Quick Spin: 2015 Chevrolet Spark EV

One glance at the $31,445 starting price of this 2015 all-electric Chevrolet Spark EV tester, and it’s hard to choke down the disbelief. Yes, that’s about double what most gas-powered Sparks are advertised at these days, the contrast even more stark raving mad with especially aggressive deals now on to clear out the gas-powered 2015 models, before an all-new 2016 gas Spark arrives this fall.

There’s a reason that even GM Canada says this will be a low volume, niche vehicle.

That’s a hefty $12,275 more than the similarly equipped gas Spark. But there’s a few important caveats to this Spark EV’s near-$34k as tested price to keep in mind: a) the Spark EV doesn’t officially go on sale to the public until early in 2016, so this price was the MSRP of a fleet vehicle; and b) fleet vehicle pricing is usually less than consumer vehicles, since the public doesn’t tend to buy cars in bulk. So the price may move in either direction, but likely up, by the time drivers can actually walk into a dealership, and walk out with a zero emissions, no gas-or-engine-noise-ever Spark EV.

There’s a reason that even GM Canada says this will be a low volume, niche vehicle. And I say this as not only an enthusiastic fan of electric vehicles, but an owner as well.

Yes, the Spark EV will qualify for some generous provincial green car rebates in Canada: $8,500 in Ontario, $8,000 in Quebec and $5,000 in British Columbia, the only three provinces where it’ll be made available. Plus in BC, there’s another $3,000 available from its separately funded car scrappage program.

Still, no nation-wide publicly funded charging infrastructure or plug-in purchase incentives exist in Canada, at least not yet, unlike most if not all other G8 and possibly G20 countries nowadays.

That maximum $8,500 Ontario incentive would bring the Spark EV’s starting price down to about $23k even, whereas right now, a top-line 2015 Spark maxes out at an as tested price of $20,870 before incentives, according to GM Canada’s consumer website, though the Spark EV offers a scrappy driving personality and some equipment that just isn’t available on the gas Spark.

But forget about price for now. The Spark EV is a rolling testbed of silent and torquey goodness, making it both an engineering and marketing experiment for GM Canada. It’s visually identical to its gasoline counterpart, minus the roof racks and EV badges, but it’s also a significantly more advanced car than its much louder, slower and less powerful gasoline namesake.

The Spark EV uses a 110-kilowatt motor that delivers 130 hp and a ground-pounding 327 lb-ft of torque, compared to just 83 ponies and a middling 83 lb-ft of torque from its cheaper gasoline twin. Initially, GM rated this motor at an even 400 lb-ft, but has since downgraded that figure, though that’s still about four times the gas engine’s low-end oomph. In such a light vehicle, that’s a huge power figure, making it capable of an official 0-96 km/h run in 7.2 seconds, or identical to the much pricier – but very unique-looking – BMW i3.

Granted, the Spark EV is about 621 pounds heavier than a gas Spark, most of that extra weight (560 pounds, or 254 kg) coming from its hefty 18.4-kWh lithium-ion battery pack. But that battery also effectively provides a healthy amount of totally gas-free driving range, with an official combined city and highway rating of 131 km, which is higher than the 120 km average Nissan now suggests for its ’15 Leaf, though the U.S. EPA rates the Leaf five kilometres better than the Spark EV’s 137 km figure.

Unlike some dreaming-in-technicolour EV range estimates, like the Leaf’s initial 160 km range estimate, the Spark EV’s “guessometer” range estimator is fairly accurate. I managed to travel to the yellow low charge zone of this tester’s battery after having traveled 118.8 km, with the last two of ten battery bars remaining, the car suggesting I had about 23 km left of possible driving left, or about 142 km in total, if I really wanted to push it.

This means summer time activities will ideally be 70 km or less away to not have to worry about recharging during the day. And in the wintertime, it will be notably less: if you’re considering a Spark EV or other full BEV, plan on at least a 15 to 40 per cent reduction in range, depending how harsh those conditions are in your area.

