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Chevy city car offers lots of space at a temptingly low price, but the supermini segment is filled with similarly affordable rivals that make for tough competition

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In the UK, the Chevrolet Spark’s predecessors were known as Daewoos. The Korean firm’s city car, the Matiz, was added to its range in 1998 and as well as being famous for its low no-haggle price and generous spec, one rolled during a reversing manoeuvre during an Autocar road test photo shoot. A heavily revised Matiz appeared in 2005 and, along the way, the Daewoo name was dropped for the supposedly more exciting Chevrolet brand, although its products didn’t get significantly more interesting.

A change of name and a change in ambition came with Chevrolet’s new city car. The Spark replaced the Matiz, the only Chevrolet (nee Daewoo) model to make significant sales headway in the UK. To go with its new platform, the new name matched one its predecessor had in other markets already and, like the outgoing model, the Spark is sold not just in Europe, but also in Asia, Australia and America, badged variously as a Chevrolet and a Holden.

Prices rise to a level that puts the Spark up against more competent superminis

The new Spark, is both bigger overall than the Matiz it replaced and has 1.0 and 1.2-litre engines that are more in line with other cars in the city car class. Prices start in the bargain basement, especially when generous (for a small, cheap car) discounts are taken into account, but rise to a level that competes with more competent superminis. And once you get past the entry-level car, equipment levels are equally tempting.

Like all Chevrolets, the Spark comes with a five year warranty and servicing package.

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DESIGN & STYLING

Chevrolet Spark headlight

As a precursor to the Chevrolet Spark, Chevrolet unveiled three very differently styled city car concepts at the 2007 New York motor show – the Trax, the Beat and the Groove concepts –and opened an internet vote to the public to pick the one that should become its next city car. The Beat was the clear winner and that’s what has become, of a fashion, the Spark. It’s a busily styled car but fairly loyal, in this case right down to the signature colour, to the concept itself. 

Compromises to the design have been brought about principally by the productionising of the lights (the final car’s are much bigger), by frontal impact legislation (the nose is far more rounded) and by the addition of rear doors. All of which leave the production car with a far less aggressive, sporting stance.

Chevrolet says it didn’t want the Spark to look cute and cuddly, hoping the large grille and badge will give the Spark a more confident look. We're not sure it works

Stretching from the front bumper all the way back to the base of the A-pillars, the massive front light clusters must be, proportional to the overall length of the car, the largest of any car on sale. 

Chevrolet says it didn’t want the Spark to look cute and cuddly, instead hoping that the large grille and oversized badge will give the Spark a more confident look. Curious ridges in the bonnet above the headlamps look a little like eyebrows; they make the Spark look distinctive (and slightly angry) in your rear-view mirror.

The integrated exhaust in the rear bumper is a neat feature. But like many such systems, this is a styling conceit; the actual exhaust (which is much smaller) can be seen within. 

Chevrolet say that by integrating the rear door handles into the C-pillars, it has achieved the sporty looks of a three-door with the convenience of a five-door. We are not so sure that anyone will be convinced.

INTERIOR

Chevrolet Spark interior

The most obvious benefit of the Chevrolet Spark being such a large city car is that it offers a surprising amount of interior room. Front seat occupants will want for neither leg nor head room, while rear seat passengers are also served well. There is even ostensibly space for three back there but, because the Spark is not a great deal wider than most city cars, it is a squeeze for three abreast. The passenger compartment is where most of the room has gone, though, because while the boot’s 170-litre volume (with rear seats in place) is decent enough and comfortably exceeds what you’d fit in a Toyota Aygo, the Hyundai i10 manages 225 litres. 

The Spark’s comparatively lengthy wheelbase and high roofline do at least mean it can swallow 568 litres with the rear seats folded, and here access and shape are more important than outright capacity. The Hyundai i10’s rear hatch offers easier access but the two are broadly comparable.

My left knee rested uncomfortably against the edge of the dash. Not great for long trips.

Where the Spark stands out from nearly all of its competitors is in the extrovert design of its interior, with a prominent and neatly designed centre stack, bold sweeps either side and what is supposed to be a sports motorcycle-inspired instrument binnacle behind the pleasingly shaped steering wheel. Were the materials used for this not akin to those you’d have found on a shop’s own-brand stereo of the mid-1980s, this would be more successful. 

Elsewhere, material choice is acceptable, but what is not are some peculiar ergonomic decisions. There is no external boot handle (the key must be used) and the rear foglight is operated by rotating the end of the windscreen wiper stalk. Conversely, the optional front fogs are operated via an additional rotary switch on the indicator/headlight stalk.

ENGINES & PERFORMANCE

Chevrolet Spark

MIRA’s mile straight was damp when we tested the Chevrolet Spark, which goes some way to explaining why our recorded performance figures in the 1.2 petrol fall short of Chevrolet’s claims (0-60mph in 12.4sec vs 12.1sec for 0-62mph). But it doesn’t excuse the Spark entirely because, unusually, Chevrolet also quotes in-gear times, which suggest the Spark needs 21.1sec to cover the 40-100km/h (25-62mph) increment in fourth gear. Our Spark needed 24.2sec.

However, even though it may not be quite as quick as Chevrolet claims, the Spark is just about quick enough, at least in 1.2-litre form. 

