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.