The new Chevrolet Spark is an important new model for General Motors – but not as important as it might have been. Until October this year, GM had planned to sell its European Opel and Vauxhall operations in order to shore up its precarious financial position. That would have left Chevrolet, the brand under which GM sells its Korean-sourced cars in Europe, to spearhead the American group's efforts here – and the Spark would have carried the burden of being the first new Chevrolet to be launched by GM in the post-Opel/Vauxhall age.
Well it didn't turn out that way. GM found a way to hang on to Opel and Vauxhall, so Chevrolet returns to playing a supporting role for the American group in Europe. Chevrolet remains important to GM's efforts here – Korea is an emerging source of well-engineered cars for budget brands – but now it has to start worrying again about treading on Opel's and Vauxhall's toes every time it tries to push ahead in the market – although that won't be too much of a problem in the specific case of the Spark, which, as a replacement for the tiny Matiz, doesn't really compete directly with any Vauxhall.
The most obvious change compared with the Matiz is that the Spark has a completely smart new look. While the Matiz had neat enough styling, the Spark's design is a lot fresher; its swooping lines and dramatically-styled headlights mean it could easily be mistaken for, say, a small Toyota or Renault, which isn't a bad comparison for a cheap car produced by a budget brand. One Chevrolet-specific aspect of the Spark's appearance, though, is the distinctive deeply-sculpted concave bonnet which the Spark shares with the larger Cruze.
The Spark's interior trim is more in keeping with the car's budget pricing than its handsome exterior but even so, everything is well laid out. While the Spark is a new car, it has carried over one highly beneficial Matiz trait; tall, upright packaging that provides a lot of interior space. Even with the front seats pushed right back, there is quite a bit of space between the front of the rear-seat cushions and the backs of the front seats. However, the Spark is rather wider than the exceptionally narrow Matiz; that means it loses a little of the Matiz's ability to squeeze through narrow gaps, but also feels rather more firmly planted on the road.
The Spark is available with two petrol engines – a 1.0 litre and 1.2 litre. I tested both in and around Athens; long gradients on the hilly roads and motorways around the Greek capital sometimes sapped the power of the 1.0 litre, although the smaller engine still proved nippy enough to deal with the cut and thrust of the chaotic traffic within the city itself. The 1.2 was a little smoother and gave a useful edge in terms of power.
Despite its charms, the Spark probably won't win many keen drivers over to GM's budget brand. But it stands a good chance of adding a lot of younger, more style-conscious customers to the older thrifty types who have traditionally been attracted by Chevrolet's keen pricing.