Updated at: 01/09/2013 1:37 PM
By ANN M. JOB
Don’t be surprised if some people assume the 2013 Chevrolet Spark is another newfangled electric car.
Just 12 feet long and with an aerodynamic front end and abruptly chopped-off rear, the South Korean-built Spark could pass for an electric car.
But there’s no plug and no problem with fueling the 2013 version of this Chevrolet, because it comes with a gasoline-sipping, internal combustion, four-cylinder engine. (An electric Spark is planned for 2014.)
While the 2013 Spark doesn’t rival the government fuel economy numbers of electric cars, its top government mileage rating of 32 miles per gallon in city driving and 38 mpg on the highway for a manual transmission model put it ahead of many competitors.
For example, the best government mileage rating for the 2013 Honda Fit hatchback, which is similarly sized to the Spark, is 27/33 mpg with manual transmission.
Also of note: The Spark can come with high-tech features such as smartphone integrated navigation, Pandora personalized Internet radio, Stitcher Internet news broadcasts and Bluetooth audio streaming.
New for 2013, the five-door Spark hatchback also is Chevy’s only subcompact car and carries the lowest starting retail price of the brand.
Starting manufacturer’s suggested retail price, including destination charge, is $12,995 for a base 2013 Spark LS with five-speed manual transmission and 84-horsepower four cylinder. The lowest starting retail price, including destination charge, for a 2013 Spark LS with four-speed automatic transmission is $13,920. However, smartphone compatibility comes only in higher trim levels starting with the 2013 Spark 1LT, whose starting MSRP, including destination charge, is $14,595.
In comparison, Chevy’s next-largest hatchback _ the 2013 Sonic _ has a starting retail price of $15,595 with five-speed manual and $16,690 with six-speed automatic.
Meantime, the five-door 2013 Honda Fit starts at $16,215 with 117-horsepower four cylinder and manual transmission and $17,015 with automatic.
The 2013 Ford Fiesta hatchback starts at $14,995 with 120-horsepower four cylinder and manual transmission and $16,090 with automatic. Top fuel mileage is 29/40 mpg for the 2013 Fiesta SFE model.
Chevy’s Spark has seats for four, with a low, plastic area with two exposed cupholders positioned between the two rear seats.
It’s actually not apparent, at first, that there are two rear doors for access to these seats.
This is because the doors sit nearly seamlessly into the side styling and door handles are tucked up in the back upper part of the door windows.
Room in these flat-cushioned back seats isn’t as bad as feared. There’s a full 37.3 inches of headroom in the back seat and more than 35 inches of legroom. This compares with 37.2 inches of headroom and just 31.2 inches of legroom in the back seat of a Fiesta hatchback.
Indeed, back-seat passenger knees in the Spark don’t need to touch the front seatbacks unless a front passenger has his or her seatback reclined a good ways back.
A plus: Rear-door windows go down nearly all the way.
All Spark seats are either cloth or leatherette, and the latter decently mimics the look and feel of a lower-class leather.
Overall, the somewhat barebones nature of the Spark interior is handled with class.
With a pod of gauges seemingly hung on the steering column in front of the driver _ and they move up and down when the steering wheel tilt is adjusted _ there is an expansive plastic dashboard in front of the driver. Yet, this area doesn’t look boring or low-cost, thanks to styling lines that sweep out toward the windshield and nicely textured plastic. Even the ceiling material is textured.
The well-sized, 7-inch display screen that was in the middle of the center stack in the top-of-the-line test Spark 2LT had big enough letters and numbers to make navigation maps easy to see and use.
But there’s no covered storage for small items anywhere in the Spark except in the glovebox, which doesn’t have a lock.
There’s also no tactile feedback when using the display screen buttons.
Cargo space, with back seats in use, is a mere 11.4 cubic feet, which is less than what’s in the trunk of a small sedan like a Toyota Corolla. But there’s a more accommodating 31.2 cubic feet in the Spark when split rear seatbacks are folded down.
The ride in the Spark can feel Spartan. The test car hit its bump stops a few times on city street bumps, sending a quick jarring sensation to passengers. The 15-inch tires got to their limits quickly, and the lightweight, 2,269-pound Spark was buffeted one way and another on windy days. Passengers heard wind and road noise, and the little, 1.2-liter, dual overhead cam four cylinder roared when pressured to deliver power quickly.
The fuel-efficient nature of this powerplant was quickly apparent during acceleration, as peak torque is just 83 foot-pounds at 4,200 rpm.
This compares with the more spunky Fiesta’s 112 foot-pounds of torque at 5,000 rpm.
But the fuel mileage was genuine. In nearly all city driving _ and it wasn’t gentle driving _ the Spark tester averaged 29.4 mpg, which is better than the government estimate. A full tank of unleaded gasoline, therefore, could have lasted for 270 miles and cost under $30 at today’s prices.
A couple nits: The driver seat had a clunky knob to crank to raise seat cushion height, and the rear wiper on the back window is small and doesn’t clear the whole view.
There are no crash test ratings yet for the Spark, which comes standard with electronic stability control, traction control and 10 air bags, including bags mounted to the sides of the back seats.
(Copyright 2013 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)