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While reviewing the 2013 Chevy Spark, I drove the 85 miles from San Francisco to Sacramento to test the freeway-worthiness of its little 1.25-liter engine. Driving the 2014 Chevy Spark EV, with its EPA-rated 82-mile range, I couldn't pull off that long of a trip.
As a subcompact, the Spark makes a good package for GM's first pure-electric car since the EV1, and it has the right model name for an electric. However, its performance specs are on par with the majority of current electric vehicles, making it suitable only as an urban or suburban runabout.
Just over 12 feet long, this little car felt surprisingly roomy from the front seats, and it even has a set of rear doors. Finding the handles for those doors might prove troublesome, as the black plastic to the rear of the side window disguises them. Chevy cleverly embeds plastic cup holders between the rear seats, an unsubtle hint that the Spark EV can lug four, not five, well-fed passengers around town.
The oversize headlight casings and the way the beltline dips at the A-pillars might look odd to the average American, but the car is built for a global audience, so Chevy can afford a narrower appeal here. In EV form, the Spark also features a closed grille, with insets borrowing design elements from the Chevy Volt, an aerodynamic underpan, 15-inch aluminum wheels, and low-rolling-resistance tires. Chevy also replaces the analog instrument cluster with an LCD panel, and adds power usage screens to the center LCD.
As I trawled the streets of San Francisco in the Spark EV, two pedestrians asked how I liked it, and one Nissan Leaf owner gave it a long look after he beat me to the last EV charging spot in a parking garage. Considering the public awareness, GM's marketing for the Spark EV must be working.
Spark versus Spark
Replacing the little four-cylinder engine of the standard Spark, a 105-kilowatt electric motor drives the front wheels. It draws power from a 21-kilowatt-hour lithium ion battery pack, of which I could find no intrusion into the cabin space. Although the electric drivetrain adds 600 pounds to the Spark, it didn't feel like a heavier car from behind the wheel, a testament to artful balancing of the weight between front and rear axles.
Notably, the Spark EV is much more powerful than its gasoline-only counterpart. It may be short on range, but where the gasoline Spark's engine makes only 84 horsepower, the Spark EV's motor gives it 140 horsepower. Likewise, torque jumps from a sluggish 83 pound-feet up to a whopping 400 in the Spark EV.
Chevy mounted the charging port on the left front fender, which should be a convenient spot for most parking situations. The Spark is also the first production electric car to get the new SAE J1772 Combo port, which allows both 240-volt AC charging and DC fast charging. The inclusion of that port puts GM in company with BMW and Mercedes-Benz as J1772 Combo supporters, and against Nissan, Toyota, and other supporters of the CHAdeMO DC fast-charging standard.
The competing standards for fast charging illustrate the Wild West nature of electric vehicles and their charging infrastructure. The SAE's Combo standard looks like a more elegant solution, as it merely adds a couple of pins to the existing J1772 port. CHAdeMO has history on its side, and deployment in thousands of Nissan Leafs, but it requires two separate ports on the car.
For the Spark EV, a 240-volt source, or Level 2 charging station, will take the battery from zero to full in about 7 hours. You probably won't be able to find a DC fast-charging station around with the J1772 Combo plug yet, but if you could, it would run the Spark EV's battery from zero to 80 percent in about 20 minutes. Using the car's J1772 adapter cable, 110-volt AC charging takes about 17 hours for a full charge.
Given the car's inexpensive subcompact platform, I wasn't surprised to find the ride a little rough. Pushing the accelerator made the car rush forward with that quiet and smooth inexorable force common to electric cars, but whenever the pavement turned rough, I felt each bump and pothole. A short wheelbase and the relatively small wheels do their part in diminishing the ride quality, and Chevy likely stiffened the suspension tuning to handle the weight of the batteries.
The acceleration feel was very impressive. Chevy rightly boasts about the Spark EV's 400 pound-feet torque specification, which is not far behind the 443 pound-feet produced by the Tesla Model S. Although the zero-to-60 mph time given by Chevy is only 7.2 seconds, the car feels a lot faster. When I maxed the accelerator, the Spark EV spit forward and didn't let up. Unlike a combustion engine, there were no flat spots or dips in the acceleration, making the Spark EV feel a little reckless as its speed increased.
While darting into traffic openings with a sudden burst of acceleration is fun, it had a negative impact on the Spark EV's range. To maximize range, I had to accelerate gently and anticipate stops, getting the most out of the regenerative braking. Unlike the Tesla Model S, Chevy tuned the Spark EV to coast when not under acceleration. Lifting off the accelerator initiated some regeneration, and applying the brake pedal added more. The drive selector also includes a Low setting that increases braking regeneration.
A Sport button sits behind the shifter, but it didn't affect the performance much that I could feel.
I really enjoyed the multiple views available on the Spark EV's LCD instrument cluster. The simplest view showed the car's current range, digital speed readout, and a driving coach. That last piece of graphical information, also used in the Chevy Volt, shows a green ball on a vertical bar, the ends marked Accel and Brake. Heavy acceleration or braking makes the ball leave the center and change color.