The four-cylinder engine is both loud and coarse, damaging overall refinement

The Spark is, of course, happier in town, where it is sprightly enough to keep up with the cut and thrust, but again it needs revs to deliver its best. And this is its biggest downfall because the four-cylinder engine is both loud and coarse, damaging overall refinement. How coarse? Let’s put it this way: when we first drove off in the Spark, we stopped and checked under the bonnet because we wondered if Chevrolet had supplied us with a three-cylinder variant by mistake.

As for that 1.0-litre engine, it too suffers from being rather too vocal, but it’s biggest problem is a shortage of power. Chevrolet quotes a 0-62mph time of 15.5secs, which tells its own story. Even so, in this city biased car we'd suggest that is has just enough power and torque to be adequate.

If you can live with the volume, the Spark is at least, in both engine guises, undemanding to keep on the boil. The gearchange, although light and long in throw, moves positively and smoothly around the gate.

Similarly, the well judged brake modulation makes the Spark easy to drive in traffic. A combination of small ventilated front discs and rear drums is to be expected at this end of the market, and in our tests proved capable of stopping the Spark from 70mph in less than 50m, better than the class average. 

RIDE & HANDLING

Chevrolet Spark cornering

In the way it turns and rides, the Chevrolet Spark feels distinctly old-fashioned. For starters, the steering is hydraulic – unusual for a new city car. While this denies the Spark the economical benefits of an electric set-up, it does give a more natural feel and weight to the steering.

The Spark also turns with more body roll than we’ve come to expect of small cars, and even the top-spec LT version goes without standard traction control and ESP. It is possible to add these as options, though.

It's quite refreshing to find a modern small hatchback that handles as honestly as the Spark

Turn for a corner and there is a noticeable process of the car settling on its springs, which can give the impression that the Spark has less grip and agility than it actually does. Instead, you need to live with the roll rate and trust that the front end will bite, which to a point it will. However, that point is not so high as to be impossible to exceed on the road, after which the Spark displays further retro traits. 

As a result, the process of driving the Spark is more involving than in some rivals, which in a way is not without its appeal. Especially when, as a consequence of the soft set-up, the Spark rides relatively well.  

In town and at low speeds it deals with even quite severe potholes comfortably. But there isn’t a great deal of sophistication to the suspension, meaning it copes less well with more challenging compound bumps or expansion joints taken at speed.  

In other respects the Spark makes for a good, if basic, city car with manageable weight to the steering and a turning circle of less than 10 metres. It is also not entirely out of its depth on the motorway, where it displays enough straight-line stability to provide confidence. 

MPG & RUNNING COSTS

Chevrolet Spark

The Spark’s entry-level headline price figure is certainly attractive and surprisingly for a car that costs so little, discounts from Chevrolet can be upwards of five percent. However, we would advise anyone to look beyond the low sticker price because the basic car’s appeal quickly dims. It’s not unusual for entry models to be poorly equipped, but rarely does that extend to a non-adjustable steering wheel. For it to have no stereo is virtually unheard of.

To get a Spark that affords you more than just the pleasure of your own company, the next model up is the 1.0 Spark+, which a Hyundai i10 both outpowers and undercuts. At least +, LS, LS+ and LT models come with air conditioning (the latter upgrading to climate control) although alloys are only fitted to the two top 1.2-litre models.

Both 1.0- and 1.2-litre models have the same economy figures

However, by the time you’ve reached that 1.2-litre engine (although we’re far from convinced that’s a step worth taking) and the LT trim level, Chevrolet will have taken supermini-sized cash off your hands. The same sort of money will buy you a Mazda 2 and, although the Spark LT is relatively well equipped, the Mazda 2 is perfectly sufficient and a vastly better car.

Insurance groups are low, though – the entry-level car comes in at insurance group 1, but then there’s no stereo inside to tempt thieves. Of course, if you do opt for that car and fit your own stereo, you’ll have to tell your insurance company that the car has been modified, bumping up your premiums accordingly.

Both 1.0- and 1.2-litre models have the same economy figures.

Sparks will be bought mostly by private buyers, as are its rivals, so it holds no great residual value advantage and other running costs are par for the course, too.

VERDICT

2 star Chevrolet Spark

The Chevrolet Spark isn’t a car without merit. To its credit, it offers more interior space than many of its rivals, it has a distinctive, some may even say stylish, look and it’s not unappealing to drive. But, welcome as these attributes are, they are neither sufficiently far ahead of the Spark’s rivals, nor core enough to its purpose, to make us overlook its deficiencies elsewhere.

Of those, the Spark has its share. Its capable dynamics are undermined by the crudeness of an engine that makes a mockery of upgrading to the 1.2, and its space is at odds with the poorness of some cabin materials. If you stick with the 1.0-litre car, you’ll be saddled with a car that sounds equally crude on the move, but performance is such that moving sometimes feels like a struggle.

The Spark falls short of what we expect from a new car

Laughably, the temptingly-priced (especially with a decent discount) entry-level model doesn’t even come with a stereo, let alone air conditioning – no wonder it gets into insurance group one. Then there’s the quality of the interior – it might look okay, but you could be forgiven for thinking it had been put together from an Airfix kit.

Four years ago the Spark would have been competitive, but cars like the Hyundai i10 and Kia Picanto have arrived since and moved things on considerably – they both offer style, a decent drive, a nice smattering of equipment plus low prices and cheap running costs. 

At a miserly price the Spark might overcome those odds, but as it is, the Spark falls short of what we expect from a new car.

Chevrolet Spark 2010-2015 First drives