Saturday, April 19, 2014
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Chevrolet's Spark EV gives a thrifty thrill

Gallery: Chevrolet's Spark EV gives a thrifty thrill

When the first modern electric cars came out of the gate in 2010, they were marketed as eco saviors. Not only would they rescue the polar bears from extinction, they would prevent forest fires, droughts – and, possibly, even the apocalypse.

What happened as a result of this zero-emissions posturing was a politicizing of electric propulsion that has obscured the dollars and sense of their operation. Dollars, because electric cars operate for about 2 cents per mile versus 15 cents for the average gas-powered car. And sense, because in California, they can bypass freeway congestion with single-occupant carpool lane access.

The problem is that customers have to buy or lease the car to reap such savings, and the upfront costs have been prohibitive. Many electric cars cost in excess of $40,000.

But Chevrolet is chiseling away at the cost issue with its first all-electric vehicle, the Spark EV, which has an outright purchase price of $27,495 – which can be reduced after applying a $7,500 federal tax credit. The Spark is the vehicle that set off the current $199-a-month lease wars among EV makers when it went on sale in late July. The Honda Fit, Nissan Leaf, Fiat 500e and Smart electric car can now all be had for the same monthly lease price.

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    I ditched my personal daily driver – a 2012 Nissan Leaf – for the Spark EV for five days recently to see how the econo EV stacked up. As a whole, I was impressed.

    The Spark EV is the same as the regular Spark mini car. That is to say, it's a four-door hatchback that seats four and, if carrying that many passengers, doesn't offer all that much leg room, though it can still carry five bags of groceries. Its most significant change from the base Spark is the powertrain, which consists of a 21 kilowatt-hour, lithium-ion battery pack and 105 kilowatt – 140-horsepower equivalent – permanent-magnet electric motor. Combined, they produce a torque figure more common on sports cars: 400 pound-feet.

    Chevy estimates its range per charge at 82 miles. The first day I commuted to work, my fully charged Spark told me I could travel 89 miles before needing to plug in. According to the odometer, I had traveled 36 miles by the time I got to the Orange County Register. Most of my travel was on freeways, but a small stint was uphill, both of which should have gobbled up more energy than city driving, where the constant slowing and braking help replenish the battery. Still, I arrived at my destination with 60 miles of range left – as if I had traveled just 29 miles. To have so much forgiveness built into the Spark's range calculator was a hugely pleasant surprise. On subsequent days, running the air conditioner or even driving at a consistent 80 mph didn't seem to make as much of a difference in my projected range as it does in my first-generation Leaf.

    I was aware of the car's most important metrics because of the instrument cluster, which isn't part of the dash but is mounted, oddly, on the steering wheel column. The colorful display let me know exactly how many kilowatt-hours I was consuming or generating based on how I was engaging my foot pedals. Whenever I was regenerating energy, from coasting as well as braking, a small green graphic spun into action to say so. Coasting offers the greatest regenerative rewards.

    Like most electric vehicles now on the market, the Spark can be driven in two drive modes. Unlike the Leaf, which requires that the driver actuate the eco setting, the Spark defaults to the less responsive, range-extending eco mode. Its sport setting needs to be activated to fully access its whopping and instantaneous torque, which is thrilling but ultimately damped by the Spark's less sport-oriented aspects.

    Its starting price already hints at its fit, finish and ride quality. Being a mini car, the Spark rolls on 15-inch wheels more commonly found on scooters, which had the unfortunate side effect of making the car dance on grooved pavement and also increased the decibel level in the cabin.

    Already, the interior isn't anything to brag about. The seats are more firm than truly comfortable, and the cockpit feels a little cheap, with a primitive design and layout. Overall, the interior feels rudimentary, with the exception of the high-tech touch screen.

    Clearly, most of the Spark's tech is under the hood, not inside the passenger compartment.

    In December, the Spark EV will be the first electric vehicle on the market to use the SAE DC Combo fast-charger connector, which can recharge the car to 80 percent in 20 minutes. The SAE DC Combo will become the fast-charger standard for plug-in vehicles from Audi, BMW, Chrysler, Ford, Porsche and Volkswagen, along with other General Motors vehicles. I plugged the Spark into a regular 120-volt wall outlet, which recharged it at a rate of about 3 miles of range an hour.

    I appreciated the Spark's general communicativeness. When it's plugged in and charging, it honks in acknowledgment. It lacks any sound, however, when backing up. Oh well. At least it's so quiet that drivers will be able to hear the screams of bystanders as they jump out of the way.

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    2014 CHEVROLET SPARK EV:

    –Powertrain: 21 kilowatt-hour, lithium-ion battery pack, 105-kilowatt permanent-magnet drive motor, liquid active thermal control, direct drive

    –Range per charge: 82 miles

    –Recharge time: 20 minutes to 80 percent capacity with DC Combo fast charger, 7 hours with 240-volt, level 2 charger; less than 17 hours with 120-volt, level 1 charger

    –Horsepower: 140

    –Torque: 400 pound-feet

    –Top speed: 90 mph

    –0 to 60 mph: less than 8 seconds

    –Overall length: 146.5 inches

    –Wheelbase: 93.5 inches

    –Curb weight: 2,967 pounds

    –EPA-estimated MPG equivalent: 128 mpg-e city, 109 mpg-e highway

    –Eligible for $7,500 federal tax credit, $2,500 California Clean Vehicle Rebate and $500 GM rebate to install 240 volt electric vehicle charger

    –Base price: $26,685

    –Price as tested: $26,685

    Prices exclude destination charge.

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    (c)2013 The Orange County Register (Santa Ana, Calif.)

    Visit The Orange County Register (Santa Ana, Calif.) at www.ocregister.com

    Distributed by MCT Information Services

    Susan Carpenter The Orange County Register (MCT)