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First Drive: 2014 Chevy Spark EV

Highs

  • 400-pound feet of torque just launches it off the line
  • Inspired handling for such a small car
  • Crazy-quiet ride in the city
  • Easy to park, easy to drive
  • Ends (or at least lessens) your addiction to oil

Lows

  • Over-utilizing 400 nits of torque sucks down the juice
  • 82-mile max range enough for some things, but not far away things
  • Not much trunk room – but the rear seats fold down easily
  • A lot of tire noise at higher speeds
The Spark EV scoots forward with unexpected velocity, propelled by a purpose-built electric motor putting out a whopping 400 foot-pounds of torque.

How bright is the future of electric vehicles? Bright. Very, very bright, if a recent report released by the U.S. Department of Energy on the faster-than-anticipated adoption rate of electric cars is an indication of a trend.

That’s good news for Chevrolet, which just debuted their 2014 Spark EV electric car. Digital Trends was along for the ride when Chevy came to our green-car happy hometown of Portland, Oregon, last week to give automotive journalists at turn at the wheel of the Spark EV.

2014 Chevy Spark EV first drive exterior left side

Currently only offered in Oregon and California, the Spark EV comes in at an MSRP of $27,495 but buyers can take advantage of a $7,500 Federal tax credit to rationalize the price down to an even 20 grand. California buyers can also reel in a $2,500 rebate from their state, bringing the final tally to $17,500, putting the Spark EV closer in price to many gas-driven sub-compacts and city cars. Chevy is also offering a 3-year lease program for $999 down and $199 a month and considering the fact you’re not going to buy gas for it, that can be a bargain – if the car is worth it. More on that in a bit.

Electric cars’ popularity is growing – fast

According to the DoE report issued July 19, electric car adoption rates are much higher than that of hybrids over similar time periods. Basically, the DoE study says that unlike hybrids, cars that can be driven on electricity alone are finding buyers much faster than hybrids did since their relative release date. Seems like people really are tired of paying all that cash for gas.  The study included 14 electric-drive models that included cars that are “pure” battery powered cars, plug-in hybrids and vehicles like the Chevy Volt, which can be plugged in to charge up and driven on electricity alone but also carry gasoline and an engine to generate electrical power when more range is needed.

“EV sales are surging. In the first six months of 2013, Americans bought more than 40,000 plug-in electric vehicles — more than twice as many as the same period in 2012,” Levi Tillemann, a Special Advisor for Policy and International Affairs writes on the Energy.gov website. The hottest models? The Chevy Volt, Nissan Leaf and Tesla Model S lead the pack.

And sales of those gas-free cars would seem to be having an effect – albeit a small one – on U.S. oil consumption and gas prices. Tilleman says gas prices dropped 16 cents from June to July, unusual for the summer driving season, partly due to Americans driving more and more fuel-efficient – and electric – cars. We used 21,000 fewer barrels of oil per day the report states. Against the nation’s average daily use of 18 million barrels it’s not much, but it’s at least a trend headed in the right direction for the right reasons.

Driving the Spark EV

Meanwhile, it’s becoming easier to understand why drivers shopping for new cars are seriously considering and then buying electric vehicles, especially after driving the new Spark EV.

Electric cars or “battery electrified vehicles” as industry wonks call them, are quickly maturing and for people living in urban settings, they make an excellent second vehicle or a smart choice for a first vehicle for a young driver. Indeed, during their press session, Chevrolet said the first Spark EV, which is only being sold in Oregon and California at this time, was delivered to a 16-year-old Califonia kid whose parents presumably signed on the line for him.

2014-Chevrolet-SparkEV-067b

Settling behind the wheel of the Spark EV, which is built on the chassis of a regular gas-powered Spark and retains that car’s fun sub-compact form factor, the driver finds an all new, all-digital instrument pod mounted above the steering wheel that includes a digital speedometer readout along with a battery charge level indicator, best and worst case range estimates, compass heading, engine power output, brake power regeneration display, trip meter and some selectable data points, all changed from the steering wheel. The display is crisp and easy to read, especially the battery level and range indicators, which are updated according to your short-term driving demands.

Strong, silent type

Put the Spark EV in gear and unless you have the stereo or HVAC fan on, you’re met largely with silence. So it goes with electric cars.

