The 2014 Chevy Spark EV won Car & Driver‘s big comparison test of electric vehicles, so while I’d normally cross the gasoline (ICE) version of the Spark off any list of cars I’d ever own, I had to at least give the electric version a go.

2015 Chevrolet Spark EV in Electric Blue

2015 Chevrolet Spark EV in Electric Blue. It just screams Econobox, doesn’t it?

Of the six vehicles Car & Driver tested – Chevy’s Spark EV, Nissan’s Leaf, Ford’s Focus Electric, Fiat’s 500e, Smart’s fortwo ED and Honda’s Fit EV – the tiny Spark, the smallest Chevy made, was only the third smallest. Naturally the Smart was the smallest car tested at 106.1 inches; but it doesn’t have a back seat. The 145.6 inch Spark is only 4.1 inches longer than the Fiat 500e, but it feels just as small.

On paper, the Spark looks pretty good. The 2015 version is slightly different from the 2014. It’s packing a 140 HP AC permanent magnet synchronous motor (down 1 hp from 2014) with a whopping 327 pound-foot of torque (down from 400 lb-ft) at zero RPM. It has a smallish 21.3 kWh liquid-cooled lithium-ion battery pack positioned on the floor, so there is no loss of interior space. Of course, the lower center of gravity helps  the Spark handle far better than the gas version.

And let’s be clear, that 327 lb-ft of torque sounds great but there is no way the motor’s electronic nannies would allow that much torque to spin the front wheels from a dead stop. The Spark’s puny 15 inch aluminum alloy wheels would fly off and kill someone.  By comparison, the 4.6L V8 in the 2015 Toyota Tundra pickup truck pumps out 310 hp and 327 lb-ft of torque to the rear wheels (where monster torque belongs). Exactly how the Spark’s computers dole out the torque isn’t clear, but the Spark feels fast (C&D clocked the 2014 version at 7.9 seconds from zero to 60 mph) and with gobs of torque available from zero, it’s very entertaining zooming in and out of traffic. Take that Mazda!

The EPA rates the Spark EV at 128/109 city/highway MPGe (equivalent). As I’ve said before, while the EPA figures let you know the electric Spark is pretty efficient compared to gasoline, it’s the range that really matters to any EV buyer. Chevy quotes a range of 82 miles while Car & Driver observed a range 66 miles – not exactly a tonic for the dreaded psychological condition known as “range anxiety.”

I can’t say I’m a fan of the exterior styling of the Spark, although the electric version has subtle styling changes that look better than the ICE version. Still, it practically screams rental from all angles.

The grille of the Spark EV is sealed off because it doesn't have a conventional engine or radiator anywhere in sight.

The grille of the Spark EV is sealed off because it doesn’t have a conventional engine or radiator anywhere in sight.

The little EV badge lets people behind you know you're driving with electrons, and if one looks closely, there's no tailpipe.

The little EV badge lets people behind you know you’re driving with electrons.

Step inside the Spark and the word “Spartan” comes to mind. The plastics are cheap and hard. The switchgear is from the bottom of the GM parts bin.

Ergonomics are a mess. The side mirror adjustment switch too far forward and hard to reach from a ledge on the left side of the instrument panel and the adjustment dial and switches for the instrument panel display are impossible to reach behind the steering wheel on that same ledge.

This switchgear is hard to reach and nearly invisible, hidden by the steering wheel, from the driver's seat.  Did the engineers have the week off when this was designed?

This switchgear is hard to reach and nearly invisible, hidden by the steering wheel, from the driver’s seat. Did the engineers have the week off when this was designed?

The all-digital, motorcycle-inspired instrument panel is clear and easy to read, if not exactly bristling with innovation. A little green ball bounces up and down and changes color (watch for that angry orange!) depending on how hard you’re driving or if you’re charging the battery with regenerative braking energy.

Follow the bouncing green ball to a longer battery life and extended range.

Follow the bouncing green ball to a longer battery life and extended range.

The front seats barely adjust – the driver gets only 4 way adjustment. The cushions are short, but not as short as the ones in the Fiat 500e. The steering column only adjusts for rake, not reach, so, like the Fiat, I found it hard to find a comfortable driving position.

The 2015 Spark EV with the 2LT Trim.  The cloth is replaced by the leatherette trim. Hard to know on a short test drive if this would be comfortable sitting for a long time on a hot day.

The 2015 Spark EV with the 2LT Trim. The cloth is replaced by the leatherette trim. Hard to know on a short test drive if this would be comfortable sitting for a long time on a hot day.

The Spark – gas or electric – has two rear doors with handles hidden in the C-pillar. The rear doors and back seat are best suited for gnomes, small children, or groceries. I could barely fit in the back seat with my knees splayed, but the 60/40 split folding seats could fit two adults for a short drive.

It's cramped quarters in the back seat. However, one thing Americans do well is cup holders. Big Gulp in the back seat?

It’s cramped quarters in the back seat. However, one thing Americans do well is cup holders. Big Gulp for the kids?

