Founded in 1911, GM’s Chevrolet Division embraces its second century with about as much bandwidth – or brandwidth – as anyone (even the General’s founder, Billy Durant) might imagine. As the planet’s 4th-largest automotive brand, Chevrolet is sold in 115 countries, while its global client base can select from roughly 70 different models. In the last week we had a chance to briefly sample both the smallest and largest of Chevy’s stateside offerings. The Bowtie Division’s Spark EV, in a brief demonstration drive near downtown DC, proved to be both accessible and eco-friendly, while the ’15 Suburban offered everything – and MORE – in a 3-row SUV. We dare to compare…
You won’t, to be sure, compare the Spark EV to your neighbor’s Tesla, but the tiny Spark does something notably better than Mr. Musk’s vision: It will not only fit in your garage, but will also fit most pocketbooks. With its pricing recently tweaked (a reduction of $1,650), the Spark EV arrives in select Chevrolet regions stickered at $25,995. Using a combination of federal, state and local incentives, Chevy’s global marketing guru, Tim Mahoney, suggested an actual transaction of around $15K to buy in Maryland or California; elect to lease, and your outlay is but $139/month (in either state – with zero down) for 39 months. Whether buying or leasing the commitment would seem a no-brainer even if, once inside, you grasped a rope for steering and sat on a milk stool. Thankfully, we did neither.
In profile you’ll recognize the Spark EV as, well, a Spark. That, of course, is Chevy’s Korean-built subcompact which – at its intro – we thought both laughably small and too-obviously cheap. For us, making the relatively small step to the Sonic would be as natural as Jeter was at shortstop. But what do we know? Since its launch Chevy has been moving ‘em like free beer, especially in this country’s congested urban areas.
To differentiate the Spark EV from the non-EV (both visually and functionally) Chevy added an upper two-tier grille to reduce airflow, unique 15-inch aluminum wheels with low rolling resistance tires; and a handful of additional aero mods to improve efficiency. All of which result in an impressive (for the category) .326 coefficient of drag. Our test vehicle, clothed in Electric Blue, didn’t provide the most masculine of automotive statements, but then, it seemed more male-accessible than anything emanating from Mary Kay.
Inside, we’re told, GM’s design team focused on creating an environment that is “harmonious, uninterrupted, flowing and inviting to the senses.” And, of course, small. Sitting on a wheelbase of but 93.5 inches, and with an overall width of just 64 inches, you won’t confuse the Spark EV with the Suburban; in point of fact, you could almost park the Spark EV – with an overall length of 146 inches – within the wheelbase of its big brother Suburban. The best aspect was the intuitive nature of the controls. The start button was immediately recognizable, finding ‘Drive’ was readily apparent, and adjustments for mirrors, seats and steering wheel were easy to identify. And if you and your front seat passenger are under 5’10” your rear seat passengers can fit both their torsos and legs; if, however, you happen to approach six full feet, ask your rear seaters to bring their legs along on a second trip. (That, of course, is what coach passengers on most U.S. airlines do…)
From a driving standpoint, the Spark EV’s 327 lb-ft of torque were immediately apparent, even while navigating 35 miles-per-hour streets. Acceleration (0-60 arrives in in just over 7 seconds – we’re told) was unimpeded, while steering and stopping were what you’d expect from a vehicle weight of under 3,000 pounds. Like other platforms with electric conversion, the Spark EV feels a bit like a fire plug, with its center of gravity just above the pavement.
There is, of course, a far better business case for electric vehicles when gas is $4/gallon than when it’s approaching $2/gallon, but for those with an eye toward driving and forgetting, the Spark EV – at around $15K or $140/month – constitutes an attractive proposition. It’s the ‘urban’ to Chevrolet’s Suburban.
The Suburban, of course, has evolved into the gold standard among 3-row SUVs. Redesigned for 2015, the Suburban fully casts off its mid-‘90s vibe for a look and feel that, if overtly oversized, at least seems contemporary. And while the Suburban at one time was most often viewed as either a blue collar appendage or almost profoundly middle class, with a base sticker of just under $50K and an as-tested price of almost $70K, it’s now closer to a Capitalist Tool. To be sure, middle class zip codes might still embrace it, but they’ll either lease – or will be making a loan payment looking ominously like a house payment.
If the upright architecture of the outside dazzles, the interior absolutely delights. Even with its six-passenger (buckets in the middle row) configuration the Big Sub screams – in a quiet, almost Presbyterian way – functionality. On the eve of my daughter’s wedding, we took an arbor – albeit disassembled, but still measuring almost seven feet in length – to the wedding venue via the Suburban’s big hatch and long load length. That, in combination with more live plants than I ever want to see again, represented the bulk of the Suburban duties. And while a pickup would have worked equally well for an arbor and/or plants, it wouldn’t have given us the ability to carry (live) people with the effortless ease of the Suburban.
I wish I could say the Big Sub drove smaller than it looks, but it didn’t. With an overall length of almost 19 feet on a wheelbase of 130 inches, the Suburban needs as much maneuvering room as a Secret Service detail can provide. You want to parallel park? It’s best to send an advance team. But when using it for the long hauls and big loads (it’ll tow 8300 pounds with 2WD, 8000 pounds with 4WD) for which it’s intended, there are few better platforms.
Also worth a mention was the responsiveness of GM’s 5.3 liter V8 and 6-speed automatic. It’s a combo we’ve enjoyed in Chevy’s Silverado, and despite the heavier curb weight of the Suburban its 355 horsepower and 383 lb-ft of torque seemed fully capable. Our short time in the Suburban didn’t allow us to gauge fuel economy, but found no reason to dispute the EPA’s 16 City/23 Highway/18 combined estimate. That, with a 31 gallon fuel tank, should provide a viable range for a wedding, even if it’s a ‘destination’ wedding.
Were it my money I’d lease a Spark and rent – when necessary – a Suburban. If, for example, those in the rear seat want to bring along their legs…
Specifications continue on next page…