Step on the gas – er, the throttle, I mean, that pedal on the right that makes it go (what should we call it now, anyway?) and a nearly magical thing happens: the front-drive, single-speed Spark EV scoots forward with unexpected velocity, propelled by a purpose-built electric motor putting out about 140 horsepower but a whopping 400 foot-pounds of torque. That’s more torque than many muscle cars and exotics.

It’s becoming easier to understand why drivers shopping for new cars are seriously considering and then buying electric vehicles.

With the Spark EV turning in an impressive 0-60 time of 7.6 seconds, it seems carmakers are beginning to understand that an EV can be a ton of fun to drive as well as just an efficient way to get around. You just have to build in the right electric motor (hint: lots of torque) and a robust power delivery system. The Chevy folks said they purpose-built the motor and simplified gearing for the Spark EV and it shows: it’s a full second faster than the Volt to 60mph and bests the Nissan Leaf by well over 2 seconds. Chevrolet says it’s the fastest car in its class and my seat-of-the pants dynamometer heartily agrees. If electric cars get into a torque and power war, well, I’m all for it and the sky’s the limit, as EV tech is still in its infancy in my opinion. I’m looking forward to more and rapid development.

That initial burst of acceleration can even be boosted by hitting the SPORT button to the right of the wheel but fair warning, repeatedly flattening the accelerator pedal will quickly drain the 560-pound 21-kilowatt lithium-ion battery, which lives under the rear seats.

Avoid temptation to embarrass other cars from stoplights (not easy) and the Spark EV can return 82 miles of range on a charge, according to Chevy. Officials and engineers at the car’s unveiling said their studies indicated the majority of commuters drive less than 40 miles round trip per day, so the 80+ mile range should be sufficient to cover most commutes and some additional driving each day. So they say, but I still wish it had more range. Much more.

Whip it good

Being on my home turf, I had the advantage of taking Chevy execs who came along for the ride on some off-route twisty bits in the hills above Portland’s downtown and the Spark acquitted itself well, especially in Sport mode. The addition of a quarter-ton battery in the back of the car actually balanced out weight distribution for the normally front-heavy Spark and necessitated a rework of the suspension for the EV, resulting in surprising agility as I railed the car through tight corners. Chevy also popped some spiffy-looking 15-inch aluminum wheels on the EV.

Outside of some hot starts and aggressive corner exits, I was taking it pretty easy on the Spark EV. On Portland’s choppy city streets and smooth freeways, I kept trying to do the electric drive thing: smooth starts, early braking for lots of regeneration to maximize range. Trust me, electric cars can change your driving habits and quickly. But on one leg of the drive with the Spark EV’s Lead Development Engineer, Trista Scheiffer, riding shotgun, we spotted her colleague shooting by us in another Spark EV on an especially twisty section of road as we headed back to base camp. The chase was on and it was huge fun tossing the Spark EV around corners at speeds that had Trista and another journalist along for the ride grasping for the oh-sh*t bars as I doubled up the speed of an earlier pass on the same road in order to close the gap.

It must have been a sight to see two of these diminutive EVs scratching around 180-degree corners, tires howling. But even though the roads were less than pristine in spots, the Spark EV maintained composure in the corners and I could tell we weren’t close to the edge of its traction abilities. It was an impressive display of agility and speed so kudos to Chevy (and Trista) for putting together a really fun electric car.

Despite our shenanigans, by the end of the drive the Spark EV was showing 60+ miles on the tripmeter and while the battery level indicator was south of half, there was still enough in reserve to likely return close to the 80-mile range target, providing we took it easy.

Charged up, teched out

One asterisk in the initial shipment of the Spark EV is that these early models, which again are only available in Oregon and California to start, can be plugged into a regular household 120-volt outlet or a 240-volt connection using a special charger (available at a discount through Chevrolet), but not the up-and-coming newly standardized SAE Combo DC charging system, which can bring the Spark EV to 80 percent charge in just 20 minutes. Charging up using the 240 converter will top off the car in about seven hours while trickling in a juice from a built-in 120V extension cord plugged into your wall outlet will take an exasperating 16 or so hours. However, Spark EVs with the high-rate charging feature are only months away but Spark EVs sold without that capability are not upgradeable according to Chevrolet.

