The Chevrolet Spark EV is General Motors’ first electric car since the EV1 was discontinued in 1999, and more’s the pity it’s only available in California and Oregon.
In the documentary “Who Killed the Electric Car?” GM was implicated, and if the Spark EV helps redeem it, one could still say GM has given birth to a new electric car, only to leave it confined under curfew.
If however you do reside in the two states where the zero-emission car has staked out a small claim on the electric car market, count yourself fortunate. It’s a fun little car that gets the job done, but GM is not as bold as Nissan with its 50-state Leaf, or even underdog Mitsubishi with its similarly-positioned i-MiEV also available nationwide.
For now, GM says only it is reviewing other markets, but has made no announcements for other states.
That said, we got a chance to briefly drive one in Indiana. The stint behind the wheel was offered in Indianapolis as part of a Ride, Drive & Charge event put on by the Electric Drive Transportation Association.
The subcompact five-door hatchback based on a gas-powered version is positioned as a city car, but this 82-mile range EV that starts at $27,495 including $810 destination fee – and before subsidies – could do just fine as a suburban commuter as well.
Despite GM’s present conservative stance, it’s apparent the company intends to build more electric cars. How do we know that? This little car that’s sized comparably to a Mitsubishi i-MiEV has an electric motor that could push a large sedan.
GM has equipped the single-speed Spark EV with a 140-horsepower, 402-pound-feet electric motor that propels it to 60 in an estimated 7.6 seconds and to a top speed of 90 mph.
Traction control keeps it from laying block-long strips of front-tire rubber but suffice to say, the under-worked powertrain is accruing usage data for GM to keep its future model options open.
The vehicle has both a default Normal Mode for maximum economy, or quicker response can be had via a Sport Mode.
Providing power for the Spark EV is a 21-kwh A123 Systems battery that is due to be replaced for 2015 with a 19-kwh battery constructed from 192 li-ion cells at GM’s Brownstown assembly plant.
The new battery sheds 86 pounds – and an untold degree of production costs – and GM says range, efficiency, and performance will be unchanged, in a case not of less is more, but rather, less is the same.
Unlike the mid-sized Nissan Leaf and subcompact Mitsubishi i-MiEV, the Spark’s battery receives a liquid thermal management system. The battery is cooled or heated as needed to ensure long life. Before it was launched, GM proof tested it for 200,000 hours.
Aside from on-the-go regenerative braking which adds some juice back to the pack, full recharging is possible via 120 volt house current but owners will want the 240-volt charger which requires around 7 hours for a depleted battery.
A DC quick charge option is available. Here an SAE combo charger can zap 80 percent power back in 20 minutes from one of these public chargers.
Neater Than the Gas Version
Inside and out, the converted Spark EV resembles the regular gas-powered Spark, but adds touches rounded out by the best touch of all – the peppier electric drive.
Dimensions of the 2,989-pound car make it roomy enough in front – if not relatively tight in back-seat space – and its urban styling is functional and kind of cool.
Passenger volume is 86.3 cubic feet (2,444 l) and cargo space is 9.6 cubic feet (272 l).
The digital instrument and info displays are of course purposed for an electric car, while seats are suitably comfortable.
In the center stack is a seven-inch color touch-screen that displays MyLink infotainment.
Also in the center stack are audio and climate controls, heated seat controls, USB, power outlet, defogger button and StabiliTrak/traction control on/off button. Knobs are illuminated by LED to make finding them no worries after dark.
In the center console is an open storage area to stash small items.
The car is aerodynamic enough with a coefficient of drag of 0.326, and the electric version is set off by minor stylistic changes and functional exterior changes – some apparent, others hidden.
• Chrome upper two-tier grille, closed to reduce airflow
• Charge port door over the driver’s side front wheel well
• Underbody panels, tire air deflectors and aero-optimized exterior mirrors
• Rear diffusers optimize airflow under the vehicle
• 15-inch aluminum wheels and low rolling resistance tires
• Airflow is controlled through the lower intake opening via active shutter system
• Rockers are lower and wider, increasing tire coverage, improving aerodynamics
• Roof-extending rear spoiler.
Peppy, Fun, Quick
A lot has been said of the big torque and relative zippiness, and true enough the Spark EV is pretty feisty, but really, a Camry Hybrid will beat it in a sprint, so don’t mistake it as a shrunken Model S for those on a budget.
It actually feels quicker than it is because there’s no gear shifting for the one-speed reduction-gear drivetrain, and no grinding engine sound. Instead there’s a bit of electric whine and tire noise, and it just goes.
The low rolling resistance 15-inch tires will scuff on hard launch and the car builds speed to 60 in a way that most drivers will not feel like they are making a sacrifice to go electric.
Dipping deep into the juice on a regular basis will reduce range though, which could be OK assuming your charge and distance to travel are in line with one another.
The car feels poised well enough on its feet, making direction change and cornering a no issues affair. Being so small, parking is simplified, particularly in tighter confines.
We would have liked more time with it to test range, but reports say the Spark EV may provide a bit more real-world range than the Leaf.
Where it comes up short is in recharge time, as the Leaf can be equipped with a doubly fast 6.6-kw charger that fully replenishes the battery in around 4 hours at 240 volts.
The Leaf is also dimensionally larger, with more interior volume, but it costs around $2,500 more to start – and not with the quicker charger at that price.
Compared to a more closely matched competitor, the Mitsu i-MiEV, the Spark EV offers more range, comfort, styling and features, and its battery is larger, thermally managed, and not worked as hard, but the i-MiEV is priced cheap.
And next to the “minicompact” Fiat 500e, the limited market Fiat offers 5 miles more rated range and recharge time of four hours, but costs around $4,000 more.
Automakers do not particularly like the term “compliance car,” but Plug In America categorizes the Spark EV as a classic example given it’s available in only two states.
GM is deriving zero emission credits and probably just as importantly gathering data from a limited pool of drivers with which it will be better informed to produce more EVs later.
Meanwhile Nissan has been pushing EVs in 50 states for three years. Last year and this, it reported growing markets scattered around the country, not least of which being Atlanta which has at times out-purchased even California markets, but GM has yet to say whether it would offer the Spark EV there.
All this said, the Spark EV is well designed, does the job well-to-very-well in most key criteria.
If GM offers a test drive somewhere in your neck of the woods, we’d recommend trying it.
And, if you reside in California or Oregon where servicing dealers and solo HOV-lane access make it a viable option, its potentially sub-$18,000 price after federal and state subsidies or $199/ month lease could put it in the running as a best bang for the buck.