But in its new EV guise, the Chevy Spark has the perfect name, on many levels. This car certainly has more than a spark of personality; it's all-electric (forget about those spark plugs); and, perhaps most importantly, as GM's first battery-electric car since the 1990s-era EV1, it's a Spark of something greater.
Whether you look to Lenin, Mao, or Ayn Rand, the Spark is a symbol of revolution and motivation—and we'd like to think that GM considered that...but maybe we're projecting.
The Spark's potential does project well beyond the test-drive numbers—the 400 pound-feet torque (more than a Porsche 911 or Ferrari 458 Italia!) and 7.6-second 0-60 figures that GM spokespeople are especially eager to share.
The broader base of appeal for the Spark EV is, perhaps, just the fact that it's one of the first all-electric cars that can fit four and is well below the cost of the average new car today, considering federal tax credits and state rebates. With an EPA rated range of 82 miles on a full charge—well within the daily-driving needs of the vast majority of Americans—it makes a no-brainer second car, especially for anyone living near established charging infrastructure.
Go gasoline-free, on a (relatively) low budget
That’s exactly the case in Portland, Oregon, where we spend a day this week driving the new 2014 Spark EV. We think that it's not just one of the best-driving electric cars yet, but one of the most affordable ways yet to make your daily driving completely gasoline-free.
On the outside, the appearance of the Spark EV is quite like the gasoline-engine Spark, but just different enough to be able to pick the EV out at close range. A grille-blanking panel at the front looks a lot like the one used in the Chevrolet Volt, while the fuel door has been completely removed from the rear fender and a charging door and port have been added to the front left fender. In addition to that there are a host of additional small aerodynamic improvements (like a larger hatchback spoiler, active grille shutters, side body sill extensions, underbody panels, and a rear valence panel stamped with ‘EV’.The color palette is also different—including a soft, almost baby-blue hue, Blue Ray, for our test car. Oh, and unlike the Volt, the Spark does not scrape its front end on every driveway, ramp, and speed bump.Inside, the design mostly carries over from the Spark, but what’s directly in front of the driver is completely different. Anyone who’s taken the Volt for a drive will find the gauge cluster to be familiar—it’s essentially the same presentation style as that in the Volt, but without the Volt’s multi-screen layout. The elegant layout shows on the left the battery level, with anticipated range remaining in a ‘bubble’ to the far left. Over to the right of the speedometer readout is a simple graphic showing how much power you’re using currently, and whether you’re into power or regenerative braking.
We have confidence, not anxiety
By far, the most useful feature of the gauge cluster here is the so-called ‘confidence gauge.’ That’s where, looking above and below the battery graphic, you see the worst-case-scenario and best-case-scenario numbers. So it may give you a little more confidence in making a round trip that pushes available range, or realizing that you actually do have plenty of range remaining—allowing you to chill out and turn on the A/C.
Over at the middle of the dash, through the seven-inch touch screen that’s part of the included Chevrolet MyLink, you get a number of other energy readouts, including a running total of energy use and a pie chart showing how you’re consuming your energy (with accessory load, for example).
The 336-cell, 21-kWh battery pack, which is assembled in the U.S. by A123 Systems, takes up 133 liters (or about 35 gallons) of volume; and it weighs 560 pounds, which brings the Spark EV's curb weight from about 2,300 pounds for the gasoline version up to about 3,000 pounds for the electric car. Some additional stiffening and body-structure changes needed to be made as well.
The 105-kW (140-hp) electric motor fits under the hood—much more easily than the gasoline engine, by the way—and drives the front wheels through a simple, single-speed transmission.
All in the (global) family
GM did the engineering for the Spark EV in-house; it builds most of the core components, too. The motor is built in Baltimore, Maryland, while the inverter/controller is built by GM and the battery is an A123 unit built in the U.S. And yes, just like the standard-issue Spark, it's all assembled in South Korea, so those parts are shipped over there, then back here.
As you can imagine, the power pack is a little more space-consuming than the fuel tank, but GM managed to fit this pack with the packaging pretty much unscathed. The cargo floor is low and flat—with the charging hardware stowing neatly beneath—and the rear seatbacks flip forward nearly flat for larger cargo. And when you consider that two adults—taller adults—can fit in the back seats, it truly is a space-efficient, no-compromises package.GM’s executive chief engineer for mini and emerging-market vehicles, Sam Basile, who presided over the engineering teams and coordinated engineering and propulsion systems work, said that once they had one of the most efficient and quickest models of its kind, the bulk of the engineering time was spent on drivability, and getting the details right. “We could have stopped right there, but we didn’t,” said Basile, pointing to the attention that was paid to how well the Spark responds in transitions.
