2016 Chevrolet Spark review

The little Spark is all grown up

2016 Chevrolet Spark front view
2016 Chevrolet Spark. Photo © Aaron Gold

First, the Bottom Line

The first-generation Chevrolet Spark was a favorite of mine, strong on personality and even stronger on value. Chevrolet has introduced a new version for 2016, and it's a much more mature and upscale car. The character has changed; unfortunately, so has the Spark's value-for-money equation…and not for the better.

Pros

  • Upscale interior
  • Larger engine provides more confidence on the highway
  • Super easy to park

Cons

  • Cramped back seat and trunk
  • Front seat fouls the fold-down rear seat
  • Price climbs steeply as you add features

Larger photos: Front – rear – interior – all photos

Expert Review: 2016 Chevrolet Spark

I was a big fan of the first-generation Chevrolet Spark. To me, it was everything an inexpensive car ought to be: Cute, cheerful, and brimming with value. The Spark was (and still is) the second-least-expensive new car on the market, and yet it had more personality than most of the vehicles that cost twice as much.

The Spark is all new for 2016, and that playful character is gone, replaced by a more stoic and mature attitude. On the face of it, that's not a bad thing: Most cheap cars feel pretty cheap, but the new Spark impressed me with its high-lux interior. Driving around, it was easy to forget that I was driving a car with a base price well under $14 grand. (That said, my test car was optioned up to well over $19k.)

My first impression of the new Spark was that it was bigger than the outgoing car, so I was shocked (Shocked! Shocked, I tell you!) when I checked the spec sheet and realized that the length has actually shrunk by an inch and a half. It's the Spark's lower roofline that makes the car look longer. Unfortunately, it also shaves some much-needed rear-seat headroom, making the cramped back seat feel even more claustrophobic.

(More on that in a sec.)

Spark goes upscale

My second impression of the new Spark was that it is a much more upscale vehicle, and that is no optical illusion. As with the exterior, the interior styling is more grown up; the old Spark's motorcycle-like gauge pod is gone, replaced by a more traditional gauge cluster, and the interior fittings feel far more rich and upscale than those found in the old Spark (not to mention most of its cheap-car rivals). One of my favorite features, the body-color dashboard, is all but gone. Only the LT model with "Splash" blue paint gets a matching dashboard; other colors (including my bright-red test car) get white or gloss-black dash trim.

The Spark's more mature demeanor comes through when you drive it. The ride is quiet and comfortable, devoid of the cheap, tinny feel that afflicts many of the Spark's competitors. It rides the bumps smoother and more quietly than most inexpensive cars, though the ride gets a bit shaky at highway speeds. The Spark is smaller than most of its rivals—it's six inches shorter than the Mitsubishi Mirage and nearly a foot and a half shorter than the Honda Fit—so it fits neatly into tight spaces and is a breeze to park (a task made that much easier thanks to a standard-fit backup camera).

More power, less practicality

Though the new Spark may be slightly smaller, its engine is slightly bigger: A 1.4 liter four-cylinder that produces 98 horsepower, 14 hp more than the old Spark's 1.2. The new engine is quieter and more refined, and the extra power (combined with slightly less weight—the new car is around 50 lbs lighter) means the Spark no longer feels like its struggling to climb steep hills.

And yet despite the increase in power and acceleration, the new Spark is just as fuel efficient. Manual Sparks are EPA-rated at 31 MPG city/39 MPG highway, while automatic Sparks (which use a continuously-variable transmission, or CVT, with a two-speed planetary splitter to broaden the gear range) are rated at 31 MPG city/41 MPG highway. I averaged a respectable 36.7 MPG during my week-long test drive, though the small nine-gallon fuel tank made for frequent fill-ups.

Trouble behind the front seats

While front seat comfort is good, the two-place back seat is cramped for adults, and with a tall driver up front, legroom virtually disappears. The 11.1 cubic foot trunk is only big enough for groceries and gym bags, no surprise in a car this small. The usual solution is to fold down the back seat, but in the Spark, that isn't so simple: The split-fold seatback won't fold flat unless the seat-bottom cushion is flipped forward, but that requires sliding the front-seat forward. I'm only 5'6", and with the back seats folded and flipped, I could barely get the seat far back enough to drive comfortably. A six-footer would be out of luck.

