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First Drive: 2014 Chevrolet Spark EV

Adding personality to battery power.

by on Jul.22, 2013

The 2014 Chevrolet Spark EV is just reaching showrooms in California and Oregon.

One of the surprise hits of the 2013 has been the little Chevrolet Spark, the smallest offering the U.S. maker has offered American motorists in decades. A key to that success has been its distinctive design and personality.

That’s good news as Chevy launches a battery-powered version of the Spark. Up until now electric vehicles have been treated as sort of a one-of-a-kind category without much in the way of distinguishing characteristics – other than their lack of tailpipe emissions. But as the number of pure battery-electric vehicles, or BEVs, on the road continues to grow, they’re beginning to develop some distinctive personalities.

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General Motors engineers have clearly managed to distinguish the 2014 Chevrolet Spark EV from other BEVs by making it fit quite nicely into a crowded urban landscape.

The Spark EV is GM’s first pure electric vehicle since it pulled the EV1 out of production in 1999. While it’s range, at 82 miles, isn’t all that much more than the final version of that old GM battery car, the new Chevy is quite a lot of fun to drive — in fact, it’s way more than the EV1.

The Spark EV may make only 140 hp but it punches out 400 lb-ft of torque.

The Spark EV weighs about 25% more than a Spark with a conventional gasoline engine but the weight is carried low to the ground so it gives the battery car some extra stability. GM engineers also have compensated for the extra weight by revising the suspension system and the result is both a nice, smooth ride and solid handling characteristics.

(GM Planning to export new Chevrolet Spark EV. Click Here for the full story.)

We were already impressed during a limited, earlier ride of a prototype of the Chevy battery car, and the production version of the Spark EV was even more impressive, all things considered.  It stayed nice and flat through curves, though the electric power steering offered rather little feedback to the driver.

From a horsepower perspective, the 2014 Chevrolet Spark EV offers a reasonable 140 for a vehicle of this size. But what’s likely to impress is the battery car’s 400 nicely controlled foot-pounds of torque. EV aficionados will be quick to point out that electric motors make maximum torque the moment they start spinning, so the result is the Spark EV can go from 0 to 60 in less than eight seconds. The 1.2-liter gas model can barely manage the same task in just under 11 seconds.

The torquey little motor can launch the Spark EV from 0 to 60 in less than 8 seconds.

Better yet, the battery version of the Spark still had plenty of power left for passing slower moving vehicles during a 25 mile trip down the expressway.

(GM launches study of battery-car maker Tesla Motors. Click Here for the complete story.)

The battery system, supplied by A123 Systems, has 336 prismatic cells using lithium iron nanophosphate chemistry, configured into four modules. The chemistry is different from that used in the Chevrolet Volt, and is designed to maximize range rather than performance.  But both vehicles use an active liquid cooling and heating system, which ensures improved reliability over the life of the vehicle.

The 21.3 kilowatt-hour lithium-ion battery can be charged in as little as seven hours on a 240-volt circuit, though that stretches to 14 hours if you only have access to a conventional 120-volt line.  GM also says Spark EVs capable of plugging into a quick-charge, Level III system can bring a dead battery back to life in 20 minutes. That version of the battery car will be available later this autumn. There currently are very few of these high-speed chargers in the U.S. but their numbers are expected to grow rapidly in the next few years.

It takes 7 hours to charge the Spark EV on a 240-volt line.

While the federal government may be attempting to boost interest in electric propulsion by offering buyers up to $7,500 in tax credits, California’s Air Resources Board, or CARB, has taken a carrot-and-stick approach to building an EV market by setting minimum sales targets for manufacturers while also offering incentives to buyers.

Like a number of other makers, GM is focusing its attention on California, though the Chevrolet Spark EV also will be sold in Oregon.  Dealers in those two states are just taking delivery of the first batch of the battery cars. In California, The base price of $27,495 drops as low as $17,495 after the application of the federal and state incentives. Meanwhile, GM is taking a cue from its competitors and offering incentivized leasing of as little as $199 a month.

Not so coincidentally, perhaps, Fiat is offering a $199-a-month lease on its own mini-electric, the 500e.

Is it worth the money? GM is quick to point out that the 2014 Chevrolet Spark EV would save the typical owner about $150 a month in fuel costs.

(For the maker, well, that’s another matter. GM engineers declined to get drawn into a discussion about cost, though they noted some of the hardware for the battery car has been carried over from the Volt, while their experience with that plug-in helped expedite the development of the Spark. Fiat/Chrysler CEO Sergio Marchionne has been much more blunt. He estimates his company will lose about $10,000 on every Fiat 500e it sells.)

A look inside the Spark EV.

Like the gas-powered Spark, the EV is part of Chevrolet’s new emphasis on “Small Is Beautiful.” And that means it is not the sort of pint-sized econobox one might have expected in the past.  Not only is it distinctively styled but well-equipped for both its size and price.

(Chrysler getting charged up about battery cars. Click Here for more.)

The Spark comes with plenty of up-to-date features such as 10 standard air bags and MyLink Radio – a seven-inch color touch screen radio capable of displaying smart-phone-based music, photos and contacts for hands-free calling.  The MyLink Radio comes with two embedded apps for Pandora Internet radio and Stitcher smart radio.

Besides connectivity, the younger motorists Spark targets demand an element of style. The battery car’s interior includes a quirky, motorcycle-inspired, column-mounted instrument cluster that features one of two large, full-color LCD screens.

The combination of the car’s surprising punch and its nice proportion gives the Spark EV a very distinct personality all of its own.  And while battery cars aren’t for everyone, Chevy’s entry into this expanding niche should garner plenty of interest.

Paul A. Eisenstein contributed to this report.

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