He’s right. It’s one of the most drivable electric cars we’ve experienced. Anyone will be able to get behind the wheel and feel comfortable—as if they were driving an especially quiet, responsive automatic transmission vehicle; only one with no gearshifts or rough spots. It's more eager than the Leaf, more tossable than the Fit EV, and feels better integrated overall than the Smart Electric Drive. The only model that might drive as well or better is the Fiat 500e—but that's not as versatile and spacious. Yes, we've driven all of these cars in the past week, so they're fresh impressions.
So much better than the gasoline Spark
Just as we say about the Smart Electric Drive, the Spark EV ends up feeling smooth, quiet, refined, and far better than the gasoline version—more like a luxury vehicle in nearly every aspect of the driving experience.
For its shifter, Chevrolet provides both Drive and Low. Low doesn’t enable any lower gearing, of course; it instead provides the effect of a regenerative braking ‘B’ mode. The net effect is less than the default settings for some electric cars—allowing the feeling that you could coast for at least a few blocks—while ‘L’ gives you more regenerative braking as you lift off the accelerator.
We found our foot moving over to the brake too often in ‘D’ for city driving and simply used ‘L’ for most of the drive—although you might choose 'D' for your passengers because it allows you to be a bit smoother. GM assured us that you get the same amount of regen in either mode—and it does anticipate that newbies will likely used Drive for a while, then they’ll use 'L' with more experience.
A Sport Mode button just behind the shifter makes the accelerator tip-in more aggressive but has no other affect to maximum power or to the steering calibration. It's essentially a gimmick, to be used only if you want to have your timid friend experience how quick it is.
We won't quite call the Spark EV nimble, because it does feel quite heavy for its footprint; but it is surprisingly responsive at city speeds and all the way up to about 70 mph. Steering has a quick ratio yet feels reassuring at highway speeds; and the braking system incorporates GM's rich experience with blended regenerative braking. You probably won't be able to tell when, for the last bit of a stop, the system turns to its friction pads.
One other thing we appreciate, due to the added weight and retuned suspension, is how the Spark EV rides better than the Spark. There's less fore-and-aft bobbing motion over bumps and speed bumps—thanks, probably, to the much better center of gravity of the EV version.
Interior duds a bit dull
On the other hand, what holds up okay in about $12k for the base gasoline Spark is less excusable in a car that stickers more than $28k with destination—even if it does cost a lot less, effectively. There's an obvious effort to make the interior trims look exciting, but the fact of the matter is that it's all very hard and hollow feeling. Elbow rests are thin, molded together with the door panel, and made of hard plastic; armrests fold out from the inboard sides of the seat, but they don’t match up well with what’s provided on the door panels. The steering wheel, also, doesn't telescope. And taller people should think twice; both this 6'-6” driver and a 6'-4” drive partner had our knees a couple of inches from the hard-edged climate-control knobs—and we'd bang up against them if getting in quickly, or reaching into pockets. A few more inches of rearward seat travel seems like an easy fix.At this time, the Spark EV is only offered in two states. At an effective $17,820 in California, or $20,320 in Oregon, it's one of the cheapest all-electric cars.
There are essentially just two builds of the Spark EV: 1LT and 2LT. The 1LT comes with standard Chevrolet MyLink, Bluetooth hands-free and audio-streaming capability, a USB port, remote keyless entry, power locks and mirrors, cruise control, fog lamps, and 15-inch machined-face alloy wheels. A pretty rich-sounding audio system with SiriusXM satellite radio is also included. At the 2LT level, all you add is heated leatherette (vinyl) heated front seats with a 'blue ray' stitching, plus a leather steering wheel with silver accents.
The system includes smartphone-based mapping and navigation—through BringGo, as with the standard Spark—and there's a smart-charging app that will automatically start charging when needed, or during off-peak hours if you want. And for those with iPhone 4S or iPhone 5, Siri is fully integrated with the vehicle hands-free system once you pair the phone.
An affordable 100-mile EV
We finished several hours of driving thinking that the Spark EV might realistically have a 100-mile range if driven carefully—but we'll reserve a full-fledged declaration until we can test it managing our own charge and miles. However we covered about 55 miles—the first five of them very aggressive, then some lighter driving over hilly roads and around town, even with some time on the freeway—and we still had 40 miles remaining, the display anticipated. And calculating from the energy display, we'd been averaging about 4.4 miles per kWh.
Beginning sometime this fall, Spark EV models will be offered with SAE Combo DC Fast Charging capability, which should enable the Spark EV to get from zero charge up to about an 80-percent charge in about 20 minutes. Otherwise the Spark EV charges on 240 volts in about seven hours.
For once, Spark is an apt name for what the EV version represents in the market. Just like some of those formative historical figures who talked about 'the spark,' the Spark EV might not be revolutionary in and of itself, but it’s preaching the message in a way we haven’t heard before.