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L.A. Auto Show: Little Spark has big availability problem

Powerful EV will come to Canada in small numbers

Published November 30, 2012

What’s a marketing department to do?

It has an interesting car to promote, and a good story to tell.

The product is a small electric vehicle, designed for urban driving but with a twist: It’s got 400 foot-pounds of torque and, at just 1,360 kilograms, a high power-to-weight ratio. So, along with not burning gas, it’s great fun to drive.

It stands a good chance of appealing to young city-dwelling professionals who’d like a little joy with their ride.

And at roughly $25,000 — at least in the United States, after federal government incentives, it’s reasonably affordable.

It’s to be introduced in the U.S. and Canada next summer, after its official unveiling this week at the Los Angeles Auto Show.

This all sounds like a public relations dream. But there’s a hitch.

The car is the Chevrolet Spark EV, and the manufacturer, General Motors, is sending contradictory messages as it brings the car to market.

Next year, Canada will get fewer than 100 Spark EVs and all of them will go to fleet customers. Numbers in the United States will be proportionately small and, while they’ll be available to individual consumers, sales will focus on California and Oregon, where the market is receptive to “green” products and government incentives are particularly generous.

And that’s how the situation will remain until GM gets an idea of the car’s market potential.

But how do you assess the market when the car will be virtually impossible to buy, and the sales strategy appears to be at odds with products main attributes?

The Spark EV is GM’s showpiece at the L.A. Auto Show, which is open to the public until Dec. 9. True, in the industry’s contradictory manner, GM is a also offering a less environmentally friendly teaser — the promise of a new Corvette to be unveiled at the North American International Auto Show next January in Detroit.

But at the Los Angeles show, the little Spark is the big deal and it looks like a potential winner. There’s all that power — more torque than a Porsche 911, GM claims — as well as great handling, thanks in part to a 50/50 weight distribution and low centre of gravity, with the 254-kilogram battery pack stowed under the rear seats

While aerodynamics are always a challenge with small cars because they’re short, narrow and high, the Spark EV boasts numerous tweaks — including a permanently closed top grille and full underbody covering — to make it cut through the air more efficiently.

And it comes with a more robust suspension than its gasoline-burning sibling.

The car does come fully equipped with a mixed sales pitch.

GM says it accelerates from zero to 100 kilometres an hour in less than eight seconds.

The corporation also claims its range, from a roughly 20-kilowatt-hour lithium iron battery pack, will equal or better that of competing small EVs, which would put it around 130 kilometres. But that figure is based on tests that assume relatively sedate driving. Those making the most of the Spark EVs attributes will get a considerably smaller distance between charges, since range decreases very quickly with speed and aggressive driving.

That wouldn’t be a big impediment if (and it’s a big if) a network of fast-charging stations — offering 480 volts of DC power — were developed. With that equipment, the Spark EV could get a 50 per cent recharge in 12 minutes and an 80 per cent refill in 20 minutes.

In any case, it’s probably not a major deal given the relatively short distances involved in most urban driving.

The main point is that GM people are so enthusiastic about the car’s performance that they suggest the marketing campaign should downplay its green attributes and focus, instead, on its driving thrills.

It has attitude, they say.

But why attempt to create so much buzz and, then, make it almost impossible to get a Spark EV? And why focus on fleets, which are most definitely not looking for spirited driving.

Fiat also unveiled its small electric vehicle, the 500e, at the Los Angeles show. That company makes no secret of its distaste for EVs, on which it claims it will lose several thousand dollars on each sale. It’s going to sell it in North America mainly for political and regulatory reasons, and so will keep the numbers low. The 500e won’t be sold in Europe.

GM appears to have a different attitude toward its Spark EV, but the result might be the same if it sticks with a sales plan that undermines the car’s marketing potential.

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