These range limitations are why plug-in hybrids like the Chevrolet Volt are often seen as more desirable in much of the country for drivers or families with only one car. Or why provincial governments in BC and Quebec have invested in more charging stations.

For Spark EV drivers, with no internal combustion engine backup, you’ll likely end up looking for activities near EV charging stations. Many municipal lots have them now, and Ikea just announced that all Canadian stores will receive Level 2 chargers, the first popping up in August throughout Quebec, with all Ontario stores planned to have them by the end of September. These 220-volt L2 chargers, as they’re dubbed by EV enthusiasts, can be used by all plug-ins, as they’re all standardized to J1772 SAE specifications. If you drift in on your last electron, a full charge at one of these will take two to four hours with most modern EVs, outside of Teslas, whose huge batteries can slurp at these for two to three times as long.

The other option is to find a quick charger that can provide an 80 percent fill in 20 to 30 minutes, which is the preferred method when you’re trying to go beyond your EV’s range as quickly as possible – but costs much more to install and maintain. This is where the Spark EV, and the BMW i3, are underserved, as they use the SAE Combo quick charge standard, which are just starting to pop up, but are much less prevalent than the CHAdeMO standard used by the Nissan Leaf and most other BEV products (Kia Soul EV, Mitsubishi i-MiEV, and some Tesla Model S versions).

The nice thing about the Spark EV’s range estimate is that it actually shows you two other range estimates as well: a maximum (optimistic) figure, as well as a more critical minimum figure, which numerically yells at you: “D’oh! You better not have to go further than this!”

As on all plug-in electric cars, temperate weather (near 20 degrees Celsius) definitely helps range, as does avoiding highways and major uphill routes. The four-seat Spark EV had notably more real-world range than our three-and-a-half year old five-seat Nissan Leaf, which has lost about 15 per cent of its peak battery capacity, and therefore driving range, at just over 41,000 km. But the Leaf is notably larger, wider, more comfortable and with more refined materials inside, with range-saving features such as a heated steering wheel that help cut back on the juice-stealing heating system.

In the U.S., the Spark EV’s starting price was cut in April of this year to US$25,995, which at today’s (early September 2015’s) sinking Canadian dollar translates to just over C$34,000, suddenly making the ’15 Spark EV’s C$31,455 base price look very reasonable. But what’s even more enticing is whether GM Canada will also offer it at lease prices close to the $0 down US$139 per month rate offered at various times in California.

Judging from the experience with similar US$199 deals for the Chevrolet Volt over the past three years, that would be a no. Especially since the Spark EV will likely only be available as a placeholder until the all-electric 2017 Chevrolet Bolt is released, which promises a real 320 km worth of range for about US$30,000 after incentives, and is slated to go on sale by the end of 2016.

Warranty:
3 years/60,000 km; 5 years/160,000 km powertrain; 6 years/160,000 km corrosion perforation; 5 years/160,000 km roadside assistance; 8 years/160,000 km battery

Competitors:
BMW i3
Ford Focus EV
Mitsubishi i-MiEV
Nissan Leaf

In the end, the Spark EV’s pricing will be a major factor in this car’s appeal, or lack of appeal to some. But will buyers appreciate the Spark EV’s charms enough to hold off until the Bolt arrives, or will they be swayed by the Leaf’s increased space and refinement (and rumoured increase in range for this fall). That, really, is the $12,275 question.

Pricing: 2015 Chevrolet Spark EV
Base price (EV): (est.) $31,445
Options: $800 (Option 1 ­ $800: Fast-Charging SAE Combo system)
Freight: $1,600
A/C tax: $0
Price as tested: $33,945

One glance at the $31,445 starting price of this 2015 all-electric Chevrolet Spark EV tester, and it’s hard to choke down the disbelief. 9/9/2015 10:26:00 AM