The mid-range Spark exceeds all expectations for the money.
With manufacturers abandoning traditional cars at a record pace in favour of crossovers, it’s not a great time to be in the market for an inexpensive new car. Even a decently-equipped Toyota Corolla or Honda Civic can crest the $20,000 mark, so true budget pickings are a bit slim. Other than overleveraging themselves to their eyeballs with long-term car loans, what options do those shopping on a budget have? How about walking into a GM dealership, because the 2021 Chevrolet Spark LT is here to blow expectations of what a cheap car can be into the middle of next week.
On the outside, the current Spark adopts a more mature look than the previous-generation model. Gone are the excessively oversized headlamps and taillamps that look like a karaoke machine from the mid-2000s and in their place are smaller, more mature fixtures. The same theme goes for the body styling which is upright and youthful yet conservative enough that it will likely be a design that ages well. One funky touch from the old Spark remains, and that’s how the rear door handles are up behind the door windows in a place that’s difficult for kids to access but really convenient for popping groceries into the rear seat.
Our mid-range 1LT test car came with the Sport Edition package which includes a contrasting roof treatment, high-contrast 15-inch alloy wheels, blacked-out trim and emblems. It’s a neat treatment for $795, but most consumers would be best to skip it unless they absolutely can’t stand the chrome treatment that comes standard on the front of standard Sparks. It was incredibly nice of Chevrolet to include projector halogen headlamps on every Spark as they offer superior light output to the reflector units so commonly found in inexpensive cars. 1LT and up cars also get LED daytime running lights, something definitely not expected at a sub-$15,000 price point.
On the inside, our mid-range 1LT Spark test car exceeds all expectations for the money. Some journalists may incessantly complain about hard plastics, but they work here to offer a utilitarian experience of hard-wearing surfaces with nice textures. Adding to everyday practicality is a large shelf set into the dashboard above the glovebox, offering plenty of room to store both trash and trinkets that accumulate whilst driving. There’s additional uncovered storage in the centre console and in the centre of the rear seat, where three-across seating is eschewed in favour of an extra cupholder and a tray for cell phones. Despite the Spark’s diminutive footprint, cargo space is still plenty for a week’s shopping and actual adults can sit in the rear seats.
Apple CarPlay and Android Auto come standard and the infotainment system actually works quite well. It’s easy to navigate with a well-sized seven-inch screen and features redundant controls for home, volume, seeking through tracks and phone mirroring. As for futureproofing, a nice surprise is that both USB and USB-C ports are on hand in the Spark. The stereos on most budget cars sound like an AirPod rattling around in each door bin but not the six-speaker stereo in our mid-range Spark. It’s not phenomenal, but it’s got enough power and punch to be heard well over highway road noise and actually go loud. Best of all, it uses a three-band equalizer which is a step up from most cheap cars’ two-band equalizers.
Part of the secret to the Spark’s goodness lies in the number of pedals our test car came equipped with. It may only have five gears but in the real world that’s plenty. Fifth is long enough that the engine isn’t screaming down the highway whilst second and third are short enough to offer reasonable acceleration about town. The Spark’s 1.4-litre four-cylinder engine only produces 98 horsepower but when you control the gears, you’d swear it feels more potent than that, if still nothing resembling quick.
As for handling, it’s important to distinguish that handling is more than outright numbers. Judging purely off lateral g on a skidpad, the Spark likely compares more with a heavy-duty pickup truck than a hot hatch. However, handling is actually how a car feels when turning and what behaviours it exhibits. To this end, the Spark comes on skinny little 185/55R15 economy tires, is equipped with quick, light steering for easy urban maneuvering and weighs about as much as a large Domino’s pizza. As a result, it’s really quite fun to fling about as its low grip levels are explorable and its torsion-beam rear suspension makes it rotate well on trail-braking. What’s more, the ride is quite sorted which means deliberate steering inputs deliver equally deliberate results.
When it comes time to outgrow childish antics, the Spark delivers a great experience in sensible driving too. While it isn’t exactly Maxwell Smart’s cone of silence on the inside, noise levels are kept reasonable too. Clutch uptake is light and smooth enough to not be tiring in rush hour traffic and outward visibility is great with small blind spots. That quick steering that makes the Spark so fun also makes navigating tight parking lots a walk in the park. Fuel economy is also commendable. We averaged 6.7L/100km over our week of testing, handily beating the government estimate of 7.2L/100km.
With driving assists being so commonplace in new cars, it’s interesting that the Spark relegates stuff like lane departure warning and automatic emergency braking to the top-spec 2LT CVT trim. Actually, it was rather nice that our 1LT manual test car didn’t come with any active electronic nanny nonsense as it had nothing to take away from the actual driving experience. At this price though, those seeking those active driving assists simply won’t find them.
In summation, the 2021 Chevrolet Spark LT is fantastic. It’s an inexpensive car that doesn’t feel like a penalty box and offers all the performance, economy, equipment and build quality one could possibly want for the money. The base 1LS manual car starts at just $10,198 and our Spark 1LT manual with the Sport Edition Package came out to $15,693. The sweet spot of the range is the 1LT manual without the Sport Edition Package which retails for $14,898 and comes with everything one could want for that price and a few added bonuses like alloy wheels and automatic headlamps that one wouldn’t expect. For those who are on an absolute budget, the Spark may just be the car to buy.