Test drive: The new Chevrolet Spark minicar

Chevrolet hopes the Spark's low price, comfortable interior and good gas mileage will attract new buyers to the "mini-car" segment.
Jerry Edgerton

(MoneyWatch) A FedEx van cruises to my left and a big delivery truck to my right, with just a narrow lane between them. But my bright red Chevrolet Spark squirts through the opening with room to spare. That's the kind of urban maneuverability that General Motors (GM) hopes will attract buyers to the Spark, its new mini-car.

The Spark, already sold in 80 other countries, enters a U.S. segment previously populated mainly by interesting, but unsuccessful, entries like the Smartfortwo. Last year, the Fiat 500 brought a stylish, drivable alternative into this category.

With the $12,999 starting price for the Spark base version and an array of splashy colors, GM aims to attract new buyers to this segment. (The Mini Cooper, although a similar size, starts at $19,500 and competes with more expensive subcompacts and compacts.)

A 2013 model, the Spark has just gone on sale. With a four-cylinder 1.25-liter engine paired with either a five-speed manual or a four-speed automatic transmission, Spark's acceleration won't be confused with a Corvette. But in the manual version that I test-drove, it produced enough oomph to outmaneuver the trucks and taxis on New York City streets or pass when needed at highway speeds.

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The Spark's EPA gas mileage rating, 32 MPG in city driving and 38 on the highway, is good but not exceptional for a small car. The bigger Chevrolet Cruze is rated at 42 MPG highway in its special Eco version, for instance. 

While Chevy is emphasizing the $12,995 starting price on its LS base version (compared with about $15,500 for the Fiat 500) the Spark also offers two higher levels with more equipment. The 1LT, which starts at $14,495, includes a seven-inch touch screen for navigation and music and the sort of features that most buyers now expect, like remote door locks and cruise control. The $15,795 2LT mostly adds styling touches, such as 15-inch alloy wheels and leatherette seats.

Here are more detailed impressions after my test drive of the Spark:

Exterior style: It's hard for a car that is over 12 feet long to look sleek. But the Spark's designers have used tricks to keep its tall silhouette from looking too choppy, like putting the rear-door handles unobtrusively high so they don't interrupt the doors' flow. Aiming at younger buyers, the Spark specializes in bright colors with whimsical names. Those include Salsa (the red shown above), jalapeno (a bright green, naturally), denim (blue) and techno pink (really more of a light rose). But the effect on the five-door hatchback is cheerful and helps keep a car so small from fading into the streetscape.

Interior comfort: Spark has comfortable seats with good driver visibility. The six-foot-four GM engineer who was riding shotgun with me had plenty of room for his legs. In the rear, two adults -- not just small children -- could readily get in and ride comfortably.

Although the Spark has good room for passengers, the cargo capacity with the rear seats folded down is just 31.2 cubic feet. If hauling stuff is a major need of yours, you may want to spend a little more for a Honda Fit, which has a whopping 57.3 cubic feet maximum capacity.

Navigation, music and telephone: GM market research found that target buyers in this car segment wanted navigation, but didn't to pay the $2,000 or so that is typical for an installed system when bundled with other mandatory equipment. So the automaker developed a $50 software application that operates from your mobile phone and that can be controlled from the vehicle's seven-inch touch screen (which is easily read from the driver's seat and is as useful as bigger screens in some larger cars.)

Playing music from AM, FM or satellite radio, or the tunes stored on your phone, and making phone calls can all be done from the touch-screen. Though the Chevrolet MyLink system lacks the voice commands of Ford's (F) pioneering SYNC, it is simpler and less confusing than Ford's latest generation of SYNC called MyFord Touch.

Whether the car shoppers are young Millennials or older baby boomers, that $12,995 starting price combined with a comfortable interior and reasonable power and handling likely will prove attractive. If they like the Spark, though, many will likely move up one grade to the 1LT version to get amenities like power locks and cruise control.

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    Jerry Edgerton, author of Car Shopping Made Easy, has been covering the car beat since Detroit companies dominated the U.S. market. The former car columnist for Money magazine and Washington correspondent for Business Week, Edgerton specializes in finding the best deals on wheels and offering advice on making your car last.