The performance polish provided by Spark isn’t so much about how it drives as how it operates as a whole.
For: Composed and failsafe dynamics, class-leading connectivity, good price.
Against: Torque-lite engine.
SO many small cars are cited as ‘see me out’ fare; specifically chosen as final fling fare by the elderly before they stop driving altogether.
Nothing wrong with that, per se, though it does tend to leave impression that these are goodies for oldies only, right?
What surprise, then, for Holden to turn that scenario wholly on its head. When launching its new entry into the micro-car range, the sub-Barina-sized Spark, it talked less about those who were heading toward their … erm .. final journey than those who were taking their first.
Holden’s anticipation of Spark being of interest to so-called ‘Millennials’ – those who might perhaps have only recently stowed their ‘L’ plates and might also still be finessing their driving techniques – won’t be easily realised.
This age group has such low interest in cars many in it don’t bother with driving at all. Those that do seek wheel time might just as likely prefer to find it with something used, most likely a pre-owned ex-Japan car.
So it’s a tough crowd. Holden at least acknowledges that any car out to win it over has to be something special for styling, price, pep and specification.
Is that the Spark?
Outwardly, it seems well sited. It’s an all-new design built on an all-new global platform, and has received extensive local development by Holden engineers in the keys areas of suspension, steering and ESC calibration.
Despite being a big spend item in terms development cost, the money isn’t too bad: The entry LS edition costs $16,490 in manual or $17,990 with a constantly variable transmission, while the higher-end LT here is $19,990, which though a bit further removed from pocket money range is nonetheless $500 cheaper than the outgoing Barina Spark and still price-matching against almost competitors.
More relevantly, it lands with the most powerful engine in the sector, the best equipment level and something that will ease the anxieties of any parent, a five star ANCAP crash test result.
Keeping it simple to keep it cheap has been popular past formula for small cars.
Yet it’s a plan that isn’t so easily stuck to these days; technology has increasingly become integral to our lives not simply because there’s so much more of it about, also because it’s no longer expensive. Cellphones are the perfect example: You’ve got more smarts in your picket today than a high-end car packed just a decade ago. And it costs peanuts – that’s why even high-end phones are able to be given away when you sign up for a plan.
That’s a concept Holden kept in mind when configuring Spark. The pre-release programme involved a lot of studying to sort its social standing. Not only respect to whether it looked smart enough but if technology was up to scratch.
That’s why a media interface which supports Apple CarPlay and Android Auto becomes so important; though this 55-year-old very much enjoyed this convenience, too, I acknowledge that it’s really all the more important as a millennium-generation must-have. Bringing that chic connectivity to an end of the market that covets it the most could well be a deal-breaker in itself.
That’s not to demean everything else that goes into the Spark. The safety side of things also takes special consideration, given the audience. While perhaps that’s not a foremost consideration for those who will end up driving this car, it will certainly be up there with those who likely subsidise its purchase. Parents will want reassurance their sons and - more likely - daughters who have only recently gained their driving licences will have a fair chance of protection. There are no absolute guarantees with crash protection – fact is, if a small light car such as this meets a much larger vehicle there is going to be a certain predictability about the outcome – yet the optimum crash test score for Spark suggests it gives a better chance than some other competitors and certainly has to be a safer choice than a pre-owned, years-old JUC for the same money. It has six airbags (front, front side, full length curtain), ABS, ABD, brake assist, traction control and stability control.
One good thing about Spark is that the base spec is pretty solid; the least expensive version doesn’t feel like a poverty pack car: Though the carpets look a bit cheap, the most obvious sign of cost-cutting is with the rear windows lacking electric operation. Yes kids, incredibly, you need to turn that wee handle to make the glass go up and down. Hard to believe all cars were once like this, isn’t it?
That seven-inch touch screen is standard to both cars, for instance, and so too air conditioning, remote central locking and steering wheel audio controls.
So unless you feel you deserve dash inserts, leather look seat trim, leather wrapped steering wheel, 15-inch alloys rather than 14-inch rims, cruise control, reversing camera and keyless entry, then the LT on test isn’t a must-have, though in saying that the last three items are good buying for the price.
Looking back on my first years of driving, I’ve got to say that I wasn’t the sharpest or cleanest at reversing into carparks; the occasional lightly-wrought ‘bumper-touch’ seemed to be part and parcel of that methodology; a lot of stuff had metal bumpers then, so it wasn’t so bad. I’d have loved to have had this car’s camera especially. Sure either this, or parking sensors, are almost mandatory for a car designed to appeal to first-time buyers and to spend most of its life in an urban environment. On the other hand, Holden is over-egging with its patently fake leather trim; the base car’s cloth looks milkshake-resistant and it is more comfortable.
All this, and only now do we get to considering the actual design? Well, that’s potentially the way the buyer set might do it. Obviously, a car like this has to have some degree of street cred; in this age group your car-less mates are always going to be pestering for a ride, but you can only put up with ‘Nana car’ jokes for so long, right?
The Spark is never going to replace a Ferrari as an ultimate cool choice – in that respect, it hasn’t the chutzpah of a Fiat 500, either.
Yet a design overseen by Aussie Mike Simcoe, whose CV includes one of Australia’s greatest-looking cars, the ‘modern’ Commodore-derived Monaro, isn’t too bad.
Sure, it’s a chunky wee thing, by necessity: If you need max space, nothing works better than a box. But it’s characterful and some design tweaks like reducing the ride height – it’s 40mm lower than the tippy-toed outgoing model – those smart-looking wheels and a flamboyant colour palette are good stuff for an audience whose personalization intent will likely even run to giving it a nick-name. If not them, their friends … Kermit for this one was an inevitable. Buyers can also get contrast-coloured mirror caps, spoilers, grille surrounds and wheel inserts and alloy pedals and sill plates.