Being an electric car, the Spark EV is a bit of a tech powerhouse. Hit the Power button and a 7-inch LCD screen in the center of the dash quickly boots up and using Chevy’s MyLink system, clearly displays a short list of the major infotainment systems and car data monitors. Of course, there are smartphone apps that work with the system for music, news, navigation (notably from BringGo) and to keep track of charging status and other vehicle parameters.

But the real tech in the Spark EV literally lies under the hood where the small motor hides. Outside of the silent driving experience in the city, there’s not much to distinguish the Spark EV from a regular Spark. You get ABS, heated seats, keyless entry, A/C, 10 airbags, the MyLink tech suite and an 8-year/100,000-mile warranty that includes coverage of the battery. What you don’t get (or need) are oil changes, tune-ups, DEQ tests or gas stops. However, Chevy does want you to stop by for a checkup and tire rotation every two years or so.

Everything in the Spark EV works and while it is based on the gas-powered Spark, it doesn’t feel kit-like, adapted or compromised. The huge torque figure makes it way more fun to drive than expected. Chevrolet has come up with a solid, fun car that appears to deliver on the promises of driving electric right out of the box while mixing in a potent fun quotient.

Still anxious

All that said, I feel duty-bound to advise potential Spark EV buyers to hold off on the initial shipment of cars until Spark EVs with the Combo DC compatibility arrive in the next few months. I can’t in good conscience tell buyers to rush out and buy something that will take 7 hours to charge up when a 20-minute solution is right around the corner. That’s too bad but I can understand Chevy wanting to get the Spark EV out of the gate while the fast-charging standard was still in discussion. Hopefully, a workaround can be found.

Fair warning, repeatedly flattening the accelerator pedal will quickly drain the 560-pound 21-kilowatt lithium-ion battery, which lives under the rear seats.

My other complaint is one that EV makers are still likely hearing a lot of: that of insufficient range. I understand Chevrolet’s rationale for an 80-mile range and in their presentations they went to great lengths to explain their choice of that target. But looking at the cutaway Spark EV Chevy brought for journalists to inspect, I noticed the battery, however heavy, isn’t that big. There’s room for more.

Please, more range. Much more. I know it’s more expensive. I know it takes longer to charge. I know it makes the car heavier. But that is the challenge for automakers: find the solutions to these issues. I know the $27,500 Spark EV is not competition for a 250-mile range, 85kw $100,000 Tesla Model S. But Tesla, despite the high cost of their cars, at least came out swinging on the range issue with the S, even if the car ended up weighing well over two tons. But Chevy take note: it can go a relatively long distance and quickly with great handling. Perhaps for electric cars, battery weight can be a benefit and not a handicap? Discuss.

It’s time for Chevrolet – and all car companies jumping into the EV game – to create electric cars that plain solve the range anxiety issue. Whether the answer is clean-sheet designs that emphasize battery capacity over weight concerns, new battery materials, better fast charging, nuclear power or fairy dust, find a way to the 300-mile range mark, because I can drive the very enjoyable Spark EV 82 miles in just over an hour (or less) and then the fun is over. I’m sure that’s holding some people back even while EV sales surge. This is America. We take road trips. Make it possible.

So after all that, is the Spark EV worth the charging hassle, tax refund paperwork and range anxiety? My initial reaction to its unexpected fun-to-drive dynamics, excellent inner-city maneuverability and polished production quality is yes, as long as you know what you’re getting in to. This is not a car -yet – for a carefree cross-country jaunt. It’s an urban animal, a perfect second car and a great choice for city dwellers. The lease deal, taking into account the fact you don’t need a drop of gas for it, is very enticing. And as I and others have found – at least according to government numbers – is once you get a taste of driving a smooth, quiet and powerful electric car past all those gas stations, it’s really hard to go back to buying more liquid dinosaur.

Highs

  • 400-pound feet of torque just launches it off the line
  • Inspired handling for such a small car
  • Eerily quiet ride in the city
  • Easy to park, simple to drive
  • Ends (or at least lessens) your addiction to oil

Lows

  • Over-utilizing 400 nits of torque sucks down the juice
  • 82-mile max range enough for some things, but not far away things
  • Not much trunk room – but at least the rear seats fold down easily
  • A lot of tire noise at higher speeds
  • Spendy MSRP so take advantage of any and all kickbacks

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