Expert Reviews

First Drive: 2016 Chevrolet Spark

The headlines: a) the 2016 Chevrolet Spark is aggressively here for millennials b) For the money, the Spark is hard to beat. (Ask Nissan.) c) GM has done its homework. But first:

A millennial’s first-car checklist is likely different from yours.

Q: “How many hipsters does it take to screw in a light bulb?”
A (delivered in a gently patronizing tone): “It’s a really obscure number; you’ve probably never heard of it.”

More than a quick solution to an inexorable word count, that knee-slapper paints you a picture of GM’s target buyer: expectant, demanding and painfully individual. She has two post-secondary degrees papering her bathroom wall but has never used a dial phone. He took tango lessons in Buenos Aires and cast his late cat’s ashes to the winds during a Reykjavik winter solstice but waited till he was 28 to get his driver’s license.

Most important, she is actively disinterested in cars, deeply embedded in the sharing economy and used to getting things free. If you want him to cough up money from his first job with benefits (a phrase he delivers deadpan) you’d better pack your offering full of value.

(An aside: I was fortunate enough to have a millennial with me during the drive portion of the launch event but he didn’t fit any of the stereotypes portrayed here. So this is the last we’ll hear of him today, now that you know he’s the other half of ‘we’ in this article, and the use of the first person plural isn’t some hipster’s post-modern ironic take on entitled royals’ speech. Now back to your regularly scheduled unfair lampooning of this target market with extra love shone on that target aspect.)

Meet the 2016 Spark: a car designed for urbanites who don’t care about cars.

A millennial’s first-car checklist is likely different from yours. Let’s review it:

___ Does the car work? When you’re young and bearded, performance matters little beyond getting from A to B.
___ If it breaks down, is there a backup plan beyond asking Siri what to do next? In the sharing economy, someone else is always there to do stuff you’re not good at. (“Thanks, mom!”)
___ Speaking of which, does the car accommodate or, better still, enhance my portable technology?
___ Is it cute and friendly looking?
___ And most important but less overtly stated, is it cheap? Student debts are this generation’s mortgages.

Chevrolet Canada ticked all those boxes.

Coming in under $10k for the base model LS (pre-tax and freight) and the top-end 2LT, completely decked out with tux ’n’ tails, for under $20k; more details follow below after lots of ironically obscure Schopenhauer references, but suffice it to say that base model is packed with what George Harrison (“my ma’s a fan and I like those early ‘80s electronica B-sides that sound like an Atari Pong skirmish on Ritalin”) would call “fab gear”.

  • 4G LTE with Wifi – yes, the car is a wireless hotspot. Starbucks should send GM a fruit basket for denuding millions of their tables of hipsters
  • MyLink Radio with 7” colour touchscreen – yes, a touchscreen in the base model; this customer expects it all
  • Rear Vision camera – WTF, as the kids text?! Though usually expensive, rearview cameras are less status symbol in the city than insurance policy against excessive scratching
  • Apple Car Play / Android Auto – don’t worry, the target audience knows what that means.

Wow, all that! If we had a cartoon font on this website we could use the phrase “chock full of” and a killer sound effect. Meanwhile, remember the first rule of war: Some people get rich. Chevy and Nissan are in a pissing match over this segment, both manufacturers wanting to claim the lowest-priced new car in Canada. Chevy launched the first salvo in January this year, dropping the Spark’s base price quite deeply to $3 less than the Micra.

Which, to be honest, really is a bit of a poke in the eye. Imagine the boardroom meetings. Nissan soon responded by dropping their price to $7 less than Chevy’s.

Obviously, neither company’s making much money. Chevy wisely stopped there, choosing to explore the angle of what you get for $7. So, yes. Those four bullets above are not included in the Micra, but come in the Spark for $7 more. The big brands do battle and consumers win.

Remember, that absolute basement base price for the Spark LS trim is $9,995. It turns your car into a hotspot but does not include AC or automatic transmission, neither of which need be a problem for the target customer. The former conveniently becomes a talking point for saving the polar bears; and once you get your European friend’s dad to teach you how to drive a manual transmission — “stick is sick” — you’re all set to find your own road.

But what about the other questions on that checklist?

1) The Spark works just fine. The noise of that neat little 1.4-litre four-banger engine wrenching out a wondrous 98 hp is easily stifled by the MyLink Radio with its four speakers. According to Chevy’s PR, the engine’s also 16 percent more powerful than the previous generation. It’s lighter too, which helps with fuel efficiency and the peppiness of the driving. Sure, the cheap cloth seats will soak up whatever scent you exude but this target has a notoriously short attention span. Many will choose to lease for a couple of years, then turn it over for another car.

