Car reviews - Holden - Spark - LT
Nimble point-and-squirt fun round town, able motorway cruiser, willing engine and transmission combo, ride quality, interior comfort and space, surprisingly family-friendly
Room for improvement
High boot lip, a bit thirsty for its size, steering a bit numb to be fun on fast twisty roads
27 Jul 2016
Price and equipment
WE TESTED the top spec, auto-only, $18,990 plus on-road costs LT variant of the Spark. Our vehicle also had purple premium paint, a $550 upgrade.
More than $20,000 on the road is a lot for such a little car in such a price-sensitive segment that is currently enduring a sales slide in Australia.
Especially given even the Spark’s most highly specified micro-car rivals top out at at least $1500 less.
The Mitsubishi Mirage LS automatic is $17,490 in sedan form or $15,250 as a hatch, while the single-variant, auto-only Kia Picanto is $14,990 driveaway and the Suzuki Celerio $13,990 driveaway as an automatic.
So there’s a serious disparity and the top-spec Spark nudges light car territory on price. However, the range does start at $13,990 for the LS manual plus on-roads, or $15,690 with an auto. Holden regularly runs some kind of factory incentives, so good timing is the key to driving a hard Spark bargain.
Holden goes a long way toward justifying the Spark’s relatively premium positioning with all variants featuring a Gen-Y-friendly 7.0-inch colour touchscreen powered by Holden’s excellent MyLink infotainment system, through which various apps and smartphone functions can be accessed via Apple CarPlay or Android Auto, with effective voice-recognition technology including Siri Eyes Free.
No competitor can match the Holden’s infotainment system.
Also standard on the LT are black synthetic leather seats with a 60:40 split-folding second row and two sets of Isofix child seat anchors, audio and phone controls on the leather steering wheel, USB and audio jack ports for the a six-speaker stereo, a trip computer, keyless entry and start, electric rear windows, a reversing camera with rear sensors and cruise control.
Styling wise, the Spark LT gains 15-inch alloy wheels, front foglights, a black chrome-trimmed grille, chrome window sill highlights and white ‘mirotic’ interior highlights. Additional dashboard storage and a map pocket also make it onto the spec-sheet.
Parents buying their lucky offspring a car for getting their P-plates will appreciate the standard inclusion of front and side airbags for both front occupants plus curtain bags that extend to the rear seats. There are also front seatbelt pre-tensioners and a collapsible pedal release system. Helping keep things on the straight and narrow are hill start assistance, electronic stability control, traction control and anti-lock brakes with electronic brakeforce distribution and brake assist.
All lightweight hard plastics, the Spark is a soft-touch-free zone. But that’s par for the course at this end of the market and Holden has evidently got much better at selecting pleasant textures and finishes that are complimentary rather than clashing.
It’s quite an attractive result and while the silver molecular structure like print on the gloss-white dashboard highlights may divide opinion, Holden has cleverly replicated the pattern in perforations on the faux-leather seats and there is a pleasing contrast between the white and the piano-black finish of the panel surrounding the touchscreen and central air-conditioning vents.
Beneath said vents are fabulously functional rotary ventilation controls, with just a handful of buttons logically placed elsewhere on the dash.
Everything else ably handled by either the excellent touchscreen/voice recognition system or buttons on the steering wheel, which itself is probably the segment’s best and clearly of the quality used elsewhere in the Holden range, from European imports to the home-grown Commodore. This touch-point really elevates the Spark in terms of perceived maturity.
Where some much larger cars fail to include a decent-sized glovebox, the Spark provides plenty of room, with a secondary shelf above and a smartphone tray with charging, USB and audio connections in front of the two large cupholders that are in turn placed ahead of the gear selector.
Around the handbrake lever are two more storage trays, with a large bottle-holder at the back of the centre console accessible by front or rear passengers.
In the front, door bins are rather thin and shallow but can accept drinks bottles of up to around 600ml. There are no bins in the back, just a map pocket on the back of the passenger seat.
With a bottle in the door bin, we became acutely aware of the Spark’s narrowness as the drinks vessel chafed our leg. We also brushed our left hand against the passenger seatbelt buckle every time we used the handbrake.
Apart from the obvious width issue, the Spark interior is admirably spacious for both head- and leg-room. You’re never going to comfortably fit five pro basketball players in there, but it is possible to transport four adults of varying heights happily, provided the tallest two aren’t in tandem.
We were also astounded at how easy it was to install a child seat using the Isofix anchorages and well-located top tether. Even more impressive was how much space the tall, wide-opening doors provided to ease the loading and securing of both seat and child.
The main downside is the large boot lip and small space behind it, which apart from limiting the type of baby buggy we could take with us it also prevented us from doing the time-honoured tailgate-sheltered carpark nappy change.
But if you don’t have a huge pushchair to lug about, the Spark is amazingly capable for the young family and we carted our little one for a week with fewer difficulties than we have experienced in supposedly more family-oriented vehicles. Our infant appreciated the view out from the deep side windows and their ability to see through the rear windscreen, too.
With seats-up boot space of 185 litres on offer, we managed to just about get our weekly shop in there without squashing the bananas or tenderising the tomatoes. A deceptively large 985 litres is available with the seats folded, too.
Our only gripe in the luggage department was the parcel shelf, which has no strings to make it rise and fall with the tailgate, relying on friction to keep it in place when manually raised. This caused two problems: visible chafing on the interior trim of even our 6000-kilometre test car where the shelf had rested and the ease of forgetting it had been raised, leading to a interior mirror full of shelf once ensconced in the driving seat.
Beneath the basic carpet boot floor is a small steel wheel and the tools to deploy it were a puncture to occur. We’d prefer a full-size spare but we doubt there is room and a car like the Spark is unlikely to ever be too far from help.
