As a city dweller, I appreciate the parkability and maneuverability of small cars, so was predisposed to like the tiny 2013 Chevrolet Spark. This littlest of Chevy models tries to capture the utility of the Honda Fit. Its low price makes it a good entry-level car, and high fuel economy adds to its practicality.
Small cars tend to come with extreme styling, as seen in the retro Fiat 500 and the futuristic Scion iQ. The Spark leans toward the latter, with oversize headlight casings dominating the front end and an interesting dip in the side graphic where it hits the side mirror. Chevy smooths the rear styling by having the exhaust pipe integrated with the rear fascia.
The tiny cargo area expands through folding up the rear seats, a two-stage process that involves lifting the bench, then pushing the back forward. When all is stowed the rear area becomes capacious, suitable for the worldly possessions of the typical college student.
At 32 mpg in the city and 38 mpg highway, fuel economy looks good, but Chevy achieves it the old-fashioned way, by using a very low-power engine. At 1.25 liters, this four-cylinder is laughably small, while 84 horsepower and 83 pound-feet of torque are numbers rarely seen in the U.S. automotive market. By contrast, a high-tech engine like the Ford EcoBoost 1-liter boasts 123 horsepower.
Connected from the start
Although the drivetrain doesn't make much use of modern tech, the infotainment features certainly do. In either 1LT or 2LT trims, the Spark comes with a big, 7-inch touch screen showing a menu with options for digital audio, video, telephone, and apps. That last menu item holds the holy grail of car navigation, complete integration with smartphone-based navigation.
Using an iPhone or Android running the BringGo navigation app, which was not publicly available as of this review, the navigation screens, complete with full touch control, show up on the car's LCD. The smartphone app performs route processing and offers online search for destinations. It receives traffic data from an online source as well, using that to avoid traffic jams.
Under route guidance, the turn instructions showed up in a small inset in a corner of the map, but the app provided good voice prompts. The maps were readable, and displayed in both 2D and perspective views. The app can also download a projected route so it will continue to give guidance when out of cell coverage.
BringGo does not register as a well-known name in U.S. navigation. The app comes from a Korean company, EnGIS Technologies. I would like to see Chevy extend the navigation app integration to some of the more popular navigation apps, such as the ones I cover in this article, "Five free and mostly free iPhone navigation apps."
Other apps available in the Spark were Pandora and Stitcher. With this platform, I assume Chevy will be adding more in the future. I noticed the system could be a little buggy when I tried to activate an app, occasionally popping up a message saying that the phone was already running something. Grabbing the phone and lighting up its screen tended to clear this error. My iPhone had to be cabled to the car, as the Bluetooth connection would not support app integration.
The Pandora integration worked very well, letting me choose from my personal list of stations and give the current song the thumbs-up or thumbs-down. However, I would prefer to see Pandora listed as one of the audio sources instead of being tucked away on the app screen.
In another step toward the future of in-car entertainment, Chevy did not bother with a CD player in the Spark, something I am quite happy to do without. Instead, the Spark offers a USB port for iOS devices and thumbdrives, an auxiliary input, and satellite radio. Bluetooth audio streaming is available with one extreme caveat: you cannot use a hands-free phone connection and streaming from the same device. That restriction is inexplicable, as that sort of simultaneous connection works with just about every other car on the road.
The touch screen makes it easy to select music from devices plugged into the USB port, and had no problem reading an iPhone 5 with its Lightning cable connection. With a USB drive filled with MP3 tracks, the head unit cataloged the music by ID3 tagging, organizing the library screen into album, artist, and song categories.
Strangely, the car's voice command did not let me request music by name, or offer any control over the audio system. Chevy brands this head unit under its MyLink name, and its other models with this system offer that functionality. I believe Chevy is using an essentially different electronics platform for the Spark than it does for other models, and referring to both systems as MyLink. Apparently GM's restructuring did not eliminate bad product-marketing decisions.
This voice command did let me place phone calls by name, using my Bluetooth-paired phone. The phone screen also gave me access to my phone's contact list. The Spark also features OnStar, one of the best telematics systems available, which has its own hands-free phone system and concierge services for navigation and emergency services.
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."