You never get something for nothing. That includes automobiles, where manufacturers must add mandated safety features, and meet ever-evolving fuel and emissions standards. All of that’s good stuff, but it also increases the price, and some automakers are leaving the bargain-car market as a result.
Among those still in the game is the 2020 Chevrolet Spark, a little hatchback that’s a lot better than expected. Available with a stick-shift or automatic continuously variable transmission (CVT), it begins in LS trim, starting at $9,998. I had the next-step-up 1LT with manual transmission for $14,698; finally, the lineup tops out at $19,098. My car was optioned with a Sport Edition appearance package, all-weather floor and cargo mats, sill plates, and wheel locks, bringing it to $16,088 before freight and taxes.
The Spark looks good, with design cues that make it look better than its price. The face sports Chevrolet’s signature grille, while the rear features large taillights and an acceptable liftover height when the tailgate is open. My car had a coat of Summit White paint, but there are some fun-and-funky colours available, including orange, red, blue, and raspberry.
A body crease bisects the front door handles, but the rear handles are vertical and hidden in the window bezel. It looks neat and tidy, but I find them awkward compared to conventional handles. Smaller children have to stand close to reach up to them, and the door might smack them in the face as they pull it open.
The Spark earns the top Good rating for frontal overlap and side crashes from the United States-based Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), but only four out of five stars overall from the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). All trim levels include the rearview camera required on all new vehicles, along with a tire pressure monitoring system, and driver and passenger knee airbags. If the car’s for a new driver, you’ll want to ante up for the top-trim 2LT, which exclusively includes emergency front braking, lane-departure warning, and rear parking sensors.
On the subject of safety, I want to rant about all GM products, including the Spark. Hit the key fob’s unlock button, and all the lights flash – including the reverse lights, which stay on for quite a while. If someone unlocks a GM in a parking lot, when it’s nosed in between other cars and I can’t see if anyone’s at the wheel, I’m afraid there’s a driver who’s going to blindly back into me. Flashing taillights are more than enough to indicate it’s unlocked, and GM needs to take the back-up lights out of the equation.
There are obviously some practicality limits in a car this small, but the Spark makes a lot out of what it’s got, at least up front. There are large door pockets and some decently sized centre cubbies for tossing in your smaller items, and while they don’t have lids, you can use the glovebox for valuables you want to keep out of sight.
But the Spark is lean on rear cargo space, offering less than models like the Mitsubishi Mirage or Kia Rio. Prepare to pack a little lighter than in other vehicles, although the 60/40-split rear seat easily folds flat to carry larger items, and that hard tonneau cover for keeping your goods from prying eyes is standard on all trim levels.
User Friendliness: 9/10
It seems the more expensive a vehicle is, the more ridiculously convoluted its function controls have to be. That’s one reason why I love these little grocery-getters: they’re simple, and that’s what you want when you’re negotiating traffic.
The climate control uses big, simple dials. Every trim comes with a seven-inch touchscreen, with big, easy-to-use icons, a volume dial, and hard buttons for the home screen and phone menu.
For a tiny economy car, the Spark comes fairly well equipped. All but the base LS includes air conditioning (the optional CVT on that trim adds refrigeration), automatic headlights, variable intermittent wipers, a tilt steering wheel, Apple CarPlay, Android Auto, and Connected Access, which sends you service reminders and vehicle diagnostics for a ten-year period. OnStar and a built-in Wi-Fi hotspot are also included, but only for a short trial period; both require paid subscriptions after that.
Moving up from the base LS, my 1LT added the aforementioned A/C, LED daytime running lights, power-adjustable heated mirrors, cruise control, power windows and door locks, keyless entry, and a trial package of satellite radio. All wheels measure 15 inches – steel with covers on the base trim; aluminum on all others – which will keep down the cost of winter tires. Moving up to the 2LT (which is CVT-only) further adds emergency braking, lane departure alert, rear park assist, push-button start, power sunroof, leatherette upholstery, and heated seats.
