will raise safety concerns for some, Chevy equips it with 10 airbags and electronic stability systems. Crumple zones and modern engineering should protect passengers in a crash.
The small engine gets excellent fuel economy, but sacrifices power, unlike some more technically advanced engines hitting the market. The transmission choices are also very basic; the four-speed automatic sounds particularly primitive. Electric power steering is one of the most advanced features among the driving tech.
The cabin electronics show some ambitious features, but some serious drawbacks as well. Chevrolet is not doing its MyLink brand any good by offering a head unit under the name that differs so substantially in capabilities from its other systems. The voice command was particularly limited, and the inability to use a Bluetooth-paired phone for calls and music streaming at the same time is inexcusable.
I give Chevrolet a lot of credit for its app-based navigation, a very cool innovation with much potential for future, inexpensive cars. Integration of Pandora and Stitcher also seems to pave the way for many more apps. Further contributing to the car’s online capabilities is the OnStar telematics system.
***A special thank you to Wayne Cunningham from cnet.com for this wonderful article!!***