In Vegas: How Bright the Chevy Spark?
I’m on the General Motors stand with an electric Chevy Spark and Paul Pebbles, whose full title is global manager, OnStar electric vehicle and smart grid services. The Spark is here at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas because GM wants people to know what a connected car it is—the company is announcing Waypoint, a new app that will tell EV owners if they can make it to an announced destination. If not, it will plot a route that takes in some available charging stations.
Waypoint would be useful if you owned a Spark, but will you—with a price of $32,000 before the federal rebate—own a Spark? The car is very small, and has an unofficial range of approximately 90 miles. I sat in it and found it tight.
The dash showed off another reason this car is at CES—not only is there the latest GM infotainment system often seen in higher-end vehicles, but there’s some useful electric drive data, too. With the remaining battery charge in mind, the Spark will tell you that you have 32 miles of range left—but 27 if you drive like an idiot or 40 if you’re very conservative.
GM’s Rebecca Roth also told me that GM has partnered with utilities (including Detroit-area DTE) to enable Spark owners to automatically charge during the best time-of-use rates, which may vary. More utilities need to offer such rates to optimize a system like that.
GM Says It's The Real Deal
The Spark is very under-the-radar right now, and it will have to stack up against other battery offerings, including the Scion iQ, Honda Fit EV and Fiat 500. But since EVs are still thin on the ground it’s also up the Nissan LEAF, which in Detroit next week will announce a new stripped-down version at a reduced price.
If GM is building the Spark only to satisfy California regulators (as, arguably, Toyota, Honda and Chrysler are), it may not care if you buy one or not. Is it a compliance car, then? “It’s not a compliance car,” said Pebbles. “We’re planning a global launch of this vehicle—it will be in a lot of markets.” But Pebbles also said that GM isn’t yet talking volumes or specific American markets where the car will roll out next summer. Here's the Spark on video, from the CES floor:
Before the Spark appears in showrooms in six months or so, GM will probably take some steps to enhance the offering—great charger options, more apps, a very attractive lease price, discounts at the dealer level. Of course, if the Spark is a compliance car it can just, none of these things have to happen.
First EV with Combo Cord
A lot of question marks still surround the Spark, then, maybe more than should exist for a car this close to launch. One point of distinction, however, is that the Spark appears to be the first American market vehicle with the recently approved (by the Society of Automotive Engineers) “combo” plug that allows all three levels of charging. It incorporates both J1772 Level 2 and a new Level 3 standard for 480-volt fast charging. Pebbles told me the first Level 3 chargers using that standard will be opening “within days.”
Just around the corner from GM’s booth was DBT USA, which is the American arm of a well-established French charging company. On the stand was a new Level 3 charger that offers two wands—one compliant with the Japanese CHAdeMO standard and the other with the new American combo plug. Bruno Armand, business development manager for DBT, told me that the charger is a prototype that could be on European markets in the second half of the year, and maybe the U.S., too.
“The idea is to be as flexible as possible,” Armand told me. “If customers want this type of charger, we will be ready.”
I was struck again by how heavy the combo plug is—at least twice that of a standard J1772 Level 2 unit (but a bit smaller than the CHAdeMO Quick Charge Plug). It makes Tesla’s decision to go it alone with a much slimmer and lighter design look a little less crazy.
The Spark has a big price, a small size, some nice electronics, and, well, a lot of remaining questions.
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