I tended to use the more complex, information-heavy view, which instead of the driving coach graphic showed the amount of kilowatts used when accelerating and the kilowatts gained through regeneration when braking or coasting. The car also showed how many kilowatts I had used per mile at the end of each trip, plenty of data to geek out about.
To get a sense of the Spark EV's real-world range, I recorded the results of a couple of trips around San Francisco. For the first trip, I muddled through heavy downtown traffic, took a scenic ride through the Presidio, tested the acceleration out by the beach on the Great Highway, and headed back to the office with a run by Twin Peaks, the city's high point. I had covered 28 miles but only burned up 17 miles of the range I started out with.
The second trip I recorded involved less sight-seeing and more point A-to-point-B driving. This time, I traveled 27 miles but used 33 miles of apparent range. Focused less on efficiency and more on negotiating city traffic, I was employing a heavier foot on the pedal, and the car's detailed instrument cluster information let me know it.
The Spark EV's power steering is electrically boosted, as there is no engine to turn a hydraulic pump. While it feels fairly natural at speed, a whirring electric sound was audible when turning the wheels while stopped.
I had concerns about traction, due to the stock low-rolling-resistance tires. When the car was going downhill on a dry road, the instrument cluster flashed its low-traction light, indicating that traction control had intervened to keep the car steady. Obviously, the Spark EV is no sports car, but I would definitely hesitate to take it out on wet or icy roads.
MyLink is your link
The center touch screen in the Spark EV shows some information about the electric drivetrain, such as a power-flow animation. Those screens are in addition to the basic MyLink infotainment system. This version of MyLink, also found in the Chevy Sonic, is very different from what Chevy puts in other models, such as the Malibu. The design is very modern-looking, beginning with a colorful home screen showing all the menu options.
This version of MyLink ditches the CD player in favor of portable audio sources connecting to the car through its USB port or Bluetooth. Using my iPhone, I could cable it to the car and get a nice music library interface, or just leave it in my pocket and play music over Bluetooth. With a USB drive plugged into the car, the interface also showed a full music library. Satellite radio was also included in the head unit.
Music played through a pretty minimal set of speakers, dual-concentrics at each corner of the dashboard and a set of single speakers on each side of the cargo area, making up a total of six. Hardly robust sound, but it was passable.
Chevy built good app integration into the head unit. Currently, the Spark EV offers Pandora, Stitcher, TuneIn, and BringGo navigation. To use this integration, each app must be installed on your smartphone and connected to the car. Android phones can connect over Bluetooth, but iPhones have to be cabled to the car.
iPhone users will also be able to easily use Siri with the Spark EV. The voice command in the car is pretty minimal on its own, merely controlling the hands-free phone system. But hold down the voice command button for a couple of seconds, and you get routed to Siri.
With my iPhone connected to the car through Bluetooth, I could ask Siri to play specific music stored on my phone, place calls to any of my contacts, and navigate to an address or business. Using navigation, Apple Maps turn-by-turn instructions played over the car's speakers, but there was no visual accompaniment on the car's interface.
For more connectivity, the Spark EV comes with OnStar built in, offering features such as roadside assistance. However, the lack of an onboard navigation system means OnStar's concierge navigation won't work. To support charging and the electric drivetrain, the Onstar Remote Link app lets you turn on the air conditioning or heater remotely, while the car is plugged in and drawing electricity from the grid.
The biggest lack in the Spark EV's cabin electronics was any help in finding public charging stations. It would be useful if, among the existing integrated apps, Chevy added PlugShare, which shows charging station locations and useful notes about each one.
Given the crop of electric vehicles available, the 2014 Chevrolet Spark EV's $27,820 price tag is pretty reasonable, especially if you can use tax incentives to knock the price down closer to $20,000. But it still might seem a lot for such a small car. Factor in reduced fueling costs, which should be approximately 10 percent those of a gasoline-fueled car, and the financial picture begins to tip in the Spark EV's favor.
Beyond price, the Spark EV's range will be a big factor for many buyers. If your commute is less than 30 miles each way and you have a place to charge the car at home, it makes a lot of sense.
The most direct competitors to the Spark EV are the Fiat 500e and the Honda Fit EV, each of the three representing very different styling choices. These three cars are all about the same size and offer similar range; however, I like the driving dynamics and interior practicality of the Fit EV more, and that model comes with navigation.
Still, the differentiation between these electric cars is pretty minimal, but one key feature in the Spark EV's favor is its Siri integration, which will make a lot of iPhone users happy.
|Model||2014 Chevrolet Spark EV|
|Power train||105-kilowatt electric motor, 21 kilowatt-hour lithium ion battery pack|
|EPA fuel economy||128 mpge city/109 mpge highway|
|Observed fuel economy||n/a|
|Bluetooth phone support||Standard|
|Digital audio sources||Pandora, Stitcher, Bluetooth streaming, iPod integration, USB drive, auxiliary input, satellite radio|
|Audio system||Six-speaker system|
|Price as tested||$27,820|