The emerging class of small battery-powered vehicles will never compete on raw sex appeal. But if you believe that cute has its own type of allure, then the Chevrolet Spark EV is worth a look. G.M. designers used modern angular lines, and bright interior colors, to make the Spark stand out from small cutie pie EVs like the Fiat 500, Smart Fortwo, and Mitsubishi i-MiEV. (Still, the Fiat 500 is the only one in the bunch that can remotely be considered sexy.)
What the Spark EV hides behind its adorability is, get this, 400 foot-pounds of torque. You get a little hint of sportiness from the interior’s motorcycle-like gauges.
The Spark nameplate was introduced to U.S. buyers in 2012 as “an affordable five-door urban mini car.” It measures just 144.7 inches long, or about two inches shorter than a Mini Cooper.
The interior of the 2014 Chevrolet Spark is defined by color accents on the dash and door panels. “Electric blue” is the signature color. Liberal use of hard plastic surfaces is counter-balanced by a few textured trim pieces to imbue a sense of class beyond the $12,000 base-level price tag on the gas version—which kicks way up to $27,500 (before incentives) on the EV variant. Color choices include Electric Blue, Black Granite, Summit White, Silver Ice and Titanium.
The Spark EV’s personality profile also gets a dollop of high-tech. The available MyLink touchscreen infotainment system adds sharp graphics, intuitive menus, and (when compatible) smartphone app integration, including Pandora Internet radio, text message translation, voice commands and available navigation.
The Spark EV is available in 1LT and 2LT trims—but not the base-level LS package offered with gas versions of the Spark.
The gas-powered Spark, powered by the company’s smallest 1.2-liter engine, offers merely 85 horsepower. The electric variant bumps performance up the horsepower to 130 ponies.
Electric cars are known for rapid acceleration off the line. But General Motors’s decision to amp up the Chevy Spark EV for high torque—and promote the car’s exceptional axle-twisting power—is the main theme in the car’s marketing and in media reviews.
A G.M. television commercial for the Spark EV said the small car has more torque than a Ferrari 458 Italia supercar. If you’re keeping score, the Spark beats the Ferrari for torque by just two pound-feet—but the message nonetheless resonates. “We’re poised to deliver to the market an EV that’s not just efficient, but also thrilling to drive,” said Pam Fletcher, GM executive chief engineer for electrified vehicles.
Larry Nitz, GM executive director of vehicle electrification engineering, speaking with SlashGear, said, “400 pound-feet of torque is a lot of torque. And that torque is delivered all the way up to about 40 miles per hour, which makes this car light up and accelerate. It’s just good clean fun.” Zero-to-sixty acceleration takes place in less than eight seconds.
It’s not surprising that G.M. is on message, but early drive reviews echo the same sentiment about the car’s fun factor. Slashgear wrote: “The immediacy of the acceleration, the great lashings of torque…and the responsive steering and suspension add up to an eco car that isn’t akin to wearing a hair-shirt in terms of worthy-but-dull driving.”
And the venerable Consumer Reports also heaped on praise. “Turning the diminutive Spark into an EV transforms it into a punchy, zippy, fun little runabout, a far cry from the conventional, slow noisy and stiff Spark that earned a meager overall score in our tests.” CR believes that the Spark EV has great potential beyond the typical EV shopper. “It’s one of the most enjoyable electric cars we've driven and a compelling overall package.”
Efficiency & Range
The diminutive Spark EV earned an E.P.A. rating at 119 MPGe, making it officially the most efficient plug-in car on sale in the United States.
A 20-plus kWh lithium ion battery provides a likely range of 70 to 80 miles. (Official range is 82 miles.) The battery pack is warrantied for eight years or 100,000 miles. It consists of a 560-pound lithium-ion battery pack with a volume of 133 liters, comprising 336 prismatic cells.
Like all other E.P.A. ratings to date however, those for the Spark EV need to be taken with a large dose of metaphorical salt. Despite becoming more realistic over recent years, E.P.A. gas mileage tests still do not replicate nor predict real-world ranges and should not be used for anything other than a rough guide to a car’s true capabilities. This is especially true considering the close margin in very high MPGe numbers among small electric cars.
A lot depends on how you drive: burn through the Spark’s impressive torque and the range will likely drop to 70 miles or less. Take it easy, and you could exceed the EV’s official range of 82 miles per charge.
It’s hard to understand why General Motors decided to use a 3.3-kilowatt onboard charger on the Spark EV—rather than the faster 6.6 kW charger now found in nearly all other EVs. This decision, while not a deal-killer, is a black mark against the Spark EV.
Nissan had used a 3.3-kW charger in earlier model years on the LEAF. But thankfully, Nissan realized that EV drivers, when charging from a 240-volt source, will want to add 20 to 25 miles of a range in an hour. That’s possible with a 6.6-kW charger—but a 3.3-kW unit is a bottleneck that limits added range to only about 10 to 12 miles in an hour.
For most daily driving, that won’t matter much, because charging overnight will produce the same full battery pack (whether it takes four hours or eight hours for a full empty-to-full charge). But in a pinch, when you’re just trying to get home after pushing the limits of range, those extra miles of range can make the difference between getting home in time for dinner, or having to kill an hour or two at a public charger.
