2013 Chevrolet Spark review: Chevy pioneers app-based navigation in the Spark

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."

2013 Chevrolet Spark
One of two speakers bookending the dashboard. Josh Miller/CNET

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.

Manual control
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.

2013 Chevrolet Spark
It is possible to drive with just 84 horsepower, although we in the U.S. aren't used to it. Josh Miller/CNET

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.

2013 Chevrolet Spark
The head unit helps monitor fuel economy performance. Josh Miller/CNET

Low-price leader
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.

Tech specs
Model 2013 Chevrolet Spark
Trim 2LT
Power train 1.25-liter four-cylinder engine, five-speed manual transmission
EPA fuel economy 32 mpg city/38 mpg highway
Observed fuel economy 34.8 mpg
Navigation Optional app-based
Bluetooth phone support Standard with contact list integration
Digital audio sources Pandora, Stitcher, Bluetooth streaming, iPod integration, USB drive, auxiliary input, satellite radio
Audio system Six-speaker system
Driver aids None
Base price $15,085
Price as tested $15,895

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About The Author

Wayne Cunningham reviews cars and writes about automotive technology for CNET. Prior to the Car Tech beat, he covered spyware, Web building technologies, and computer hardware. He began covering technology and the Web in 1994 as an editor of The Net magazine. He's also the author of "Vaporware," a novel that's available as a Nook e-book.