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Can the Spark Convince Drivers to Switch to Electric Vehicles?

Words by Leon Kaye

GM is now ready to roll out the 2014 Spark EV, and to that end, I flew to Portland to join Chevrolet and a dozen journalists to test this new electric car on the Rose City’s streets. GM tasked us with the testing of many of the Chevy Volt’s components tucked into a frame similar to the gas-powered Spark EV’s shell. Here’s what GM promises: 82 miles of range; a fun, sporty drive; and a competitive price of under $20,000 after a federal tax credit.

So, on Tuesday morning, I hopped into a Spark EV with Green Car Congress’ Mike Millikin. For several hours, we drove, used and abused the car throughout and above Portland. Overall, for a city dweller with an average-length commute, the Spark EV is a compelling choice—and to GM’s credit, the company is pitching this car to that exact demographic.

Let’s be clear: the Spark EV will work if your commute is no more than 30 to 35 miles maximum one-way as well as for running errands around town. If you are a regular at Costco or IKEA, limit your shopping to packs of gum and lamps. The car, with its hatchback rear door, has enough room for several bags from Trader Joe’s or Target. Considering how compact this 3,500 pound car is (560 pounds of which is the lithium-ion battery pack), the Spark EV is still comfortable in front or the rear, even for a 6-feet tall bull-in-a-china-shop like me. With battery technology’s current limitations, you will not be driving from LA to the Bay Area anytime soon, nor will you tear up I-5 as the Spark EV’s maximum speed is 90 mph.

But for out and about town, the Spark EV works and handles the roads well, and is a practical car. As GM’s Britta Gross--who has the most awesome and interesting job as the company’s Director of Advanced Vehicle Commercialization Policy—insisted during this trip, recent research indicates as much as 90 percent of EV charging takes place at home. Add potential gas savings of up to $150 a month, not to mention miniscule maintenance costs (no tedious service schedule!), the Spark EV could eventually become a car for the masses—or at the very least, introduce the masses to electric vehicles.

So how does the Spark EV perform on the road? I admittedly am biased against small cars, having once owned a Ford Escort, felt like a sardine driving small Opels in Europe and almost ended up flattened on the highway between Dubai and Abu Dhabi in a Toyota Yaris. Plus, it is risky for a car company to pitch any car as “fun” in this age of social media skewering. But the Spark EV is more than fun. With 400 lb-ft of torque, my lead foot was constantly tickled. In fact, GM claims the Spark EV flies from 0 to 60 in 7.6 seconds, but Portland’s traffic never gave me the opportunity. Accelerating at higher speeds, from 60 to 70, for example, was smooth. Traipsing in the “low” gear made navigating along the outer city’s curvy hilly roads a breeze and helped with regenerative braking. And none of that high-pitched whining evident in older hybrids or EVs (to be clear I mean the cars, not drivers) was noticeable as I drove the Spark EV.

As with other EVs and plug-ins, the car’s battery monitoring system should teach owners how to drive smarter, and the buttons on the dash made it easy and intuitive to sort through all of the controls. Overall, the control panel and dashboard were seamlessly designed and not fussy: I could monitor my driving performance and select my tunes with little fumbling. If you lack a sense of direction take note—you need to subscribe to OnStar or download the BringGo app. However, a USB port in addition to the standard AC charger can preserve your phone’s precious battery power.

Speaking of the Spark EV’s battery, I am notorious for wearing out electric cars’ batteries, but at the end of the driving day, I had 30 miles of range left after a 51 mile drive. The battery pack, made of four modules and 336 individual battery cells, has a warranty of 100,000 miles or eight years. For charging, a 120 volt charger is included with the car; a 240 volt charger kit is an option. GM also says the SAE J1772 connector could allow for fast DC charging of a battery in 20 minutes, but the technology will take time to scale, as the Spark EV is the first EV to have an option with such an outlet that includes two extra pins for more rapid charging.

For now, the Spark EV is available in Oregon and California; GM will start advertising the car next month. But can it succeed? GM’s challenge is to educate consumers on their commuting habits versus their “range anxiety”; the potential savings in fuel (Ms. Gross quoted that average of $150 a month in fuel against a $199 monthly lease payment; and again, the company should push the end of those costly maintenance schedules (I should know as I wrote this from a coffee shop as I turned my car in for a costly visit). In the meantime, Ms. Gross is working on businesses and utilities to increase the spread of charging stations: after all, such an infrastructure is crucial if EVs will ever grow in acceptance.

The biggest test, however, is the Spark EV’s performance. If buyers are as happy with the car over five years as I was over five hours, then this car could become the catalyst convincing drivers it is not only an “alternative” car, but a practical one and the reality for the future depending on their lifestyles, driving habits and where they currently live.

Based in Fresno, California, Leon Kaye is the editor of GreenGoPost.com and frequently writes about business sustainability strategy. Leon also contributes to Guardian Sustainable Business; his work has also appeared on Sustainable Brands, Inhabitat and Earth911. You can follow Leon and ask him questions on Twitter or Instagram (greengopost).

Disclosure: GM covered Leon Kaye’s cost to attend the Portland event.

[Image credits: Leon Kaye]

Leon Kaye headshotLeon Kaye

Leon Kaye has written for TriplePundit since 2010, and became its Executive Editor in 2018. He's based in Fresno, CA, from where he happily explores California’s stellar Central Coast and the national parks in the Sierra Nevadas. He's lived in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay, and has traveled to over 70 countries. He's an alum of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California.

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