In the micro car segment, every millimetre is critical yet while those external dimensions (3.6 metres long, 1.6 metres wide) are compact, it’s not too bad for interior room; for me, the most obvious sign of constraint showed in an ability to touch the passenger door from the driver’s seat without having to stretch. But I’m tall.
Alfa Romeo-style semi-concealed rear door handles might have some wondering how to access the rear seats. The back half of the cabin isn’t overly spacious – necessity demands the rear bench has to be quite short and upright – but it is space efficient enough to accommodate young adults. Boot space is at a premium with just 185 litres but dropping the 60/40 split rear seats raises that to an acceptable 985 litres.
The sales presentation will likely go big on this car having the gruntiest engine in its class. Nice angle for a pitch, but get real … although that all-new 1.4-litre four-cylinder petrol engine certainly has appeal in carrying up to 300cc more capacity (and one extra cylinder) over some cited rivals, it’s not a race car.
The 73kW output looks handy against a Kia Picanto, Mitsubishi Mirage and Suzuki Celario, with 63kW, 57kW and 50kW respectively, but it’s a closer call on torque (with 124Nm) and rest assured it still demands plenty of revving and no small amount of stick to hold station in the fast lane.
Beyond the figures, and the fact that this mill is all-alloy, there’s nothing particularly avante garde about what’s under the bonnet. True, it takes variable valve timing and port injection, but in this category a lot of others have turbocharging, which opens up other efficiencies. A redline (actually, also a rev limiter) of 6500rpm and the brand’s citing of a 4400rpm peak for torque reminds it needs a bit of revving to get going. However, chances are that it would be treated that way even if it was more relaxed. When I was young, I tended to go flat out everywhere.
The Spark is sustained by that approach, but it gets all revvy with a certain degree of responsibility. If you ask to work too hard, in fact it gets a bit breathless.
Most buyers will choose the CVT auto option but there’s no other way in the LT anyway. To overcome the “stretching elastic band” characteristic that blights many small car CVTs, GM has implemented defined ratio steps. The desire being that this will reduce engine drone and to overcome this transmission type’s tendency to occasionally produce a spike of high revs.
It’s not a failsafe – go too hard on the throttle too soon and the poor thing will shriek in protest – but, generally speaking, is an improvement on some older implementations. The set-up really is friendly for hand-shifting between the steps, though it’s just as easy to simply to hold it in Drive and drive within the happy spot. It’s nippy enough that way, but not so much as a fireball as to ensure the driver will soon be accruing a glovebox-full of speeding tickets.
Assuredly, you know when this car is doing 100kmh: It feels and sounds quite busy. Yet it also feels quite competent and sure-footed, which is another plus point for new drivers.
It speaks volumes that Holden launched this car at the Lang Lang proving grounds and encouraged journalists to push it well beyond what most owners would ever attempt.
Again, it’s not so sporty as to encourage overtly aggressive driving, but the experience of that initial day, firmly abetted by seven days on test, suggested the basic design improvements over the old car – namely the longer wheelbase and wider track- plus Holden’s input into damper tune, steering calibration and electronic stability control characteristics has been massively beneficial.
It’s an engaging car, yes, but more importantly is it one that has some of the certainty and competence of a larger, more substantial offer. I’m not saying it’s be first pick for undertaking an Auckland to Wellington jaunt on anything like a regular basis, but it does cope with open road work well enough to make it worth considering for that kind of adventure. Considering the price point and category, it really does a great job.
One obvious plus point is with the ride. Short wheelbase vehicles often have tendency for twitchiness and a choppy ride and it’s here where damping redevelopment pays dividends; it has a more settled demeanour than many of its ilk.
Pushing along typical country roads – and the fact you’ll ever consider it for those is a breakaway from the usual ‘best for the city’ advice – and it’s clear just how good the suspension tune is. Rebound control is impressive; there’s a composure you don’t normally find at this level.
Likewise, the ESC has been excellently calibrated to kick in when needed, and with subtlety and finesse, and even those 185/55 R15s, though barely bigger than wheelbarrow tyres, have good grip. The steering, feel, too, is quite nice if, of course, always rather light.
Of course, it has to work hard at times – especially on steep ascents – to maintain pace with the more obviously grown-up traffic, but there’s a sense of compliance, composure and confidence that is very impressive. Moreover, it feels quite well-balanced and, in turn, that makes it more predictable.
All this is important because, let’s face it, some of the audience will be as interested in what is going on in the virtual world as the real one. Which why adding Apple CarPlay and Android Auto is so important.
Quite apart that allows for the most cost-effective sat nav implementation possible, this tethered set up also pretty much nullifies the potential for drivers being distracted by their phones. It’s a simple fact that some phone users, no matter how many times you tell them how dumb it is to take calls and text on the move, are going to do just that anyway.
Tether in a phone to the car and that distracting handset use becomes impossible. Yet every function still avails. It is just that everything – from Siri and voice activation for reading and dictating voice messagesto access to on-device music and podcasts to using apps such as Spotify, Pandora and TuneIn radio – all diverts through the screen and the car’s speakers. It’s smarter and has to be safer.
Though it has above-average dynamics for a mico-car, Spark is not much of a machine for all-out driving enthusiasts. But that’s not a role it ever had to fulfil.
What Holden had to do was present a vehicle that proposed above average efficiency; a car that was cheap and reliable to run, easy to operate, failsafe and as safe as a small car can be. Something that presented technological flair and a dollop of chic creativity, but nothing too superfluous.
The Spark does all that. It’s not going to fire up everyone, but the priority audience could settle for a lot worse, and often does.