2) If it breaks, there’s five years of the OnStar Basics package with RemoteLink. Furthermore, part of the app you download also forwards helpful motoring tips. It tells you when to inflate tires (an ecological talking point but economical thinking point), when to come in for an oil change, etc.

3) It is huggably cute. By now the gearheads will have left the room in disgust to cook a steak on a hot cylinder block — but this actually matters. The rapidly emerging segment of low-budget mini city cars is not the cheap shitboxes of the past.

Consider the Fiat 500, Smart ForTwo, even Mini Cooper and of course Nissan Micra. They’re all meant to be looked at — and they’d be happy to invite the Spark to their girls’ nights out, if only to get drinks at first.

Outside and in, the Spark is not unattractive. While the plastic design elements don’t holler quality, they do have genuine design thoughtfully planned into them. An owner won’t get the feeling they’re being punished for being on a budget.

True, you can’t fit much fab gear into them — the rather flimsy back seats fold awkwardly ¾ down resentfully proffering a meagre 27.2 cubic feet — but, hey, you can always rent a cube van to transport your vinyl collection on that golden day you finally move into your skyline-view condo.

Driving it was irony-free city fun

Like the target, I’m a chronic urbanite (albeit old and miserable) and love small cars. For the budget, the Spark drives really well. The 1LT trim that we drove houses a continuously variable transmission, which the target market won’t care about beyond knowing it doesn’t require shifting and maybe something about improved fuel efficiency. The ratings for our tester’s engine are 7.6 city, 5.7 highway, and 6.7 combined. The one time we did check our fuel efficiency it read 7.2, which is quite good for that particular day. It was largely aggressive city tootling with a small mix of highway.

The Spark launch event included a head-to-head drive comparison with a new Nissan Micra and the opportunity to sit in a used (a buyer’s only other option at this price range) Toyota Yaris that smelled like a cat box.

The Micra was good fun to drive with steering similar to the Spark, slightly loose but good when you push it into the corners — and both cars handled well in the rainy Toronto Beach parking lot.

Our drive was all megalopolis, deep city with some inner suburbs, where the narrowness of the Spark is an advantage. The final zip back to the temporary Spark HQ was a like dream, weaving and deking between garbage trucks and laggard pedestrians crossing the street, mole-like, hurrying back to that depressing retail Wonderland that is the Smoke’s underground PATH.

A bit more about the (easy) target market

Montreal makes up 19% of this segment’s buyers in Canada. That seems remarkable at first, but remember Montreal has four universities in the centre of town — no wonder you have so much more fun there than anywhere else in Canada. It’s easy to envision gaggles of skinny stovepipe-pantlegged Plateau dwellers with Victorian strong man beards and Heisenberg hats funding driving lessons for their indie band’s one friend (with or without benefits) who’s given up Pabst Blue Ribbon and artisanal gin as a physical version of going off the grid. (“I will not ingest your soma, bitches.”)

In the war for this market, it appears this millennial consumer wins. The Spark is excellent value but GM Canada must be on a very tight profit margin, what with the Canadian rupee continuing to plunge like a bathysphere exploring the Mariana Trench (not to be confused with these millennials). That’s why we’ll close today’s demographics and economics lesson with the following.

Suggested Spark upgrades for GM to realize a profit from millennials:

For the front:

  • a $40k Italian espresso machine
  • a turntable–cum–tape deck (“The ghost of David Bowie’s lawyer is reissuing The Man Who Sold the World on vinyl — arguably the thin white duke’s sickest disc.”)
  • a guitar stand
  • totally unsafe antlers that double as a hat rack for Montreal Canadiens toques
  • a ukulele stand
  • fitted bed sheets for the seats with faded Star Wars or Six Million Dollar Man branding

For the back:

  • a pop-up shisha bar
  • 60/40 split lounge furniture
  • a 5-pin bowling alley with strobe lights
  • fitted bongos for cup the holders
  • and something totally ironic that, like, nobody else ever thought of

Pricing: 2016 Chevrolet Spark
LS: Starting at $ 9,995
LS CVT: Starting at $13,895
1LT: Starting at $14,195
2LT: Starting at $18,195
Freight charge: $1,600

Base Price (1LT CVT): $15,295
Freight: $1,600
A/C tax: $100
Price as Driven: $16,995