I love cheap cars. They’re small, light, usually fun to drive and a perfect start to the car-owning world. The old Chevrolet Spark was no exception, and it still sits near the top of my all-time favourite cars that I’ve driven. And I’m referring to the entry-level no-extras 3-cylinder version. It just made me happy with its cute looks and Porsche sound effects. And now, there’s a new one!

Anybody who has watched Transformers 2 will probably be familiar with the brand presence of General Motors, not least because of the stunning yellow Chevrolet Camaro that was Bumblebee. Watch the movie again though and you’ll notice a small, funky and beautifully designed green hatchback, and you’d probably recognise it. I’m talking about what was then the Chevy Beat concept, and I remember back at the Joburg International Motor Show in 2008 having a look at the beaut and wondering if the rumours of it becoming the new Chevy Spark were true.

Now, in 2010, we all know the outcome: Chevrolet literally took that amazing concept car, added a dash of real-world practicality and function, stuck a Spark badge on the back and bob’s your auntie, you can now buy a movie star from your nearest GM dealership! But their advertising campaign has me baffled. “Thanks Spark” is the punch line, but for what? Thanks Spark for saving dolphins? Thanks Spark for trimming Yoda’s ear hairs? I had to find out.

First off, the design; and what a design it is! I thought the Cruze (which I wrote about exactly a year ago) was on the bold side of striking design for GM, but boy, they’ve stepped it up a notch with the Spark. Every inch of the outside of this car is exciting. From the large sweeping headlights and the aggressive nose, to the sculpted shoulders with hidden rear door handles and the fiery bum – clearly the styling department were banned from using the word “bland” in any of their material. It’s fresh, it’s funky and most importantly, it’s different; so you won’t be mistaking the Spark for anything else.

Inside, the bonkers-ness is a little more tame but no less inspiring. Swooping surfaces and crease lines create a v-shaped dashboard, and a pod-style rev counter and speedometer combo add, or rather keep, a little of the Transformers magic. That said though, interior appointments even in the range-topping LS version I drove, are Spartan. Sure, the important things are there, but there’s so much wasted space that you always feel like something’s missing.

In terms of kit, it’s not bad. You’ve got (in the LS) electric windows, remote central locking, power steering, a CD/MP3/USB radio (you will need to upgrade the speakers if you enjoy music while driving) and a trip computer. Comfort levels are surprisingly high, and even full-up with five adults, ride comfort and handling are good all round. The chassis is relatively communicative and you could even say it’s sporty, but the car is badly lacking in the power department.

Yes I know, this is not a performance car. And yes, it’s entry level and it’s not going to blow your socks off. Spitting out a whole 60kW and 108Nm, on paper the 1.2-litre 4-cylinder motor seems to be ok for everyday living. But goodness, not for me at least! It just doesn’t have the grunt that the looks suggest it should.

You need to rev the engine to enjoy the power, and in doing so your fuel consumption goes out the window. And don’t even think of the aircon, because switching that on saps so much power, you’ll have more fun driving with the windows down, blowing your hair to pieces. Gear changing is a slick affair but a little more feel to the lever would be nice. And the steering, although it is power-assisted, is still very heavy. I even developed calluses on my palms from the plastic rim.

The boot isn’t by any means big, but you would have guessed that from the design of the car. Rear seats do fold down though, so if you really had to help someone move, you can at least offer to load the bedding.

On the safety front, GM has ensured the basics are there including all-round pretensioned seatbelts and dual front airbags. ABS brakes are standard as well, so from that side of things, Spark passes with distinction.

I’ve got another final problem with the Spark though; it still feels like a cheap Korean hatchback! Yes, GM is going to start producing Spark in East London at the Struandale plant rather than importing from Korea, but that won’t solve the problem. Spark was the saving grace of the old Daewoo Matiz, and it’s that nasty family heritage which leaves a sour taste in my mouth.

But let’s get real here. For R125 495 for the range-topping Spark LS you could easily spend your money on the VW Polo Vivo, the very attractive Ford Figo, the low-spec Hyundai i10 or the FIAT Panda. The Polo and the Figo are bigger and more powerful cars, and the Panda is a bit old and rather quirky, so I wouldn’t really have it on my short list.

Would I buy one? No. It ticks all the important check boxes and the shortcomings aren’t going to kill you, but it will come down to personal preference. And, coincidentally, being in the market to buy a car (and not just give the keys back after a week), I said no to the Spark. I just need a few more horses under my right foot, and that is the only reason I wouldn’t buy this little car. Do I give it a thumbs up? Yes. Am I smiling though? Not for long enough…

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