The infotainment system should be called Chevy WeakLink, not MyLink. No navigation system on this standard 7 inch color display. The salesman will tell you that you can get turn-by-turn navigation by OnStar, but who does that? The best you can do for navigation is download the BringGo App for your smartphone (iOS and Android) for around $50. The navigation maps display on the MyLink screen. If you have an iPhone, it also features voice commands with Siri Eyes Free. Anyone who knows Siri knows that she doesn’t always understand what you say (but she’s working on it). Still, for an EV, I like the onboard navigation systems that are customized to show public charging stations around you.

The color screen does everything but navigation. The stereo system is kind of weak, but it's adequate and since the car is very quiet inside, you don't need tons of power to drown out a noisy ICE. At least the Spark EV has single-zone automatic climate control that seemed to work well.

The color screen does everything but navigation. The stereo system is kind of weak, but it’s adequate and since the car is very quiet inside, you don’t need tons of power to drown out a noisy ICE. At least the Spark EV has single-zone automatic climate control that seemed to work well.

What’s good:

  • Keyless entry and ignition
  • Automatic climate control
  • Automatic headlights
  • Strong “B” – regenerative braking mode
  • Linear braking
  • Very tight turning radius
  • Convenient 4 doors makes it easy to throw stuff in the back
  • Terrific electric drive motor
  • OnStar and 4G LTE built-in Wi-Fi (If you pay for the service)
  • Heated front seats
  • Obligatory smartphone app to monitor charging and do other remote functions
  • 10 Airbags
  • Optional SAE combo DC fast charger

Not So Good:

  • Cheap, flimsy, low-rent, hard plastic interior surfaces, finishes and switchgear
  • Seats don’t adjust enough and are uncomfortable
  • No telescope feature on the steering column
  • Lack of onboard energy consumption diagnostics – only the basics
  • No auto-dimming mirrors
  • No leather option
  • No backup camera
  • No HomeLink option
  • No one-touch window switches
  • No sun roof available
  • No onboard navigation
  • No digital compass
  • Chevy MyLink infotainment system

The Chevy Spark EV is most definitely a Compliance Car – it sucks electrons from the grid SOLELY to satisfy California’s Air Resources Board Zero Emissions regulations. I think that the engineers got the electric drive component right, but the overall package just creeps me out with its cheapness.  It’s one thing if you’re paying $14,000 for your kid’s first car, but it’s another if you’re paying $30,000 for new technology.

At least the lease deal is cheap. With a MSRP of $28,580, a 3 year, 10,000/mile/year lease, the drive offs were $1,887 and the payment, including sales tax, was $205.97/month. That’s less than my cable bill and many people have a higher phone bills. With the savings you get on avoiding gas stations altogether, the financial proposition of the Spark EV is tempting. I just couldn’t live with the crappy interior every time I got in the car and the seats that barely adjusted.

This is the standard cloth interior on the Spark EV 1LT. It's so cheap it looks like it's going to catch on fire if you leave it too long in the sun.

This is the standard cloth interior on the Spark EV 1LT. It’s so cheap it looks like it’s going to catch on fire if you leave it too long in the sun.

There are rumors that Chevrolet is working on an electric version of the slightly larger Sonic. There is also a 2nd Generation Volt coming in 2016. If you must have an electric car from The General, I’d wait a few more years for something better to come to market.


Don’t buy the Fiat 500e. Actually, the exact quote from Fiat Chrysler’s CEO, Sergio Marchionne was: “If you are considering buying a 500e, I hope you don’t buy it, because every time I sell one it costs me $14,000.”

The unique badge for the Fiat Chrysler's first electric car, the Fiat 500e.

The unique badge for Fiat Chrysler’s first electric car, the Fiat 500e.

2015 Fiat 500e in Bianco (white)

2015 Fiat 500e in Bianco Perla (white pearl tri-coat)

The Fiat 500e is the very definition of a “compliance car.”  It was engineered and built solely to placate California’s Zero Emission Vehicle requirements.  While Fiat may lose money on every car, the diminutive 500e buys corporate giant Fiat Chrysler Automobiles the necessary regulatory “green light” from the California Air Resources Board to continue selling cars and (very profitable) Jeeps and Ram Trucks in the Golden State.  Until this summer it was only available in California; but now the 500e is available in Oregon.  Other states that adopt California’s emissions rules may follow.

The Fiat 500e is a happy-go-lucky doe-eyed adorable miniature pug dog of a car.  It romps through traffic, turns circles around lethargic Accords and parks it in just about any space. It’s a happy spirit, even if it has a short extension cord.

2015 Fiat 500e in Electric Orange Tri-Coat Pearl

2015 Fiat 500e in Electric Orange Tri-Coat Pearl

Look at that cute face!!

Look at that cute face!!

Car & Driver clocks its zero to 60 time at a respectable 8.7 seconds. That’s pretty good for this little car weighing nearly 3,000 pounds — 600 of which is the battery pack under the floor. And while the weight of batteries is always a range-sapping penalty for an electric car, its placement can actually make a car this small feel more grounded and less prone to being blown off the road by a sudden gust of wind.

