Sausalito, CA – The battery-electric Chevrolet Spark EV made barely a ripple on the public consciousness when arrived on the Canadian market a couple years ago – because it was only available for fleet sales, not to the general public.
So unless you worked for a public utility company or some green-leaning entity with Spark EVs in its private fleet, chances are you've neither seen nor heard of the car, let alone driven one.
Now, however, General Motors of Canada says the Spark EV will be offered to the Canadian public for model year 2016, at least in the provinces that offer incentives to electric vehicle buyers – British Columbia, Ontario and Quebec.
So it seems like a good time to reprise our First Drive of a near-production Spark EV prototype, before its introduction at the 2012 Los Angeles auto show.
That it acquitted itself well in my brief drive in and around the grounds of the former Fort Baker in the shadow of the Golden Gate Bridge, came as no surprise.
Like other modern EVs, it's a real car with all the features and characteristics of its more conventional sibling except that its powered by batteries and electric motors.
In fact, a case may be made that the Spark EV is a better car, in many respects, than its gasoline-engined counterpart.
Behind the wheel
I started my day at GM's electrification indoctrination with a test drive, before learning all the details that make the Spark what it is. So I had few, if any preconceptions, beyond what experience I've absorbed from driving most of the other electrics now on the market.
As with other EVs, pushing the start button resulted only in the instrument cluster lighting up. There was no sound of an engine coming to life, nor any of the electric buzzing or whining that often characterized earlier and more experimental electric-vehicle iterations.
When an orange light in the instrument cluster signaled that the car was ready to go, I released the electric parking brake, shifted into Drive, squeezed the accelerator pedal, and moved off, quickly.
My immediate observation, of course, was the absence of noise, or at least the difference in the nature of what can be heard. Even at low speeds there is some noise from the road and tires and from the drivetrain – noise that would be there in the gasoline-engine Spark as well, but muted by the sound of the engine.
Equally obvious was the smoothness of the power application – none of the sometime surging or jerkiness, however minimal, that often accompany an internal-combustion engine's acceleration characteristics – and no transmission shifts to upset the smooth power flow.
In those respects, the Spark EV echoed my experience with other well-developed EVs.
On the first winding bit of roadway, I was surprised to find that the steering seemed both moderately boosted and precise, with an agreeable level of feel and feedback – not what I've come to expect with most electrically power-assisted systems.
My next surprise came under braking, where the usual non-linearity in response that identifies a regenerative braking system was simply absent. It braked like a normal car.
(There's an S-mode on the shifter that engages a more aggressive regenerative-braking regime to accelerate recharging and that aggressiveness is clearly apparent.)
My biggest surprise, however, came when I tipped into the "throttle" with some vigour on a moderate length straightaway. The little critter fairly leaped, with a level of performance that would do a hot-hatch proud – not at all what I was expecting from an EV.
Subsequent explorations of the cars accelerative abilities confirmed that first impression. It's a pocket rocket, particularly when accelerating in the 40-80 km/range – which makes it ideally suited to the cut-and-thrust of city driving.
GM's own figures say the current production model accelerates from 0-to-97 km/h in just 7.2 seconds.
My subsequent delve into the Spark EV's technologies over the next day-and-a-half not only confirmed but explained those initial observations.
The Spark EV is high on fun-to-drive quotient and intentionally so. GM wants to put to rest the idea that driving enjoyment and electric vehicles are mutually exclusive.
One of the keys to the Spark EVs lively performance is single, oil-cooled permanent magnet electric motor, which is designed, developed and manufactured in-house by GM.
I learned more than I knew there was to know about the details of the motor's design and construction , but its output specifications tell all you need to know. It's rated at 100 kW (130 hp) and – get this – 400 lb-ft of torque! (That prototype figure was eased back to 337 lb-ft in production trim but amplified at the wheels by a change in final drive ratio from 3.17 to 3.87:1.)
And that's not just a torque peak. It's effectively a flat line curve from start to above 2000 rpm, which equates to about 65 km/h on the road, and accounts for the car's response to my right foot across the intermediate speed range.
The Spark EV also features a host of discreet aero improvements, including a closed-off upper grille, side sill, reshaped front-and-rear fascias, and an underbody belly pan, all of which reduce drag, enhancing both performance and efficiency. It has a rated city/highway fuel consumption equivalent of 2.0 Le/100 km.
In spite of its conventional shifter, the Spark EV has no conventional transmission – just a panetary gearset that connects the motor with a fixed-reduction ratio to a final drive.
At the the other end of the car, beneath the rear seat and wrapped under and behind the rear axle is a 255-kg, 336-cell Lithium-ion battery pack made by A123, with a capacity of 18.4-kWh.
The Spark EV is one of the first cars designed to adopt the Euro-American spec, SAE-approved quick charge protocol, which will enable recharging to the 80% level in 20 minutes with commercial quick chargers (although it may present some problems when using public chargers designed for the Asian-spec CHAdeMo connector used by the Kia Soul EV and Nissan Leaf.
Beyond the usual electric-vehicle Achilles heel of range – a good-for-its type 131 km according to GM – there's little fault to find with the Spark EV that doesn't also apply to its conventional siblings.
The added mass of its battery pack makes for some brittle ride characteristics on big bumps, but any other criticisms I might have are equally applicable to the gasoline-powered Spark as well.
In fact, the Spark EV may just be a better car than its gasoline-engined counterpart for those who can live with the range limitations of an electric vehicle.
How it will cope with the Canadian winter in the hands of real customers remains to be seen.