Whither goest value?

One of the things I like best about the old Spark was that it came with a lot of standard equipment for a low price. Unfortunately, that's not the case with the new Spark. The base price for the LS model is $13,535, which is only $500 more than last year's Spark. (An automatic transmission costs $1,100 more.) But features that were standard on the old car—including power windows, locks and mirrors and alloy wheels—are now extra-cost options. The new Spark does get air conditioning, Bluetooth phone and audio connectivity, and a touch-screen stereo as standard, as well of two years of free maintenance. It also gets ten airbags (more than most cars) and OnStar, a subscription-based system that, among other things, will automatically call you if your Spark is in a crash. If you need help (or if you don't answer), the OnStar operator can use the system's built-in GPS system to locate the car and send help. If you read my reviews regularly, you know what I think of OnStar: It's one of the best (and most under-rated) safety features you can buy.

Move up to the hither models, and the equipment list reads like it came from a bigger and more upscale car. The mid-range $15,560 1LT model adds nice-to-haves like cruise control, satellite radio, power windows, mirrors and locks, alloy wheels and an alarm, while the 2LT model I tested featured heated faux-leather seats (and real leather on the steering wheel), and keyless entry and ignition—but at $18,160, it's priced as high as some of its larger and more capable competitors.

Chevrolet bundles forward collision and lane-departure warning systems for the bargain price of $195, but that package is only available on top-of-the-line 2LT automatic cars.

Spark vs. the competition

The Spark is a great little car, but competition in the cheap-car zone is fierce. In my opinion, the best car in this field is also the least expensive: The Nissan Versa sedan, which offers much more usable space and even better value-for-money. It's also nearly as fuel-efficient as the Spark, especially if you opt for the CVT automatic transmission. But its interior is nowhere near as nice as the Spark's, and the hatchback version (the Versa Note) is not as good a value as the four-door sedan.

The Honda Fit is the most practical of small cars, with a surprisingly roomy back seat and about twice as much cargo space as the Spark. Pricing starts at $16,625, but the Fit's base model offers similar equipment to the Spark 1LT, so the effective price difference is only about a thousand bucks. I would also consider the much-maligned Mitsubishi Mirage; though it feels cheaper than the Spark and isn't as nice to drive, it has more standard equipment, more back seat space, gets better fuel economy (40 MPG in daily driving in my last review), and is covered by a significantly longer warranty.

If tiny is what you want, cars don't get much smaller than the Smart ForTwo—and frankly, considering the Spark's small back seat and trunk, the new Smart car really isn't much less practical. And finally, I wouldn't rule out Chevy's next-largest car, the Sonic. It has more space, more personality, and the same ten-airbag-and-OnStar protection package, and it's only priced around $1,500 higher.

If you're looking for a tiny, inexpensive car that doesn't feel inexpensive, the Spark is a good choice. But its tiny back seat and limited cargo space limit its appeal, and it's not quite the bargain that the old car was. I do like the new Spark—just not as much as the old one. – Aaron Gold

Details and Specs

  • Chevrolet's smallest and least-expensive car is all new for 2016
  • Price range: $13,535 - $19,355
  • Price as tested: $19,355
  • Powertrain: 1.4 liter 4-cylinder/98 hp, 5-speed manual or continuously-variable automatic, front-wheel-drive
  • EPA fuel economy ratings: 31 MPG city/39 MPG highway (manual), 31/41 (automatic)
  • Observed fuel economy: 36.7 MPG
  • Warranty: 3 years/36,000 miles bumper-to-bumper, 5 years/60,000 miles powertrain
  • Roadside assistance/free maintenance: 5 years/60,000 miles roadside, 2 years/24,000 miles (2 visits) free maintenance
  • Where built: South Korea
  • Best rivals: Nissan Versa, Mitsubishi Mirage, Smart ForTwo

Disclosure: The vehicle for this review was provided by Chevrolet. For more information, please see our Ethics Policy.