The lower center of gravity and instant torque only found with electric drive make this Fiat 500 variant the best handling of the bunch, including the feisty 500 Abarth.  I really loved the way it drove.  It’s the driving equivalent of an ultra-fast point-and-shoot digital camera. Twist  On. Point in any direction. Press the go-pedal and you’re there! Get outstanding results without being a pro!

Visibility is very good as you sit upright with a generous amount of windshield and side glass for such a small car.  However, I struggled to find a comfortable driving position. The seats had limited adjustments and a short (by my standards) cushion. It didn’t help that the steering wheel only adjusted for rake, not reach.

The interior of the 500e in Steam White with Electric Orange Accents. This looks great, but I'm not sure how you'd keep it clean.

The interior of the 500e in Steam White with Electric Orange Accents. This looks great, but I’m not sure how you’d keep it clean.

At 142.4 inches, the 500e is the smallest EV on the market with a back seat. If you chop the back seat off, you get a Smart fortwo Electric Drive which is only 106.1 inches long. Still, I can almost touch the back window of the Fiat from the front seat. The back seat of the Fiat is either (a) a torture chamber for adults, (b) a place for small children and dogs or (c) a parcel shelf. At least the seats split 50/50 and fold almost flat for a bit of cargo space. As a city car for one or two adults, it’s perfect. It’s just not the car you take to Costco or on long road trips.

The instrument panel and center console have been modified for the electric version of the ICE Fiat 500. It's a cleaner, intuitive layout.

The instrument panel and center console have been modified for the electric version of the ICE Fiat 500. It’s a cleaner, intuitive layout.

The official mileage rating for the 2015 Fiat 500e is 122 MPGe (miles per gallon equivalent) in the city and 108 MPGe on the highway – 116 MPGe combined. However, those numbers are meaningless as all anyone cares about is its actual range.  Most articles I’ve seen put the 500e’s range at between 80 – 100 miles on a single charge.  But Car & Driver came up with a real-world observed range of only 69 miles. Still, how often do you drive more than 69 miles a day? That’s more than enough for the average daily commute, with some side stops.

Here are some bullet-point random thoughts about the 500e:

The Good:

  • 83-kW electric motor with 111 horsepower and 147 lb-ft of torque
  • A large-for-its-size 24-kWh liquid-cooled lithium-ion battery
  • Standard Level 1 (120 volt) and Level 2 (240 volt) on board chargers that can fully charge the battery in 4 hours.
  • 6.6 kW / J1772 Compliant Charge System
  • Obligatory smartphone app with remote telematics
  • Comes fully loaded – the only options are the cosmetic eSports Package ($495) and a large power sunroof ($1,100)
  • Great lease price: $199/month/36 months ($217 with tax); only $999 down
  • Back up sensors
  • Single zine automatic climate control
  • Very quiet
  • Push button center console transmission easy and quick to select
  • Decent brake pedal feeling – not spongy

 

The Not So Good:

  • No keyless ignition. It seems oddly retro to turn a key to “start” an electric car
  • Tilt but no telescopic steering column
  • No backup camera (but that’s not too bad in a car this small)
  • No power seats; smallish seat cushion
  • Cheap after-market Tom Tom navigation is small by today’s standards and easily stolen from its dash top perch
  • Hard plastics everywhere
  • Plastic covers for AUX and USB ports break off the first time and every time you try to use them
  • HomeLink garage opener not available
  • Limited energy consumption displays, information and feedback
  • No Eco mode
  • No Brake or Low mode. Only one level of regenerative braking and it’s not very strong

 

See those two plastic covers for AUX and USB? They break off every time you lift one. Very disappointing quality.

See those two plastic covers for AUX and USB? They break off every time you lift one. Very disappointing quality.

To help set your mind at ease if you need to take a few trips that aren’t suitable for an electric car, Fiat offers the “Fiat 500e Pass” program:

Included with the purchase of the Fiat 500e, the program provides owners and lessees of a new Fiat 500e with up to 12 days of alternative transportation in a standard-sized vehicle each year for the first three years after purchase through Enterprise Rent-A-Car, National Car Rental or Alamo Rent A Car in the U.S.

That’s a pretty good offer to sweeten the already great lease deal for the 500e. However, from what I can tell, the people with a 500e already have another car they can drive for longer trips – either a second car or one belonging to a family member.

The side profile of the 500e highlights the standard rear spoiler. It gives it a cheeky appearance that fits its spunky, fun demeanor.

The side profile of the 500e highlights the standard rear spoiler. It gives it a cheeky appearance that fits its spunky, fun demeanor.

To sum things up, I think the Fiat 500e is a fun, very affordable electric car and I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it to most drivers.  But it’s not the car for me.  Aside from some glaring feature omissions and the cheap plastic panels, I just couldn’t find a comfortable driving position. And that’s a deal killer.

Chat  —  Posted: October 14, 2014 in Automobile Manufacturers, Fiat, Hybrids, Electrics and other "Green" Technology
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