The latest Chevrolet Spark is the most recent EV to attempt to shatter electric cars' reputation as anemic and inept. And it succeeds, being the best version of this small hatchback. Unlike the Mitsubishi i, this is no glorified golf cart.
The Spark EV is General Motors' entry in the crucial California market to meet that state's Zero Emissions Vehicle requirement. But it's also one of the most enjoyable electric cars we've driven and a compelling overall package.
Turning the diminutive Spark into an EV transforms it into a punchy, zippy, fun little runabout, a far cry from the conventional, slow noisy and stiff Spark that earned a meager overall score in our tests.
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Changes to the Spark's weight distribution and suspension, to deal with the extra 560-pounds of battery weight, contribute to more responsive handling, making the Spark EV feel sporty. Ride comfort is also significantly more compliant and tied down than in the regular Spark.
Producing about 130 hp and 400 lb.-ft. of torque, the electric motor is a gift that keeps on giving. Press the go-pedal and the car catapults forward, but unlike some EVs, the thrust doesn't wane. The Spark EV keeps gathering speed enthusiastically all the way to its top speed of 90 mph. The sprint from 0-60 mph is claimed to be between 7.5 and 8 seconds, which is more than believable. It takes some getting used to use the throttle's touchiness to avoid torque steer. The shifter has two modes: "Drive" works like a conventional automatic transmission without aggressive regenerative braking. "Low" maximizes regenerative braking and slows the car down as soon as you lift off the accelerator.
The electric juice comes from a 21.3-kWh lithium-ion battery pack that straddles the rear axle and doesn't bite into the Spark's already tiny cabin or cargo space. It gives the Spark EV an EPA-estimated range of 82 miles, similar to that of the Ford Focus EV and Fiat 500e, and longer than the Nissan Leaf's 75 miles.
While that is a real limitation, the car is intended as an urban commuter expected to be recharged routinely at home overnight. It takes seven hours to replenish the battery on 240 volts. It could have been faster had GM chosen a 6.6-kW onboard charger, but GM's engineers say they didn't see the need for it. They did, however, go to the trouble of equipping the Spark with the new SAE "combo" charging port that eventually will allow for fast DC charging to 80 percent of the battery's capacity in 20 minutes.
The Spark takes advantage of many systems used in the Chevrolet Volt, including some of its gauges and driver interface. The range indicator is prominent and includes an optimistic estimate in case you're driving frugally and a pessimistic one in case you're exploiting the car's effortless punch too often. We found this feature handy, minimizing the tendency for range indicators to jump around too dramatically as you drive. Hence, the gauge is appropriately called the "confidence meter."
The electric Spark's newfound quietness helps you to better enjoy the connected radio that GM refers to internally as "Buy-Own." The system, much of which is also included in the gas Spark, combines Pandora, Stitcher, and Tune-In Internet radio, Siri voice commands, Bluetooth phone pairing, and a navigation system called BringGo. The services rely on your phone's data connection, so you need to be mindful of how much data you use. BringGo downloads its maps to your phone, so it minimizes the data transfer compared to, say, Google navigation. In the Spark EV, concentric circles on the maps show how far you can venture based on the car's remaining range.
The Spark goes on sale this summer in only California and Oregon for $27,495. But it is eligible for $10,000 worth of tax credits in California or $8,250 in Oregon. The Spark EV can also be leased for $99 down and $199 a month for three years (which includes the tax credits; you don't get them separately).
We think the Spark EV is by far the best version of this car, and it has the potential to appeal to others interested in electric vehicles beyond California and Oregon.