I took a few days off in December for a vacation, flying out to New Mexico just in the nick of time to avoid the rise of the Omicron variant of COVID. I’d need a rental car to get from the airport in El Paso, Texas, to Las Cruces – and to tool around town a bit, maybe.
Being on an automotive journalist’s salary and knowing I’d likely never have more than one passenger at a time, I decided to go the least-expensive route and get a compact – “compact” by the rental-car company’s definition, but subcompact per the EPA.
“Nissan Versa” or similar, the Web site said. Not great, but something I could live with for a few days. I didn’t need a lot of space or comfort.
As you no doubt know, that “or similar” means you don’t know the make and model of your chariot until you land and settle business at the counter. Or in this case, not until I walked out to the “compacts” section of the parking garage, agreement in hand, to see the only car there was a Chevrolet Spark.
I tried to look on the bright side. It had been a long time since I’d piloted a Spark, but I remembered the car being a bit of a lively handler for the class, and not being a total penalty box. At least not when it was new. Would that view hold up?
Furthermore, would the difference between rental-car trim and the top-trim cars that the OEMs usually loan us for testing be noticeable?
(Full disclosure: As this was vacation, I paid for the rental car out of my own pocket, though my corporate bosses did allow me to expense the fuel.)
Things didn’t start well for the Spark – Google Maps directed me over the Trans-Mountain highway, a hilly and curvy piece of interstate that winds around the outskirts of El Paso. The 1.4-liter four-cylinder that makes a paltry 98 horsepower and 94 lb-ft of torque predictably struggled when faced with an uphill climb. It also struggled when passing on flat ground. And when asked to do anything other than idle.
And like with a whiny teen unhappy about being asked to mow the lawn, the four-banger wasn’t shy about complaining when put to work.
The presence of a continually variable automatic transmission did it no favors.
I’d hoped the Spark might redeem itself in terms of handling, since I remember the car as being a bit lively, at least for its size and class, from past encounters.
This time around, it was a mixed bag. There is some uh, spark of life in this Chevy when you encounter a corner, and it’s just spritely enough to make you forget for a millisecond that you’re driving an econobox. But there’s also not enough in the way of steering feel and occasionally too much play in said steering. It’s not the worst car in the class, and you get a half-grin if you get things just right, but it’s no secret hot hatch, either.
The short wheelbase contributes to a stiff ride (there are MacPherson struts up front and a compound crank with springs and shocks setup in the rear), though it was tolerable on the smoother local roads. When I hit the pockmarked pavement, things became decidedly less fun, though still just barely on the side of acceptable.
Rental-car trim – this appeared to be an LT and not the 2LT since it didn’t have keyless starting – means not a lot of options and cheaper interior materials, but a couple of convenience features stood out. It helps that the 1LT trim is a step above the base. First, even the basic version of GM’s/Chevy’s infotainment system is easy to use, and this car had Apple CarPlay. It’s annoying to not have factory nav on a rental car – obviously, most renters aren’t going to know the area – but having CarPlay and being able to plug in helped (and kept the rental company from having to invest in a TomTom or Garmin). I also appreciated the inclusion of satellite radio. Necessary when driving in semi-rural areas.
By the way, if you want any semi-autonomous driver aids or heated seats, you need to spring for the 2LT. I can understand why a rental-car company kept things on the cheap side, and heated seats were not really missed, even though it can get cold in the desert in December, especially before the midday sun hits.
I didn’t see an unusual amount of wear and tear on the car, meaning there’s some combination of either the materials holding up well under tough conditions, the car being treated well by customers, or the rental company doing a decent job with basic cleaning and maintenance.
Stiff seats were an issue, at least on the two long drives to and from the airport, and the small cargo area just barely handled my standard-size rollaboard suitcase and a backpack. In fact, I think I had to eventually move my backpack to the rear seat to better accommodate my suitcase. The same suitcase that’s meant to fit in a standard airplane overhead bin was barely accommodated by the cargo area of a car. Even accounting for the diminutive size of the Spark, that’s a bit absurd.
I averaged about 34 mpg over 144 miles of motoring in a mix of highway and suburban driving that leaned heavily towards highway.
As always, I try to consider a car’s strengths and weaknesses against its class (also price, but that doesn’t apply as directly in a rental review). I don’t expect a subcompact to have barn-burning acceleration, but even a small car with a small, low-power-output engine should have a little more gusto. The handling is a nice surprise – it’s sportier than it needs to be, and it’s the one dynamic highlight – and the ride is about what you’d expect.
I give Chevy credit for having a cheap car with materials that seemingly have held up well despite the torture that rental cars endure, and for making features like Apple CarPlay and satellite radio available on a lower trim like LT. I’m less sanguine about the lack of cargo room, even in such a small car.
There’s little about this Chevy that will spark (sorry) your interest, but there’s still at least one other econobox you could encounter on the lot and it’s made by Mitsubishi. At least this Spark wasn’t a desert Mirage.
[Images © 2022 Tim Healey/TTAC]
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