Shifting opinion

Can the CVT ’box really compensate for Spark’s lack of torque?

NATHAN PONCHARD

NOTHING beats back-to-back testing for delivering a definitive verdict on all topics related to dynamics, as Car of the Year proved. It finally gave me the opportunity to directly compare opposing Spark variants – LS manual on 14s and LT auto on 15s – to see which is the sweeter package.

With its chassis honed at Holden’s Lang Lang proving ground and on the challenging roads around Victoria’s Gippsland region, no Spark is a dynamic duffer. But away from the lower-speed demands of urban warfare, it becomes clear that the Spark’s handling and steering shine brightest when taking advantage of the far superior grip of the up-spec LT’s 185/55R15 Continental Premium Contact tyres.

Gone is the smaller-tyred LS’s propensity to lose adhesion as lateral forces build, resulting in a lack of true commitment from both its front and rear ends in tight cornering. The LT, on the other hand, has greater handling reserves, more consistent roadholding and much crisper response.

It also steers better, thanks not only to a leather-bound steering wheel but also firmer and more linear steering weighting, courtesy of its broader footprint. The LT may not ride like the supple LS in town, but everywhere else, its sharper, more adjustable nature enhances the Spark’s driver appeal.

And the CVT is really quite good. It steps off the mark well and seems to extract the best from the Spark’s torque-light atmo 1.4. Ideally, GM’s base 1.0-litre turbo-petrol three-pot with 170Nm from 1800-3700rpm (as per the three-door Opel Adam in Europe) would be a thrummy delight under the Spark’s bonnet, but at this price-sensitive end of the market, it’s pointless speculation (though, in future, an inevitability).

Packing three adults into our Spark manual is no challenge for its packaging efficiency, but you definitely notice the detrimental effect on its performance.

Again, its somewhat thirsty allaluminium engine is an amazingly tractable little unit, but it demands plenty of revs if you’re in a hurry. And with pre-Christmas deadline stress looming large, that was always.

Sydney’s warm weather has also courtesy demanded liberal applications of soothing air-con, which the Spark achieves effortlessly. But with the chiller off, there seems to be a disparity between the outside temp and what’s coming through the dashboard vents, as if heat-soak from the engine bay is infecting the ventilation.

What hasn’t happened, though, is a cooling of affection for this redder-than- Santa Spark. Sure, I desperately miss the grunt and grumble of the twin-turbo AMG that this baby Holden replaced, but every time I’m faced with a tiny parking space or gap in traffic, there’s a winning smugness to accompany this $13,990 special.

ADULT CONTENT

Spark’s Tardis-like form most evident in its adult-friendly rear.

Decent seat comfort, good legroom, great vision

HOLDEN SPARK LS

Date acquired: September 2016 Price as tested: $13,990 This month: 277km @ 11.8L/100km Overall: 704km @ 11.7L/100km m

URBAN COUNTRY SPORTS FAMILY MOTORWAY

Ancestral digging

Spark’s brother-to-another-mother is the Opel Karl, and the Karl’s Vauxhall twin, the Viva. All built in the same factory in South Korea on identical architecture, the Spark and Karl/Viva share a 2385mm wheelbase and 1595mm width, though the Spark is slightly shorter and not quite as tall. It lacks some of the Opel’s available kit such as heated front seats (with cloth inserts, not vinyl!) and climate control, and Spark’s cabin fit-out isn’t as chic. But we prefer its exterior styling and it has a lot more grunt.