Chevy departs from the norm also with its choice of using the SAE Combo DC Fast Charging standard, rather than the CHAdeMo system widely deployed in public chargers throughout the United States. The pissing contest between Japanese automakers and an alliance of American and German manufacturers about these standards, a debate now a couple years old, is too complicated to explain here. But suffice it to say that over time most public quick chargers will need to accommodate both standards. For the next couple of years, it will likely be harder for owners of the Spark and BMW i3 to find compatible quick chargers than what will be experienced by LEAF and Model S owners.
When they are fully deployed, the Spark EV will be able to go from empty to about 80-percent full in 20 to 30 minutes—using one of the SAE Combo DC fast chargers. In reality, very few EV drivers use DC quick charging, except on rare occasions.
As of the end of 2013, availability of the optional DC Fast Charge port—for an estimated additional $1,500 on the higher 2LT trim—was not yet available.
Passenger & Cargo Room
The Spark EV is a sub-compact car. As such, you shouldn’t expect a ton of head- or legroom. Yet, the Spark receives high marks for a generally comfortable cabin with seating that might pleasantly surprise you in terms of available space. Passengers in front sit very upright. Adults in the back will be fine for quick city trips, but are unlikely to be comfortable for long trips.
Many reviewers believe the interior layout is well designed, making the most of the Spark’s limited interior space.
There is 11.4 cubic feet of cargo behind the rear seats. It’s not entirely easy to fold down the rear seats—the seat cushions must be flipped forward and the headrests removed before plopping down the seatbacks—but when accomplished, 31.2 cubic feet of capacity becomes available—more than many competitors in the segment. A roof rack is available in the 2LT trim.
As of January 2014, the Spark EV had not been evaluated by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety or the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. The gas version received very good—but not the top—safety scores. The IIHS gave the gas-powered Spark only an “Acceptable” rating for the new “small overlap front test,” which tries to replicate what happens when the front corner of a car collides with another vehicle, or with an object like a tree, at 40 miles per hour. But on all other IIHS tests, it earned a
“Good” score, its top rating.
NHTSA awarded the gas Spark an overall safety rating of four out of five stars. The agency did not test the electric version of the Spark.
With a base price of $27,500 (plus $810 destination fees), the Chevy Spark EV is one of the most affordable all electric cars on the market—about $1,400 cheaper than the base-model 2013 Nissan Leaf S.
At first blush, Spark EV’s MSRP is a significant premium over the gas powered Spark, which starts at $12,170. There are two things that nearly entirely erase that price premium. The $7,500 federal tax credit lowers the effective MSRP to $20,000. Both California and Oregon—the Spark’s current only markets—have further tax credits.
The Spark EV has two trim levels—1LT and 2LT—which are equivalent to the gas-powered Spark’s trim levels, which go for MSRP $14,995 or MSRP $16,385 respectively. This puts the Spark EV at about a $5,000 price premium over the gas-powered Spark.
The 1LT and 2LT trim levels include the MyLink infotainment system, Bluetooth integration for specified phones, a USB port for charging, a three-month trial of Sirius XM radio, and other high-tech niceties including the ability to install apps into the dashboard.
Thanks to the lower cost of electric fuel, and an EV’s lower maintenance costs, the Spark EV easily pays back its price premium. GM claims a Spark EV owner will save more than $9,000 in fuel costs over five years. Electric cars do not require oil changes or tune-ups, and need fewer brake pad replacements.
Fast charging speed makes an electric car more useful. The 3.3-kilowatt Level 2 charging rate on the Spark EV is disappointing, but it does support DC fast charging. That feature comes with the 2LT trim level, which is offered at a $325 premium over the 1LT trim level. By comparison, the Nissan LEAF’s fast charging support (CHAdeMO) carries a $1,500 premium. Unfortunately the Spark EV’s fast charging support won’t be very valuable until there is a significant number of SAE Combo-style fast charging stations in the public. (CHAdeMO stations are much more common.)
The Chevy website indicates that Spark EV lease starts at $199 a month for a 36-month deal—with $1,239 due at signing. There’s a mileage charge of $0.25 a mile, after hitting 36,000 miles. In California, where a direct-to-buyer $2,500 state rebate is available, the first year of payments are essentially covered by the state.
Comparisons of Similar Cars
They are all within a few thousand dollars of one another—with lease deals coming in even closer. The driving dynamics and range of the Smart and Mitsubishi generally get lower scores than the other two—with the Spark EV earning the greatest respect from reviewers who were surprised by just how much power the small EV delivers.
In the looks department, the 500e is the winner. It’s as cute as a bug. The Smart ED is the only one of the bunch that is available as a convertible. The Honda Fit EV is relatively more affordable and only available as a lease—reflecting Honda’s lack of commitment to electric cars.
The combination of low purchase price, high torque, and body-colored dashboard give the Spark EV an edge in the youthful market that G.M. targeted for the car.
The Chevrolet Spark EV is only available in California and Oregon. And in those states, some dealers are having difficulty keeping them in stock. Approximately 500 units are selling every month.
Interested buyers should contact their local Chevrolet dealerships to inquire about availability, or the need to place advanced orders based on trim and option packages that can be found on the Chevy website.