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Saturday, March 10, 2018

2018 Chevrolet Spark Review

2018 Chevrolet Spark Review
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The 2018 Chevrolet Spark is a better minicar than competitors, but a larger subcompact or compact simply offers more—at a price that’s likely close.

The 2018 Chevrolet Spark hatchback is the smallest Chevy on the North American market, and it’s become something of a forgotten model. The five-door minicar is a family car in developing countries, but in the States, its fuel efficiency and easy parking lack appeal in an age of cheap gasoline and surging sales of utility vehicles. The Spark is sold in three trim levels: the base LS, the mid-range 1LT, and the top 2LT. A Spark Activ adds body cladding, a few interior amenities, and body cladding. It’s offered with a manual or automatic transmission.


We rate the 2018 Spark at 5.2 out of 10 points. It’s small, easy to park, has a good touchscreen infotainment interface with big-car features like a wi-fi hotspot, and offers optional active-safety features rare in the segment. On the other hand, its minimal performance, back-to-basics interior, and fuel economy that’s far lower than any hybrid on the market may well disappoint shoppers who assume it’ll be similar to a compact car two classes up.

First offered in 2013 in the wake of GM’s bankruptcy, the little Spark sold better than Chevrolet expected at first—enough to convince it to bring in a second-generation Spark for the 2016 model year. The current Spark looks more grown-up, but it’s still small even against the Sonic subcompact hatchback, let alone the compact Cruze hatchback. And its sales have stagnated as gas has stayed cheap.

It’s also slow, and it lacks some of the fun-to-drive feeling of the Sonic that sits above it in Chevy’s model lineup. It’s a minimal car, enough to get you around under most circumstances, but these days, American buyers aren’t looking for minimalism when they shop for new cars.

The main competitor to the Chevy Spark is the Mitsubishi Mirage, now offered as the original hatchback and, recently, as a sedan too. The challenge is that for $10 or $20 a month more, or a couple of thousand dollars up front, discounted subcompact and even compact entries are crowding out the Spark’s niche. They offer more space, better performance, fuel economy that’s effectively equal, and more options, from infotainment to advanced active-safety features.

Styling
The 2018 Chevy Spark makes the most of its small size, and no longer looks toylike—just minimal—inside or out.

The 2018 Chevrolet Spark is a five-door hatchback minicar, but it’s considerably less toy-like than the first-generation Spark. We give it 5 out of 10 possible points for design and styling, which is average for a new car. 

The Spark now has a more substantial snub nose, and sheet metal that adds a bit of flair—a very small bit—to the boxy upright form. Its small wheels are pushed to the very corners of the car, and elliptical headlights wrap around the front corners most of the way back to the windshield. A horizontal bar divides the grille, and its undeniable slab sides are visually broken up by accent lines. Even the taillight lenses stand slightly proud of the body, indicated that the designers did the best they could inside a very restrictive envelope.

The Spark dashboard has a traditional instrument cluster, holding either a dot-matrix or small-screen display between conventional gauges. The center stack is focused around the standard 7.0-inch touchscreen holding the MyLink icon-based infotainment system—another large-car detail that distracts from the small size. That said, the interior plastics are largely black and largely hard, to be expected in a car this small, one that’s half as expensive as the average new car today.

Performance
The 2018 Chevy Spark strikes the usual tiny-car balance between comfort and handling, but it’s just darn slow.

The 2018 Chevrolet Spark has the smallest engine Chevy offers in any vehicle it sells in North America, and its performance is commensurate. Very small cars are often most rewarding when driven hard, but doing so in a Spark will only keep up with traffic—barely. We rate the Spark at 3 points out of 10 for performance, docking it one point for simply being slow, and another for ride quality that’s below average.

Granted, most minicar buyers aren’t expecting high performance. But the Spark’s 98-horsepower, 1.4-liter inline-4 engine has a small car filled with North American-spec safety gear (10 airbags!) to haul around. Gas mileage is identical at 33 mpg combined whether you pick the 5-speed manual gearbox or the optional continuously variable transmission (CVT), both of which power the front wheels. The manual is more fun to drive enthusiastically, though.

Flogging the Spark will be required to keep up with fast suburban traffic, let alone on highways. If you drive a Spark as you would a compact or mid-size car, you’ll grind your teeth as traffic whizzes past you on all sides. Use every last horse under the hood, and with practice, you’ll learn how to be an urban warrior—and how to keep up with traffic.

The CVT produces the predictable howl under maximum power, but it can be frustrating to drive when there’s more noise from under the hood than forward motion along the road. Whether it’s suddenly flooring the accelerator or moving away from a standing stop, there’s just not much power there.

The Spark’s springs are soft enough to give it a passable ride on lousy roads, but it can still be bouncy and the small wheels crash through larger potholes in a way that larger cars simply don’t. On the other hand, the suspension is responsive enough to keep the drive engaging. It’s far from a Volkswagen GTI hot hatch, but the compromise between handling and comfort is what you might expect from a car this size. Parking, of course, is its forte. It’s bested only by the Smart ForTwo, but the little Spark pulls off the unusual trick of making a Mini Cooper seem large when squeezing into the shortest spaces.

Comfort & Quality
The 2018 Chevy Spark will hold four adults, and its interior isn’t quite as bare-bones as you might think.

