Despite falling fuel prices, 2016 promises to be abanner year for fuel-sipping vehicles.
Chevrolet, in particular, is re-launching the tiny hatchback Spark, along with the compact Cruze sedan and the electric Volt.
There's even a hybrid variant of the 2016 Malibu and a higher-mpg turbocharged four-cylinder version of the Camaro. Those moves represent a not-insignificant level of commitment to saving money at the pumps as well as cutting pollution.
The stubby little made-in-Korea Spark has been a surprise hit since its 2013 model-year debut with more than 1 million cars sold around the world. Now, a clean-sheet replacement that's due to arrive in early 2016 improves on the original in both style and substance.
Base price:$13,500 (including destination)
Engine: 1.4-liter, I-4 (98 hp)
EPA rating (city/highway): 31/41 mpg (CVT)
As the Bowtie division's least-expensive vehicle, the Spark remains both thrifty and spacious although there's a bit less of the latter, owing to a more slimmed-down design and a lower (by 1.6 inches) roofline. All other key measurements — length, width and distance between the front and rear wheels — differ only slightly. Both passenger and cargo space are down a touch, but that's a small price to pay for a more mature-looking car that should appeal to more buyers, especially in North America where we tend to lean toward the mainstream for appearance.
What should also resonate with the small-car crowd is the Spark's new four-cylinder engine. The 1.4-liter unit churns out 98 horsepower and 94 poundfeet of torque. That compares to 84 horsepower and 83 pound-feet for the previous model's 1.2-liter powerplant. The output is still modest, but then again there's only about 2,250 pounds of curb weight to deal with, which is nearly 1,000 less than a base Corvette.
Note that the electric Smart EV continues unchanged into the 2016 model year.
As with the previous-gen Spark, the engine connects to a 5-speed manual transmission, or optional continuously variable unit (CVT). With the cars in the Spark's diminutive size range, it's likely that going with the manual gearbox is the best way to wring out maximum thrust when needed. It's also more fun to drive. Either way, fuel economy is about the same, no matter the transmission: 30 mpg city and 41 highway with the stick; or 31/41 with the CVT. (The 2015 Spark's best numbers were 30/39 with the CVT.)
There's enough interior room to comfortably fit four adults and their gear, although there's a middle seatbelt in back for those times when you absolutely must transport a fifth. Chevrolet assures that all aboard will be treated to a quieter and more comfortable ride, thanks to strengthened body structure and added sound-absorbing materials.
The interior also receives completely revised instrument and control panels along with upgraded seats, about which the Spark's lead designer says, "you have a greater feeling of sitting in them rather than on them."
At $13,500 (including destination charges), the base Spark LS comes out of the gate with air conditioning, a 7-inch touch-screen display with Bluetooth and WiFi capability, a rearview camera, front disc brakes and a total of 10 airbags. Unfortunately, you do get shorted on the power windows, which are standard with the 1LT trim, along with fog lamps and fancier exterior/interior trim.
Moving up to the top-end 2LT adds such niceties as 15-inch alloy wheels (wheel covers are standard), up-level audio system, heated front seats and keyless remote entry with push-button start. Also included is a park assist that sounds a warning when you're closing in on an object while moving forward or backward.
On the options list is a sunroof, navigation system and a Driver Confidence Package that includes the latest in crash-avoiding technology. You'll get lane-departure and forward collision alert as well as side blind-spot warning.
In this time of cheap gas, it will be interesting to see how the Spark and similar models such as the Ford Fiesta, Mitsubishi Mirage and Mercedes-Benz Smart will fare. However for zipping around town and looking good doing it, isn't the Spark appealing anyway?