The hills are alive with Sparks

2011, Chevrolet, Spark

Geneva to Gruyeres, Switzerland - The day after the 2010 Geneva motor show Chevrolet let a group of us take their Chevy Sparks up to Gruyeres, Switzerland.

In what will probably be Bob Lutz's last launch, since he has announced his retirement May 1, 2010, Lutz said, "the Spark replaces the Matiz, which was basically a rebadged Daewoo product. This is the first generation Chevy that we have put the full weight of the global GM engineering organization behind. What we call the International architectural development efforts."

In other words, this mini car is a major deal for General Motors and Chevy, GM's foundational brand.

The Chevy Spark is considered an A-segment car. The Spark is already available in Europe, trumpeting the Chevrolet badge up the Alps and through the streets of Pa-ree. The Spark will seem small for the US market, but trust me, there are smaller cars on the streets of Europe.

It's small for the United States market, but bigger than the Smart. It's the widest vehicle in its class and it has four-doors. Because of its size and the price of gasoline today Lutz sees a "relatively modest sales volume with current fuel prices. The nice part is that if gasoline prices do crank up we can crank up the volume almost instantaneously."

So why bring the Spark to the United States? Lutz was pragmatic, "we had the car available worldwide and with a relatively small investment to incorporate U.S. crash safety standards - we had to lengthen the front end a bit - we were able to make the car available."

Lutz also acknowledged what he called an age wave effect. As more generations start driving what is seen as the appropriate size car is coming down in size.

The interior design is stylish and new. The exterior fun, funky and futuristic for America. It took me a minute to figure out where Chevy had put the back door handle.

I drove with my buddy, Wayne, a CNET journalist, so the first thing we did was look at the technology inside the car. We were told there was a USB and aux i-pod unit in the car, but it turned out it was a mini-USB adaptor. Wayne was very disappointed. I can't imagine that the mini-USB will be stay that way for the States edition, or be the only offering.

According to Klaus-Peter Martin, Chevy communications person, there will be higher trim levels of the Spark. Martin says Onstar will be available on the higher trim levels. I'm also hoping that Chevy will offer a better ste-eo system. If this is to become a cult type car a cool infotainment system has to be in the offering.

The sheet metal is pulled tight across the entire car. The bug-eye front lights take up the quarter side panel, the back doors take up the entire back quarter side. The hatchback and the backdoor are only inches from each other.

The Spark will get sales because of its unique style. What it is lacking is the horsepower that Americans are used to. There is a smaller 1-liter engine that gets 67 horsepower, and a 1.2-liter engine coming to America.

I love a good 4-banger, but this little 1.2-liter engine with 81 horsepower needed the wind at its back to get up the Alps of Switzerland. If it is marketed as a city car it will be fine, just not in San Francisco.

The plan is to bring over the 1.4 turbo engine with forty miles to the gallon. If done right, a four-banger with turbo is better than most 6-cylinders. As Chevy said, it's hybrid performance without the hybrid price.

A lot of the success of the Spark is going to depend on price. Steve Flamand, Chevrolet Europe product marketing manager, told me that the Spark runs around 10,000 Euros in Europe. Using a currency converter I get a starting price in US dollars between $13,000-$14,000. I know the taxes in Europe are higher, but Flamand has said Chevy will build more structure in the Spark, presumably to meet stricter safety regulations.

In 2009 I wrote an article entitled "71 cars under $15,000". The least expensive 5-door hatchback was a 2010 Chevy Aveo LS with an MSRP of $11,965.

The under $15,000 crowd is the group the Spark will be playing in. If priced right, it could start a fire.

By Lou Ann Hammond

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Images of the 2011, Chevrolet Spark

2011 Chevy Spark
2011 Chevy Spark
instrument panel
instrument panel
4-seater with a tiny trunk too
4-seater with a tiny trunk too
every speck of space is used
every speck of space is used