The 2018 Chevrolet Spark is the smallest Chevy you can buy, and that factors into its comfort rating. Remarkably, its high roof and long cabin will accommodate four adults passably. That’s its full rated capacity, by the way: Chevy hasn’t even tried to claim it’s a five-seater. For that reason, we rate the Spark at 5 out 10 points for comfort and quality.

Those in front will be comfortable, if close together, in seats that are just large enough to suit. They’re hardly German luxury seats, but we found them supportive and comfortable—better, in fact, than not only seats in small Nissans but also even the thinner seats in the much pricier Chevy Bolt EV electric car. Those in the rear may be surprised that they fit at all, but they’ll have plenty of head room (again, close together), even if they have to bargain for a bit of leg room with those up front. Compared to the earlier generation of Sparks, the 2018 model has front seats mounted slightly lower, meaning occupants sit in them rather than on them.

The interior quality is far from that of a grim ‘80s econocar, though it’s undeniably basic. Seat fabrics, cushion foam, and the grained plastic surfaces could easily suit a base-model car two sizes larger, and the central touchscreen adds to the impression.

The tiny cargo bay will hold soft luggage, though not any kind of hard-shell suitcase. Our biggest problem in a hot, humid summer test drive of a Spark, in fact, was air conditioning that only barely kept up with cooling duties for a single driver on its coldest setting and highest fan speed when all the vents were pointed toward that one seat. We worry that it simply wouldn’t be effective for four people traveling under the same circumstances.

Safety
The 2018 Chevy Spark hasn’t been fully rated for crash safety by the IIHS or NHTSA, but its optional active-safety equipment is unusual in minicars.

The 2018 Chevrolet Spark hasn’t been rated for crash safety at all by the NHTSA, and only partial ratings are available from the IIHS. For that reason, it gets no safety rating from us.

The IIHS gives the little Spark its top rating of “Good” in two categories: moderate-overlap front crash safety, and side impact. It gets the next-lowest “Acceptable” rating for ease of use of the child-seat anchors, but its headlight quality hasn’t been rated. It’s worth noting the first-generation Spark did well in its IIHS testing, becoming one of few small cars to earn the coveted IIHS Top Safety Pick award.

Unlike competitors in the minicar segment, the 2018 Spark offers a whopping 10 airbags as standard equipment, along with a rearview camera and rear parking sensors. The top 2LT trim level offers an optional suite of modern electronic active-safety features, including forward-collision warnings (though not automatic emergency braking), lane-departure warnings, and blind-spot monitors.

Features
The 2018 Chevy Spark offers most of the features of larger small cars, but its touchscreen interface is found in no other cars of its size.

The 2018 Chevrolet Spark is a fairly no-frills car. It comes well equipped in its segment, but it’ll still feel sparse to someone who’s shopped the latest mid-size sedans or compact crossovers. We rate the 2018 Spark at 5 out of 10 points for its features, adding one point for the generous touchscreen but removing one for its feature-less base model.

The MyLink touchscreen infotainment interface, based on icons that you can swipe just as you do on a tablet, is standard in every Spark. So is air conditioning, OnStar with 4G LTE connectivity, a built-in hotspot for wi-fi, and Bluetooth connectivity. Before discounting, a base Spark LS starts at $14,000 or less with the 5-speed manual gearbox. Adding the CVT, however—most buyers likely will—boosts the price by a hefty $1,100.

The mid-range Spark 1LT adds those missing power locks and windows, audio controls in the steering wheel, cruise control, SiriusXM satellite radio, a theft-deterrence system, and a keyless entry system. At the top of the line, a Spark 2LT adds an enhanced digital display between the gauges for driver information, leather wrapping on the steering wheel, a bit of exterior chrome trim, and rear park assist. Optional electronic active-safety features are available only with the top 2LT trim, though a power sunroof can be ordered with either LT trim.

Finally, there’s a “Spark Activ” package that gives the little car the appearance of a utility vehicle, if none of the functionality. The ride height is 0.4 inch higher, contrasting body cladding rings the lower edges of the car, and the Activ gets roof rails, 15-inch wheels, fog lights, and its own grille design. Mechanically, though, it’s unchanged.

Fuel Economy
The 2018 Chevy Spark’s 33-mpg combined EPA rating is good for cars overall, but far from the efficiency of much larger and more comfortable hybrid models.

Seeing a car as small as the 2018 Chevrolet Spark, some people assume it must get remarkable gas mileage: 40 or 50 mpg, perhaps, like a hybrid. It doesn’t.

Regardless of powertrain, the 2018 Chevy Spark's combined EPA rating is 33 mpg. That gives it 8 out of 10 possible points on our green scale, which is still higher than the vast majority of vehicles sold.

Specifically, the Spark with the continuously variable transmission is rated at 30 mpg city, 38 highway, 33 combined, while the 5-speed manual gearbox comes in at 29/39/33 mpg. (Peculiarly, the manual Spark is 1 mpg higher this year on the highway than last year.)

The EPA rates the 2018 Spark as having only 297 miles of range on a full gas tank, which is lower than many other cars that are only slightly larger. Should you be one of the rare buyers who intends to take long road trips in a Spark, plan accordingly.

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