One of the biggest surprises about the Spark interior was the well-suppressed wind, road and engine noise, which along with the comfortable yet stable ride and willing engine, made motorway driving more tolerable than we imagined from such a compact vehicle.
That, coupled with comfortable seating front and rear plus excellent all-round vision that made the Spark a pleasure to thread around town, had us impressed before we even got into the nitty-gritty of what goes on under the skin.
Engine and transmission
All Sparks share a new-generation all-alloy 1.4-litre four-cylinder naturally aspirated petrol engine that develops 73kW at 6200rpm and 128Nm at 4000rpm (124Nm when paired with the cheapest variant’s five-speed manual).
Combined-cycle fuel consumption is officially rated at 5.2 litres per 100km for the manual, while the automatic continuously variable transmission (CVT) version ups that to 5.5L/100km. We averaged in the mid-sevens during our week of mixed driving, which we felt was a bit thirsty for such a small car, and we only got into the mid-fives on an hour-long motorway journey.
For some time General Motors has lagged behind with small-capacity four-cylinder engines, which tended to be rough when revved, possessed disappointing power delivery characteristics and were disproportionately thirsty for their size and output.
The new Spark engine proves GM is raising its game on most of these fronts, though as we said, fuel consumption is still an issue, especially as the unit never felt like it was working particularly hard during our test to haul the 1004kg Spark and its occupants.
For a non-turbo engine, the Spark was impressively lively even at higher speeds, taking 110km/h motorway journeys in its stride with plenty of punch still available for hills or bursts of power for regaining speed after being slowed down by other traffic or roadworks.
There’s plenty of point-and-squirt responsiveness for fun, agile urban cut-and-thrust driving too, which makes every journey in the Spark a pleasure.
All of this is helped, and we didn’t think we’d say this, by the CVT automatic.
The unit in the Spark is proof that this technology is constantly improving.
For a while we forgot the Spark had a CVT because, depending on how it’s driven, it delivers the impression of stepped shifts that feel much more natural than the slipping clutch drone and flaring revs typical of the genre.
That’s not to say it never happens, but it’s only really when flooring it or driving up a long hill that the CVT reveals itself. Even then, it never lets the revs flare annoyingly and the engine note is muted and perfectly acceptable, without the painful gravelly tone that used to typify GM four-pots.
Only when flogging the poor little Spark along the dynamic section of our road test route did the engine start to feel a bit breathless, while the CVT played to its advantage by ensuring the powertrain was always ready with crisp throttle response and the right ratio for the task at hand.
But the Spark generally felt a little out of its comfort zone during this type of driving, being happiest in the city or on the motorway.
Which, let’s face it, is where it will spend most of its life. Good effort, Holden.
Ride and handling
The Spark delivers such a grown-up ride for its size, soaking up bumps like a much bigger car and generally providing a sense of isolation that would have felt miraculous at this end of the market just a few years ago. It’s a fantastic effort by Holden’s talented engineering team.
Steering weight is spot-on too, and its directness at urban and suburban speeds, along with reassuring stability on the motorway, makes this little car a delight to weave through traffic. It hangs together perfectly.
As with the engine, our only disappointment came during the fast-and-twisty dynamic section of our test, which in the little Holden’s defence was conducted in the wet.
In these conditions the steering and seat-of-pants provided too little feel to give us the confidence to really push the Spark’s limits, because we got the impression these would be reached suddenly and with typical short-wheelbase twitchiness.
Soaking wet roads robbed us of the tyre squeal that would give us audible notice of an impending slide, so despite the numerous and doubtlessly brilliantly Australian-calibrated electronic safety aids fitted, self-preservation kicked in.
Nevertheless, it was enough to tell that the Spark feels right at home when being flung about at 80km/h and less, or at up to 110km/h on more gently curving roads.
When the rest of the car is so good, we can forgive it that.
Safety and servicing
Holden offers a three-year/100,000 kilometre warranty on all passenger vehicles, with roadside assistance for the same duration.
Under Holden’s lifetime capped-price servicing scheme, the Cascada’s 15,000km/12-month maintenance intervals cost $229 for each visit until 60,000km, rising to $289 until 105,000km (prices correct at time of writing).
ANCAP awarded the baby Holden a maximum five-star crash-test safety rating, scoring 33.6 out of a possible 37 points overall with 12.79 out of 16 in the frontal offset test, 15.81 out of 16 in the side impact test and the full two points in the pole test. Whiplash and pedestrian protection were respectively deemed ‘good’ and ‘acceptable’.
As brilliant as it is to drive and as much as it is a masterclass in packaging, price might prevent the Spark from achieving showroom success, even though we think it deserves to sell by the truckload. People just aren’t buying these cars and those who do are clearly motivated by cost.
The Spark is the best micro car since the Volkswagen Up departed the Australian market in April 2014, stymied by high-ish pricing and the lack of an automatic transmission option.
Compared with the Up, the Holden has an auto, curtain airbags, proper opening rear windows and that infotainment system on its side.
Highly recommended. If you haggle hard.
Kia Picanto from $14,990 driveaway
If price puts you off, the Picanto is the next best option, even though the model is close to retirement with a replacement on the horizon because it has been available overseas for some time.
Suzuki Celerio automatic from $13,990 driveaway
This was budget motoring at its best until the Spark and Picanto arrived to steal the Celerio’s limelight. Still a good little car packed with character.
Mitsubishi Mirage hatch LS automatic from $15,250 plus on-road costs
A recent facelift can’t hide the fact the Mirage now lags behind in terms of driver engagement in a class where big charm can make up for small engines and interiors.
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