Sausalito, Calif. ? General Motors will officially reveal its Chevrolet Spark EV battery-electric vehicle at the Los Angeles Auto Show Nov. 29. But I got behind the wheel of a near-production prototype.
Today?s electric vehicles (EVs) are no longer the glorified golf-carts of their early predecessors. They are real cars with all the qualities, features and characteristics of their siblings except that they?re powered electrically. Such is the case for the Spark EV.
Getting in the car and firing it up, I followed the same ritual as for a regular Spark. Except that, pushing the start button resulted only in the instrument cluster lighting up.
There was no sound of an engine coming to life, or of electronic control systems buzzing or whining as commonly happened in more primitive iterations of many electric vehicles.
In lieu of an idling engine, an orange light in the cluster signalled that the car was ready to go, so I shifted into drive ? via a conventional PRNDS shifter ? released the electric parking brake, squeezed the accelerator pedal, and we were off. Smoothly.
My first surprise, on a slightly winding bit of the driving course, was that steering seemed both moderately boosted and precise, with an agreeable level of feel and feedback ? not always the case with electrically power-assisted systems.
The next surprise was over the braking, where the usual non-linearity in response that identifies a regenerative braking system ? which helps recharge the batteries ? just wasn?t apparent. It felt like a normal car.
But the biggest surprise came when I turned onto a moderate length straightaway and tipped into the ?throttle.? The Spark leaped, with hot-hatch-like performance.
It was surprising enough that next time around the driving loop, I floored it, reinforcing my impression of its response. It feels particularly strong when accelerating in the 40-80 km/h range ? ideal for cut-and-thrust city commuting.
The Spark EV is something of a pocket rocket, and intentionally so. GM wants it to be seen as the fun-to-drive electric ? a reward for being environmentally responsible, in terms of driving enjoyment, not an assignment to a mobile penalty box.
Key to that lively performance is the single electric motor that drives the EV. It?s an oil-cooled permanent magnet type designed, developed and manufactured by GM.
Engineers went to great length explaining its design and construction, but output specifications tell it all: It?s rated at 100 kW (130 hp) and 400 lb.-ft. of torque!
And that?s not just a 400 lb.-ft. torque peak. It?s effectively a flat line curve from start to above 2,000 r.p.m., which equates to about 65 km/h on the road, and accounts for the car?s responsive feel through the right foot across the intermediate speed range.
According to Chuck Russell III, chief engineer for the Spark EV, it will accelerate from 0-to-97 km/h (60 m.p.h.) in under eight seconds.
Russell also explained a host of discreet aerodynamic improvements on the EV, from a closed-off upper grille, side sill, reshaped front-and-rear fascias and an underbody belly pan, all of which reduce drag and enhance performance. In spite of the conventional shifter, there is no conventional transmission ? just a gearset that connects the motor with a fixed-reduction ratio to a final drive.
At the other end of the car, is a 2,555-kg, 336-cell Lithium-ion battery pack made by A123, with a capacity of more than 20 kWh.
The Spark EV will be one of the first designed to adopt the recently-approved SAE quick charge protocol, which will enable recharging to the 80 per cent level in 20 minutes with commercial quick chargers.
Beyond the usual electric-vehicle Achilles heel of range ? no official numbers from GM yet, but allusions to class-leading ? there?s little fault to find with the Spark EV.
The added mass of its battery pack makes for some brittle ride characteristics on big bumps.
And it not only uses gas, it lacks the instantly addictive response provided by all that torque in the EV.
The Spark EV will go on sale in Canada in late 2013.
Travel for freelance writer Gerry Malloy was provided by the manufacturer. Email firstname.lastname@example.org
2014 Spark EV
ENGINE: Permanent Magnet Electric Motor
POWER/TORQUE (hp/lb.-ft.): 100 kW (130 hp)/400 lb.-ft.
TRANSMISSION: Direct drive
FUEL ECONOMY: N/A
COMPETITION: Nissan Leaf; For Focus EV; Mitsubishi iMiEV
WHAT?S BEST: An EV that?s fun to drive
WHAT?S WORST: Limited range ? still undetermined
WHAT?S INTERESTING: 400 lb.-ft. of torque