2014 Chevrolet Spark EV review
By Kirk Bell of MSN Autos
In 2011, Nissan released the LEAF, the first electric vehicle from a major automaker for sale in the United States. At the same time, Chevrolet introduced the first plug-in extended range electric vehicle, the Volt. Both offerings have had a modicum of success, but both were priced out of reach for the average buyer.
Now, just as Nissan has lowered the price of the LEAF to bring in more buyers, Chevrolet introduces its own electric car, the Spark EV, and undercuts LEAF pricing in the process. Together, these cars make the electric vehicle affordable for the masses. Will that help America embrace the electric car? Based on our test drive of the Spark EV, it should.
Standard equipment for the 1LT includes air conditioning, power windows, power locks, power mirrors, remote keyless entry, cruise control, cloth upholstery, AM/FM radio, three months of Sirius XM satellite radio, MyLink infotainment system with 7-inch touch screen, Bluetooth cell phone connectivity, USB port, 10 airbags, fog lights and 15-inch alloy wheels. The 2LT adds vinyl upholstery, heated front seats, and a leather-wrapped steering wheel. The only option is a DC fast-charging connector that will be available late in the year.
Under the hood
The Spark EV's propulsion system uses several components from the Chevrolet Volt. For instance, the power inverter is a simpler version of the one in the Volt and the motor is similar to that of the Volt. The battery is more powerful and it weighs 160 pounds more for a total of 560. It is a rectangle located in front of and behind the rear axle, unlike the Volt's T-shaped battery that sits under the rear seat and front center console.
The Spark EV has a 3.3 kW onboard charger, not a 6.6 kW charger like the Nissan LEAF gets this year. That makes for long charging times for the Spark EV: 7 hours on a 240-volt outlet and 20 hours on a 120-volt outlet. Later in the year, Chevrolet will release an adaptor to allow 480-volt quick-charging, which will achieve an 80 percent charge in 20 minutes, provided you can find a quick charging station.
Space in the Spark EV is mostly unaffected by the car's massive battery. Front and rear seat room are unaffected, but the Spark is still a very small microcar that isn't wide enough for three-across seating in the rear. Two occupants fit just fine front or rear, but those with wide shoulders will feel cramped. The front seats are too flat for best comfort, and rear legroom is tight, especially with taller folks up front. Despite these complaints, headroom is plentiful and the Spark has more room than most microcars.
The battery packaging raises the floor behind the second-row seat, eating up a bit of cargo space. With the seats up, there is 9.6 cubic feet of space in the Spark EV versus 11.4 in the gas-powered Spark. With the seats down, it has 23.4 cubic feet of cargo volume, down from 31.2 in the base car. Nonetheless, that's still enough room for a load of groceries.
Chevrolet provides some surprising and delightful features inside, most notably the MyLink system and some unique digital gauges. MyLink is a satisfyingly simple way to stay connected. It pairs with your smartphone to provide access to apps, pictures and even movies through a 7-inch dashboard touch screen. Apps include Pandora and Stitcher Internet radio, and owners can buy the $50 BringGo navigation app to bring affordable navigation into their cars. BringGo works with iPhone and Android phones, and even adds point-of-interest search. The system is controlled mostly by touch, but iPhone users also get Siri Eyes Free voice control.
The instrument panel has a new digital cluster that Chevrolet calls a "confidence gauge." It features a large central digital speedometer, flanked by graphics that tell you what the electrical system is doing. The left-side graphic shows battery charge status and expected driving range, as well as the maximum and minimum ranges if driving style is adjusted. The right side displays the amount of power being used or regenerated in real time, and dots appear on both sides to show how efficiently or inefficiently your driving style is trending. Owners can swap out these graphics for the graphics from the Volt, most notable of which is a meter that provides real-time feedback on driving style via a green ball drivers attempt to keep from moving up or down.
We found ourselves monitoring these graphics regularly, and they encouraged us to drive more efficiently. They also show how the electrical system works, eating up power when accelerating hard or driving uphill and earning it back when slowing down or driving downhill.
On the road
When in drive, the Spark EV feels like a normal car, with none of the driveline drag that can be annoying in some electric cars. That drag is the result of more aggressive regenerative braking, which helps recharge the battery, and Spark EV buyers can choose that sensation by putting the car in low. One Chevrolet engineer called this "one pedal driving" because the car moves just fine under throttle but slows when the driver's foot is off the accelerator. We found ourselves putting the car in low as we approached stops or drove down steep hills, but we would prefer steering-wheel paddles to switch between the two modes, which would be more convenient. Cadillac will do just that in the forthcoming ELR.
Of course, range must be considered when driving an EV, so driving hard isn't the best idea if you want to be efficient. During our test drive on the hilly streets in and around Portland, Ore., we generally drove fairly conservatively but also hit the throttle pretty hard a few times to see what the car could do. Despite Chevrolet's stated range of 82 miles, the confidence gauge said the car had 89 miles of range initially, and on our 53-mile test drive we used only 44 miles of range. To be fair, the 70-degree weather conditions were ideal and we didn't use the climate control at all. Running the air conditioning would certainly have eaten up some range.
The addition of the battery also improves the car's ride and handling. The EV system adds 600 to 700 pounds to the Spark, but the 560-pound battery is located over the rear axle, which improves the weight balance from 62 percent front and 38 percent rear to 52/48. That weight is also located fairly low, which also improves the car's center of gravity and seems to iron out some of the bumps that would disturb the gasoline model. It's still not as fun as Chevy's own surprisingly agile Sonic, but handling is well controlled and body lean is minimal. The steering is light at low speeds and heavier and more stable at high speeds. The 4-wheel disc brakes worked well in our test (the gas model has rear drums), and proper use of regenerative braking should make them last quite some time.
Right for you?
(As part of a sponsored press event, the automaker provided MSN with travel and accommodations to facilitatethis report.)
Kirk Bell has served as the associate publisher for Consumer Guide Automotive and editor of Scale Auto Enthusiast magazine. A Midwest native, Bell brings 18 years of automotive journalism experience to MSN, andcurrently contributes to JDPower.com and Kelley Blue Book's kbb.com.