Are Americans finally ready for really small cars? Interesting options in the subcompact segment were once in short supply here, but recent years have seen increasingly competitive offerings with small footprints and efficient designs.
Offering a counterintuitive take on the tiny domestic car, the 2014 Chevrolet Spark was actually designed and built overseas and exported around the world as a Chevy product, selling over 600,000 units in two years before it was finally made available stateside.
When it was adapted for sale in the U.S., the Chevrolet Spark was uprated with bigger 15-inch wheels, anti-lock brakes, more interior amenities, extra airbags and better insulation for a quieter ride. The South Korean-built subcompact is also newly available with an electric powertrain.
What's New for 2014?
Besides offering a new electric variant, the Spark adds a continuously variable transmission (CVT) automatic to its gas-powered model for improved fuel economy. Uplevel Spark 2LT models also gain heated mirrors with built-in turn signal indicators.
What We Like
Distinctive styling in an inexpensive package; four doors squeezed into a compact size normally reserved for two; surprisingly spacious interior
What We Don't
The Spark is only slightly less expensive than the larger and better-equipped Sonic; the 5-speed manual transmission could use another gear; feels underpowered when accelerating uphill
Gas-powered Spark models are offered with just one engine: an 84-horsepower 1.2-liter 4-cylinder. Fuel economy is rated at 31 miles per gallon city/39 mpg hwy with the standard 5-speed manual transmission, or 30 mpg city/39 mpg hwy with the new-for-2014 optional CVT automatic.
Standard Features & Options
The 2014 Chevrolet Spark is offered in three trim levels -- LS, 1LT and 2LT.
The base-level LS ($13,000) boasts a surprising amount of standard equipment given its size and pricing. Standard features include air conditioning, OnStar, an auxiliary jack for music players, alloy wheels, a split-folding rear seat and a tilt steering wheel.
Stepping up to the 1LT ($14,500) adds a few more luxuries. They include power mirrors, remote keyless entry, cruise control, floor mats, Bluetooth, satellite radio and Chevrolet's MyLink infotainment system, which comes with a standard touchscreen.
At the top end is the 2LT, which starts around $16,000. Additional equipment over the 1LT includes leather upholstery, heated front seats, a leather-wrapped steering wheel and new power heated mirrors with built-in turn signals.
Though small in size, the Spark is big on safety features and boasts 60 percent high-tensile steel, which aids crash safety and torsional rigidity. The Spark packs 10 airbags into its compact body, and other standard safety items include ABS, traction and stability control, a tire pressure monitoring system and panic brake assist.
The Spark has not yet been rated in crash tests by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety or the government's National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
Behind the Wheel
Visibility out of the Spark's cockpit is excellent, with tall seats offering a confidence-inspiring view of the road. There's a copious use of plastic within the cabin, but at least it's colorful and modern, which distracts from the lack of soft-touch materials.
While the Spark won't win any drag races, its 4-cylinder engine isn't severely taxed by its roughly 2,200-lb curb weight. The CVT is likely an improvement over the 4-speed, but it's still designed more for fuel economy than outright acceleration. Opt for the 5-speed manual and you'll appreciate having more control over power delivery, as well as the fun of rowing your own gears.
Our road test took us through stretches of Los Angeles surface streets and interstates, and the Spark, when pushed hard, mostly held its own against faster-moving traffic. However, we felt that extracting every last bit of power from this tiny engine might yield worse fuel economy than you might expect from such a small car.
Other Cars to Consider
FIAT 500 -- This stylish Italian starts at $16,200 (just below the top-of-the-line Spark 2LT automatic) and offers a decidedly more European, if plastic-heavy, take on the diminutive hatchback paradigm.
Scion iQ -- Scion's iQ starts at $15,995, just between a Spark 2LT with a manual transmission and a 2LT model with an automatic. The Scion's interior feels more plush than that of the Spark, and its CVT offers a more fun-to-drive alternative to the Spark's automatic transmission.
While the 2014 Chevrolet Spark lacks the polish and premium feel of some of its competitors, it offers one feature the others can't touch: a 4-door configuration with surprisingly spacious rear legroom. Serious drivers might feel there's something lacking under the hood, but if you're not taxing the powerplant too much, you should be able to get decent fuel economy in the 30 mpg range. We recommend the 1LT trim level, which offers nicer amenities than the base model at a still affordable $14,500 with shipping.
While the Spark is a novel and stylish stab at the subcompact hatchback market, budget-minded buyers should also walk across the Chevy showroom to check out the notably more substantial Sonic, which starts around $15,000 with shipping.