Tuesday, November 13, 2012

3-2-1 IGNITION! The Chevy Spark

Enterprise gave me a choice this time: Spark or Corolla. I pictured the most probable outcome of renting a Corolla: numbness; heart stops from boredom after the first quarter mile; the cold smear of conductive jelly on my chest; full reset of my everything from the defibrillator shock. I won't go into the hot paramedic part. What IS it about uniforms? But my little mental sojourn brought me back to the intent of this part of the Rentalist: bargain basement cars. I mean, if I can endure two FIAT 500s (FIRST | SECOND), why not the Spark? Ego be damned.

Gas prices (and the fear thereof) have the car companies racing to provide diminutive offerings to the American public. GM has produced the Spark offshore for some time now, so it was a logical choice for them to bring Spark to the U.S. One of my developer buddies is from the Caribbean and is quite familiar with the product. I remember seeing lots of them when in Bermuda and Mexico. 38 mpg (combined) is good enough reason for many to look seriously at the Spark.

From the outside, the Spark's oddness is a bit jarring. The front end is stubby. The back end is... not there. The wheels are small. The greenhouse is tall. On our first excursion, the same dev completely overlooked the back passenger door, missing its hidden handle and thinking it was a 2-door. So much for "quite familiar". Yet in all its cartoonishness, it works, visually. In fact, compared to many offerings in this class, it has a surprising number of upmarket design cues, unlike the Mazda 2 and Yaris, which reek of base model blues.

The inside yields even more surprises. The Spark is available with a LOT of equipment for this class. OnStar, 10 airbags, height-adjustable driver seat, XM radio on a MyLink touchscreen interface, power everything, USB and AUX inputs. And it's all in a fun package with tastefully playful design, lots of bins and holders, and intuitive controls. The three of us were able to get pretty comfortable in it on our daily drive to work, Target runs, and some carousing with paramedics.

The MyLink proved easy to use for audio, settings, pairing, and other functions. I recognized a lot of functionality (though served up in a different interface) from my Regal Turbo. The only major qualm I had was that I couldn't engage a voice interface. So each call required use of the touch screen and therefore significant eyes-off-the-road time.

Among the other economy cars I've rented recently, the Spark was by far my favorite.

So how did it drive? 84 horsepower can only do so much. And laden with 500 pounds of adults, it does even less. But the point here is it got it done, and it did so with good comfort and enough amenities to make up for its performance shortcomings. Though tall, it doesn't feel tippy. Though anemic, it eventually gets up to speed. And once you're there it cruises along making blender sounds (sufficiently muted in cabin) while sipping slowly from a tank that took about $30 to fill. And parallel parking the Spark is pure joy. Could you ask for more in this class?

Among the other economy cars I've rented recently, the Spark was by far my favorite. The looks grow on you, it had the right equipment, and it's easy on gas. By comparison, the Mazda 2 was a better driving car, at the cost of fuel economy. My particular 2 fell short in two categories for long haul driving: no cruise control and not enough seat adjustability. And the Mazda's price for entry is a couple thousand steeper (base Spark starts at $12,500). The FIAT, well... previous blogs tell that story. You buy a FIAT for style. And nothing else. That leaves the Yaris, which clearly takes the prize for Best-Microwave-Imitating-a-Car. 

I turned the Spark back in at Enterprise, only to hear it was immediately rented to my developer boys for a weekend of fun. That was days ago and I haven't heard from them. Let me know if you see a red Spark on the side of the road somewhere in Illinois, probably close to a volunteer ambulance.

Enthusiasts would agree with my other developer, who summed up the engine sound and ego equation by saying "it purees one's dignity". But Spark isn't an enthusiasts car. It's a pragmatists car. And from that perspective, Spark ignites. 

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