2021 Chevrolet Spark LT Rental Review – Not Sparking My Interest
I took a few days off in December for a vacation, flying to New Mexico just in time to avoid the rise of the Omicron variant of COVID. I would need a rental car to get from El Paso, TX airport to Las Cruces – and to get around town a bit, maybe.
Being on the salary of an automotive journalist and knowing that I would probably never have more than one passenger at a time, I decided to take the cheapest route and get a compact – “compact” as defined by the rental car company, but subcompact by the EPA.
“Nissan Versa” or the like, the website said. Not Great, but something that I could live with for a few days. I didn’t need a lot of space or comfort.
As you probably know, this “or the like” means you don’t know the make and model of your tank until you land and settle business at the counter. Or in this case, not until I walked into the “compact” section of the parking lot, deal in hand, to see the only car there was a Chevrolet Spark.
I tried to look on the bright side. It had been a long time since I had driven a Spark, but I remembered the car being a bit of a keen driver for the class, and not a total penalty bench. At least not when he was new. Would this sight hold up?
Also, would the difference between rental cars and the premium cars that OEMs usually lend us for testing be noticeable?
(Full disclosure: Since it was a vacation, I paid for the rental car out of my own pocket, although my business managers allowed me to pay for the fuel.)
Things haven’t started well for the Spark – Google Maps directed me to the Trans-Mountain Freeway, a hilly, winding highway that winds around the outskirts of El Paso. The 1.4-liter four-cylinder that puts out a paltry 98 horsepower and 94 lb-ft of torque struggled predictably in the face of an uphill climb. He also struggled on crossings over flat ground. And when asked to do something other than slow down.
And as with a whiny teenager unhappy at being asked to mow the lawn, the Four didn’t hesitate to complain when put to work.
The presence of a continuously variable automatic transmission was doing it a disservice.
I had hoped the Spark could redeem itself in terms of handling, as I remember the car being a bit lively, at least for its size and class, from past encounters.
This time it was a mixed bag. There are some uh, spark of life in that Chevrolet when you meet a corner, and that’s correct sharp enough to make you forget for a millisecond that you are driving an econobox. But there is also not enough steering feel and sometimes too much play in said direction. It’s not the worst car in the class, and you get a half-smile if you get it right, but it’s not a secret hot hatch, either.
The short wheelbase contributes to a stiff ride (there are MacPherson struts up front and a compound crank with springs and shocks in the rear), although this is tolerable on smoother local roads. When I hit the pockmarked sidewalk things got decidedly less fun, though still barely acceptable.
The rental car trim – this appeared to be an LT and not the 2LT as it didn’t have a keyless start – means few options and cheaper interior materials, but a few convenience features stood out. It helps that the 1LT trim is a cut above the base. First, even the base version of GM / Chevy’s infotainment system was easy to use, and this car had Apple CarPlay. It’s annoying not having factory navigation on a rental car – obviously most renters won’t know the area – but having CarPlay and being able to plug in helped (and kept the rental company from have to invest in a TomTom or Garmin). I also appreciated the inclusion of satellite radio. Necessary when driving in semi-rural areas.
By the way, if you want semi-autonomous driving aids or heated seats, you’ve got to look to the 2LT. I can understand why a car rental company kept things cheap and the heated seats weren’t really lacking, even though it can get cold in the desert in December, especially before the midday sun.
Did not see an unusual amount of wear and tear on the car which means there is a combination of the materials hold up well in harsh conditions, the car is treated well by customers or the rental company does. decent work with basic cleaning and maintenance.
Stiff seats were a problem, at least on the two long trips to and from the airport, and the small cargo area barely accommodated my full-size wheeled suitcase and backpack. In fact, I think I eventually had to move my backpack to the backseat to better accommodate my suitcase. The same suitcase that’s supposed to fit in a standard airplane overhead compartment was barely accommodated in a car’s cargo area. Even taking into account the Spark’s small size, it’s a bit absurd.
I averaged about 34 mpg over 144 miles of driving in a mix of highway and suburban driving that leaned heavily toward the highway.
As always, I try to consider the strengths and weaknesses of a car in relation to its class (also the price, but this does not apply as directly in a rental review). I don’t expect a subcompact to have rock-solid acceleration, but even a small car with a small, low-powered engine should have a bit more dynamism. Handling is a nice surprise – it’s sportier than it should be, and that’s the only dynamic highlight – and the ride is what you’d expect.
I give Chevy credit for having a cheap car with materials that apparently held up well despite the torture the rental cars endured, and for making features like Apple CarPlay and satellite radio available on a version. lower like LT. I’m less optimistic about the lack of cargo space, even in such a small car.
There isn’t much about this Chevrolet that will (sorry) pique your interest, but there is still at least one more econobox you might come across in the field and it’s made by Mitsubishi. At least that Spark wasn’t a Desert Mirage.
[Images © 2022 Tim Healey/TTAC]
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