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Motoring: Taking a look at Chevrolet's new models

Credit: Nauman Farooq

The Chevrolet Spark is a good little car, but it may be a tad pricey for its target market.

Nauman Farooq | Interrobang | Sports | October 1st, 2012

The last month has been quite a busy one, thanks to General Motors of Canada. I attended one of their launches in downtown Toronto, Ontario and another in Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia.

What cars did they launch, and how are they?

We'll start with the launch in Toronto, which was for their smallest car in their lineup: the Chevrolet Spark.

This five-door hatchback will be their new entry-level vehicle, slotting in under the Chevrolet Sonic, which was launched at the end of last year.

The Spark is a little bit smaller in size (although not by much), and has a miniscule 1.25-litre, fourcylinder engine that produces just 84 hp and 83 lb/ft of torque. Power is sent to the front wheels via either a five-speed manual gearbox or a four-speed automatic (yes, you read that correctly, it just has four gears in its automatic transmission).

Given its power, as you can imagine, this is no rocket ship. However, I must say, that this car performs well, despite its punitive power and dated gearbox.

In the city, its main habitat, it rides very well. It is also surprisingly quiet and it has a tiny turning circle — just what a downtown driver might want.

Downtown drivers are also very style conscious, so to address that, Chevrolet designers really did their best to make it look as funky and cool as possible, inside and out. It only has dinky 15-inch wheels, but alloys are standard, which is a good thing. The main feature is its humongous headlights and its giant grille. This is a small car that doesn't seem to be shy.

The interior is roomy for the front-seat passengers, and while adults can fit in the rear seats, they won't like being there for a long trip. The layout of the interior is clean, the motorbike-inspired dashboard is very cool, and its optional touchscreen infotainment system has features like XM satellite radio, Stitcher radio on demand and the BringGo navigation app.

It's a cool little device, but it does have some issues. First of all is the price. At a base price of $13,495, it is only $660 less than a base Sonic hatchback, which has a bigger, much more powerful engine and a six-speed automatic. Yes, at a combined rating of 5.8 litres/100km, the Spark is more economical to run, but not by much. I'd rather have the Sonic instead.

The second issue I see is with the type of body GM is offering the Spark with. They have the Cruze, which is a sedan, and the Sonic should just be offered as a hatchback (no need for the Sonic sedan, which just encroaches on the Cruze's sales), and the Spark should have been a three-door, coupe-ish hatchback to attract the first-time buyers who don't need a practical, family hatchback. Chevrolet could have had a car that could compete head-on with the Fiat 500, but they didn't do that.

I like the Spark. I think it is a good little car, but it's a bit too expensive and not distinctive enough. GM missed the ball on this one.

Next, I was off to beautiful Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia, to try out the new Chevrolet Malibu midsize sedan on the wonderful Cabot Trail.

The last Malibu was a wonderful family car. It looked good, had a nice interior, and it drove well. So the new car should be better, right?

Well, as far as the looks are concerned, I'm not so sure. The new Malibu is not ugly, but it does seem to be cobbled together, taking inspiration from other GM models, and the end result is something that doesn't look quite right. In certain colours and trims, it looks decent, but in a market that has cars like the Kia Optima and the new Ford Fusion, the new Malibu is not going to win any design awards.

Step inside and it's the same story. I think the previous Malibu had a much nicer-looking interior. This new one is a sea of hard plastics, and the overall design isn't attractive.

The thing GM wanted to talk most about regarding this interior is this cubbyhole they've created behind the LCD screen. They seem very proud of it and spoke highly of it. I agree that it is a clever idea — it's the perfect place to throw stuff like a charger in — I just wish the little knob they fitted to unhinge the screen was not bought from a 10- cent store.

Apart from that, the interior will comfortably seat five, and while there aren't any new gadgets in here, it does come with most of the stuff you expect in modern cars.

Like most mid-sized sedans, the Malibu also offers plenty of powertrain options. The base engine is a 2.5-litre ECOTEC four-cylinder that produces 197 hp and 191 lb/ft of torque. The next option is the 2.4-litre ECOTEC four-cylinder eAssist motor, which has a mildhybrid system. This motor won't let you drive on just its electric motor, but comes in to help out in acceleration. This motor produces 182 hp and 172 lb/ft of torque.

If you want performance, for the first time in Malibu's history, there is no option for a V8 or a V6 motor. Now if you want a quick Malibu, you need the Turbo motor (only available on the LTZ trim). This 2.0-litre ECOTEC four-cylinder motor produces 259 hp and 260 lb/ft of torque. This model can thus accelerate from zero to 96 km/h in just 6.3 seconds. That is seriously quick, but since there were no Turbo models available for a drive, I cannot tell you how this model works in the real world.

At the launch, I drove the 2.5 and the eAssist motor, both of which felt weak for a car of this size. You really need to get your foot in hard to get some performance out. Its six-speed automatic is smooth (the only transmission offered on the Malibu), but it is not quick to respond, and the placement of shift buttons on top of the gear lever was the dumbest idea I've ever come across. It makes no sense and I wish they hadn't even bothered with it. That would have saved them some money.

Speaking of money, it isn't cheap either. The base Malibu LS starts at $24,995. The eAssist Eco model is yours from $27,940, and the LTZ turbo model is yours $32,540.

While the Malibu can meet the needs of some of GM's customers, in the highly competitive mid-size sedan category, it misses the mark by 160 km, at least for me.

GM has produced some good vehicles recently; most amazing among them is the Volt plug-in hybrid, which was far better than I was expecting it to be. They have the ability, and I hope the next GM vehicle I test will be as good as its maker would want us to think it is.
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