MILFORD, Mich. -- Chevrolet, best known for its trucks and sports cars, hopes to burnish its small-car bona fides with the upcoming launch of the Spark minicar.
General Motors is aiming the Spark, a five-door hatchback, at young urban dwellers and first-time buyers who might be swayed by the Spark's modest price tag to buy new, rather than used. Chevrolet is offering more content and interior space than its rivals do in the Scion iQ, Fiat 500 and Smart ForTwo.
The Spark's arrival in showrooms in August or September should build on Chevy's recent success with small cars such as the Cruze compact and Sonic subcompact, after decades of turning out nondescript nameplates in the segment.
The basics: GM now sells the Spark in Europe, Australia, Mexico, South America and Asia, including Korea, where the car was developed and is built.
For the car's North American introduction, GM stiffened the suspension and gave it larger tires and standard 15-inch aluminum alloy wheels. It's tall -- an inch higher than the larger Sonic -- and boxy, but in test drives at GM's proving grounds here, it revealed a more stick-to-the-road feel than one might expect from such a small vehicle.
The 1.2-liter, 4-cylinder engine produces 83 hp. It's mated to a five-speed manual or an available four-speed automatic.
For North America, GM also added electronic power steering, which improves handling and fuel economy. While EPA ratings haven't yet been assigned, GM says it will meet or exceed the mileage of the iQ, which gets 36 mpg in city driving and 37 mpg on the highway.
Notable features: GM gave the sporty Spark a more in-your-face grille and front fascia for the North American model. A nifty integration of the rear-door handles into the C-pillar gives the car the look of a three-door.
Inside, the Chevrolet MyLink infotainment system offers a 7-inch touch screen that allows users to stream music and other content from their smartphones. Later this year, Chevrolet will offer a $50 navigation app that streams through the driver's iPhone or Android system and is displayed on the touch screen, which GM says is an industry first.
The rear seat offers adequate, if not quite comfortable, space to fit two adults, with 35 inches of legroom, compared with the iQ's 29 inches. A flip-and-fold rear seat creates 31 cubic feet of cargo space, more than that of the iQ (17 cubic feet), Fiat 500 (30) and Mini Cooper hatchback (24).
To play up the fun factor for younger buyers, GM is making the Spark available in a palette of off-the-wall colors, including jalapeno, techno pink and lemonade.
What Chevrolet says: "It's almost spacious. You feel like it's a bigger vehicle than it actually is," says Chris Winn, lead development engineer for the Spark. "It's a solid, well-balanced vehicle that does what you want it to do."
Compromises and shortcomings: The 83-hp engine is weaker than the engines of its rivals. The pokey acceleration gets even slower with the automatic transmission, which likely will account for 75 percent or more of sales.
The market: The U.S. minicar market is in its infancy. The Fiat 500 and Scion iQ were launched last year. IHS Automotive forecasts U.S. Spark sales of 27,000 units for 2013. That likely would more than double sales of the Scion iQ, which IHS forecasts at 10,000 for 2013.
The skinny: Chevy is offering more than one might expect given the Spark's size and rock-bottom price. While volume will be modest by Chevy standards, the Spark could serve as a way to lock in first-time buyers and a respectable entry at the low end of the brand's car lineup.