The average Canadian university student owns at least three of the following items: a couch they found on the side of the road, a Pizzaland loyalty card, their parent’s Netflix password, a beer fridge, and $1.34 in their iTunes account. The average Canadian university student would like to own: a set of wheels … brand new, of course.
Despite reports that Generation Z are buying atrocious – yet, affordable – cars from dead brands, the business case for a small entry-level hatchback is strong. New car ownership brings with it a raft of bennies, from warranties to reliability to the intangible new car smell.
The amount of technology in the $9995 (plus $1600 freight) Spark LS brought thumbs-up from the touchscreen and social media crowd. It is the first car I’ve even seen which has roll up windows and manual side-view mirrors (straight out of the horrid penalty boxes of the ‘80s) but also allows one to plug their iPhone6+ into a USB port and scroll through playlists on a large in-dash touchscreen. Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are standard and are a surprise to find at this price point. The Chev MyLink infotainment system is easy to use and quick to respond but CarPlay/A-Auto is even more user friendly, bringing Day-Glo graphics to the party. The four redundant buttons underneath the large touchscreen for scrolling trough music tracks and activating the Bluetooth are welcome additions.
It’s not just the touchscreen and Bluetooth being offered to noob drivers by the Spark. A backup camera is along for the ride, switching the large central in-dash screen to a rearward view when the five-speed’s shifter is plunked into Reverse. New drivers generally have no clue what their doing or are too excited or horny to notice parking bollards and light poles, often backing into these objects at flank speed. Parents will consider the backup camera as than more than a novelty when it forestalls the crunching of metal and attendant visit to an insurance agent.
4G LTE wireless is also on board for a three month trial to new Spark buyers – savvy shoppers should try to bargain for this service to be tossed in for a year or more rather than try and get a discount off the $9995 MSRP. GM has slashed the LTE cost in half, now $10 for 1GB and $20 for 4GB as of this July 2016 writing. This is plenty of data unless all hands are smoking down HD episodes of The Walking Dead or absorbing Buzzfeed videos on YouTube.
Under the hood is 1.4L DOHC mill with four angry hamsters churning out 98hp and making noise, not power, up near its redline. GM helpfully sees fit to include a shift light in the gauge cluster, telling drivers when to upshift and to what gear. The indicator is helpful but endlessly pessimistic, no doubt programmed for maximum fuel economy. The clutch take up on our five-speed manual tester is forgiving and, paired to a slightly ropey shifter, makes the Spark a good car on which new drivers can learn to drive a stick. This is a skill I’ve always maintained is an important one for kids to learn. Youngsters who know how to drive a manual are automatically regarded as good drivers by their peers, even if it is (often) unwarranted praise. Plus, a stick makes your car virtually theft-proof because drooling, brain-dead thieves are less likely to jack a manual car they don’t know how to drive.
Grads will only be able to take three of their closest BFFs with them to the liquor store, as the Spark seats four, not five. A black plastic console with a cupholder and cubby molded into it bifurcates the Spark’s 60/40 split rear seat. I think this is a good use of room instead of putting a fifth belt in the middle which no one will ever use. Headrests poke into the backs of rear seat riders unless raised to their highest position at which point they scupper rearward visibility. The rear view camera saves the day during parking lot manoeuvres but, naturally, only works while backing up. It won’t help spot the 5-0 on your six, hidden by the sky-high rear headrests.
Q: What’s the only substance on Earth harder than a diamond? A: The Spark’s armrest for its driver’s left arm. After only a few minutes driving, the rock hard scoop of a door panel started to drill into my elbow like a Novocain-free trip to the dentist. Fortunately, Chev includes a soft fold up armrest for the driver’s right arm, another surprise at this price point and a feature notably absent on other more expensive machinery.
Fuel economy dipped into Prius territory, consuming 5.17L over 103km of primarily rural road driving with some stop and go mixed in for good measure. That’s 45.5 mpg in Freedom Measure. This number handily bests GM’s advertised 5.7L/100km highway rating, doing so on cheap 87-octane and making one wonder why eco-warriors shell out big bucks for hybrids if saving fuel is their true goal.
University students are not known for their attention to the mundane, and car maintenance ranks pretty low on their Top 40. Chevy pops for 2 years or 48,000 kilometres worth of oil changes for buyers of the 2016 Spark, while seeing fit to include 5-years/160,000 kilometres of Roadside Assistance (usually 3/60) in case Junior locks his keys and beer making equipment in the Spark’s hatchback.
Chevy makes up its profits on the financing for the base Spark. Base LS models are offered on terms up to 84mos at a finance rate of 4.99%, where as the 1LT models, which include air conditioning and a raft of non-essential features (power windows, et al) see rates top out at 0.99%. It behooves shoppers to choose wisely if they select a trim level other than the base LS manual as tested here. The biweekly payment on a 1LT trim is actually cheaper than that of an LS when both are equipped with an automatic transmission. Check out the comparison chart below and, as always, caveat emptor.
The real competitor, in my mind, for the Spark LS Manual is a lightly used compact car. There are plenty of options [see sidebar, below] for about $10,000. Only a new car, though, can provide that brand-new, drive-it-off-the-lot, only-my-butt-has-sat-in-it feeling. With its raft of tech and safety features, the Spark LS Manual offers more than expected at this end of the automotive food chain, serving up touchscreens and cameras while leaving financial room for beer and pizza at the end of the month.
Econ 101? Got it covered.
Selling Points: Plenty of useful tech, new car smell on the cheap, faster than walking.
Deal Breakers: Some rock-hard surfaces, towering rear seat headrests.
The Bottom Line: Must buy new? Then this will do. True.
SIDEBAR BONUS! The competition.
Safe Choice: 2013 Honda Civic
2013 Honda Civic. 5 speed manual, under 90k. Drivers won’t be sweatin’ to the oldies as this trim has air conditioning. Great fuel economy and is larger so, y’know, OMG ROAD TRIP. This thing will probably outlive the cockroaches and wins by simply not being a Corolla.
Adventurous Choice: 2010 Ford Mustang
2010 Ford Mustang V6. This sporty coupe will impress on campus and has a cool factor of 100000x compared to the Civic and Spark. RWD and 305hp may be an issue for novice drivers, especially during the winter. It’ll teach your grad to be a better driver but make sure your insurance premiums are paid up.
Stark-Raving Mad Choice: 2006 BMW 750i
2006 BMW 750i. First year of the big 360hp 4.8LV8, 0-60 in 5.4 seconds. Prodigious fuel consumption and an original sticker price approaching $100,000 in Canada. Moonroof, voice activated navigation, lush leather seats. This car will bankrupt its next owner and is the perfect example of a car most people can afford to buy but not maintain. I want it badly.