Under the Spark’s hood is a 1.4L four-cylinder that churns out 98 hp and 94 lb-ft of torque. That’s not much, but here’s the catch: it’s gutless and groans like a gargoyle when it’s hooked to a CVT, but with the five-speed manual, this little hatchback is a lot of fun. It’s no powerhouse and you know it – don’t even try to take off in second gear – but it gets you from full stop to cruising speed just fine.
Hill-start assist is standard with the stick shift. Adding a sixth gear would reduce engine speed on the highway, but it would also add cost, and five speeds are just fine overall.
I wouldn’t want to take a coast-to-coast tour in the Spark, but for everyday errands and commuting, the seats are fine. They’ve got some bolstering and the cushions are long enough for most legs. Seat adjustment is manual, of course, but there’s a fair bit of travel back and forth, and up and down.
The rear doors open wide for easy access to those back chairs, which are expectedly flatter and harder than the front seats. The Spark’s strictly a four-seater, but you’re not viably putting three people across this narrow car’s rear seat anyway, and the space in between contains a cupholder and a shallow storage bin.
Driving Feel: 8.5/10
Most of these diminutive drivers are fun to pilot, and the Spark is no exception. The clutch-and-shifter setup proved much better than I expected; the clutch is just light enough, the shifter snicks nicely into each gear, and it’s an absolute pleasure to run it through its cogs.
Steering response is quick, and it’s fun to toss it around. Yes, the cabin is noisy and you feel all the bumps, but this is a cheap and cheerful little machine, and I ended up liking it a heck of a lot more than I thought I would.
Fuel Economy: 8.5/10
The Spark with manual transmission is rated at 8.0 L/100 km in the city, 6.2 on the highway, and 7.2 in combined driving. That’s highest among its competitors, where Hyundai’s outgoing Accent and Kia’s Rio rate a combined 7.0; the Toyota Yaris hatchback is 6.9; and the Mitsubishi Mirage undercuts everyone at 6.5 L/100 km.
In my week with it, most of it on my local rural roads, I came in at 6.8 L/100 km, and I certainly can’t argue with that.
Several years ago, Nissan and Chevrolet fought over the cheapest-car-in-Canada crown with the Micra and Spark, paring a buck here and there to start under $10,000. The Spark now claims the title at $9,998, although as with the Micra which has since been discontinued, most buyers move to a higher trim to get air conditioning.
It doesn’t have many rivals anymore, either. The Accent (which ranges from $14,949 to $21,649) and Toyota Yaris Hatchback ($17,290–$19,950) are gone after the 2020 model year. The Micra is gone, too, although Nissan is still offering some leftover 2019 models, at $10,488 to $17,598. By 2021, the Spark’s competition will be the Mitsubishi Mirage ($12,298–$19,098) and Kia Rio ($18,045–$20,945).
I’d leave off my tester’s $795 Sport Edition package, which adds black-finished wheels, badges, grille, and two-tone roof, but I’d keep the all-weather floor and cargo mats for $290, since they’re made for the car and fit very well.
I didn’t go in expecting a lot, but the 2020 Chevrolet Spark impressed me. It was fun to shift, fun to drive, reasonably comfortable, well-priced, and it sipped gently at its fuel. You really have to get the stick shift for the full experience – the CVT is noisy and saps the engine’s strength – but if you do, the Spark may favourably surprise you.
|Peak Horsepower||98 hp @ 6,200 rpm|
|Peak Torque||94 lb-ft @ 4,400 rpm|
|Fuel Economy||8.0/6.2/7.2 L/100 km city/hwy/comb|
|Cargo Space||314 L/770 L seats down|
|Model Tested||2020 Chevrolet Spark 1LT Manual|
|Price as Tested||$17,688|
$1,290 – Sport Edition of 15-inch black-painted alloy wheels, black emblems and grille, and two-tone roof, $795; All-weather floor and cargo mat package, $290; Aluminum front door sill plates, $135; Wheel lock package, $70