By Zack Klapman.
Small cars used to be a source of comedy. The Pinto, the Metro, and the Isetta: nerds of the 4-wheeled world. They were scary to drive and all the comfort of sitting in a clothes dryer. Crashing meant death.
But in the past 5 years cars have evolved a lot, to the point I’ve wondered if there are any “bad” cars at all. Even the “worst” new car is safer and more comfortable than many 10 year-old luxury cars. So, according to the transitive properties, that means even the small cars are good, right? Actually, yes.
A recent example of evolution is Chevrolet discontinuing the rolling Rubbermaid bin called the Aveo and replacing it with the 2013 Chevy Sonic, a car I genuinely like. It looks like a 3-door hatch, but actually has 5, making passengers much happier. The turbo-fed 1.4L makes enough power (138HP/148tq) to sprint through traffic, and it gets 37MPG highway. Mine had a 5-speed manual, Bluetooth, and those cool motorcycle-y gauges. Fold-down seats for 47cu. ft. of cargo room handle most errands, and in the canyons this car is as playful as an Australian Shepherd. I was chasing a Subaru STI (downhill), and staying way closer than expected. The only thing that dulled my fun was the flat seat threatening to fling me out the window. It’s a very good car, and even in LTZ trim, it cost only $18,100.
Gas prices made small cars popular again, and so- like a Russian doll- carmakers also offer a sub-compact car, usually referred to as a “city car”. Think Smart car size, without the constant fear of death and useless trunk. Chevy’s version is called the Spark.
The 2013 Chevy Spark 2LT I drove had a lot of techy bells and comfy whistles. The list is too long to print, but here are some highlights: Bluetooth, SAT radio, heated seats, 10 airbags (in a car the size of your bed), 5 seats, and the same sporty dash as the Sonic. It is the iPhone of cars; tons of features packed into a tiny cube. It even has the same head and legroom as the Sonic, despite being 16” shorter.
The engine is lethargic, but it’s 1.2-liters (no turbo), so don’t be surprised. It makes 84HP and 83 ft-lbs of torque (7 year-olds are stronger than this) but in normal city traffic you will keep up fine. Just don’t get on the highway, because the fastest this will go is 90MPH, which isn’t that far above normal traffic speed. The sentence, “She’s pegged at 80!” is hardly soothing. Hills are not your friend.
But what the Chevy Spark does well is offer safe travel for 5 and the ability to park in a coat closet, for only $12,000 (to start). At that price, I get it, especially in a densely populated city where parking spaces are treated like Mexican drug territory.
But the Spark I drove wasn’t twelve grand, it was sixteen ($16,820 to be exact), and that’s a problem, because it’s only $1,300 less than the Sonic, which has 50 more horsepower, more cargo space, better looks, and rides as well as a VW GTI. Is all that worth the 7% price increase? Yes. The fact you asked makes me wonder about your ability to remember to inhale oxygen.
As a general rule, it’s better to buy a fully loaded cheaper car than an expensive base model. You will enjoy a loaded Hyundai Sonata more than a stripper model Audi A4.
The problem here is that the price gap between the Spark 2LT and the Sonic LTZ is too small. The Sonic LTZ is better at everything except “Which car best fits in a shopping cart.” And, while Europe is littered with parking spots that size, America isn’t. So if you find a spot the Spark fits in, the Sonic will fit too.
(Note: All vehicles provided by manufacturers for comparison test purposes. Photos provided by Chevrolet.)