Vellum Venom Vignette: The globalized Spark of automotive design


There’s a certain irony in being a car designer, as you initially study to be an open-minded, somewhat unconstrained artist. Because that tends to change when working for a multi-national corporation with baked-in concerns of product cost, safety, external and internal political wrangling, and shared resources in a globalized economy. Sometimes the story is harder to spot, like that of the 2010 Jeep Grand Cherokee. This is not one of those times.

I have zero interest in writing a hit piece about the Chevy Spark. This is an honest little machine, which is a rarity in our current marketplace. City cars like the Spark do poorly in the U.S., which is a shame since GM’s North American design team took a South Korean city car and differentiated it for cheap. It replaced the vent window with a cute, quirky rear door handle which, compared to the Opel Karl counterpart, makes for a cleaner and sportier look in the rear door/quarter panel. Consider the Spark as a poor man’s Nissan Juke.

The new door handle also likely saved money, as it removed a piece of expensive glass from the variable cost side of GM’s balance sheet. And that’s a smart design, because both left brain accountants and right brain designers appreciate it. No matter, on to the Spark’s problem.

The 2017 Chevrolet Spark ACTIV
Andrew Trahan Photography LLC

Meet the Spark ACTIV and sistership Opel Karl Rocks (yes, really) which is an off-road inspired trim level with fake skid plates, fake step bars, CUV-styled front bumper, and an unpainted rear bumper not unlike those found on a 1994 Geo Metro. But what’s worse than the reintroduction of this awful chapter in automotive design is the fact you pay $3000 extra over a baseline Spark LS.

To be fair, the ACTIV’s standard features (leatherette seats, a 7-inch touchscreen, etc.) and a modest (0.4-inch) lift kit somewhat justify the price. But the press release rubs salt in the poorly-designed wound by suggesting this trim level has “accents influenced by off-road skidplates.” Even worse, it suggests the ACTIV “has an attitude, while still offering the sophisticated, efficient, and connected driving experience customers have come to love.”

2021 Chevrolet Spark ACTIV

And clearly nothing says “attitude” like a city car pretending to be a CUV. But the biggest hurdle for the ACTIV trim level isn’t the intention, it’s the execution. No matter, a city car turned fake CUV might do well in a place like, oh let’s say, Vietnam.

While Vietnam’s own VinFast made a splash in 2017 with ritzy, Pininfarina-designed derivatives of BMW platforms, it also saw a glimmer of light in GM’s city car. Meet the VinFast Fadil and ask yourself, could it be Southeast Asia’s take on the Subaru Forester? While the jaded among us may mock this advertisement, consider that the US has 61 times more vehicles per 1000 people: Watching a Fadil motor down a rough road in Lai Châu might indeed induce rubbernecking on occasion.

VinFast Fadil

No matter, the Spark’s “accents influenced by off-road skidplates” will likely fare better in Vietnam. Too bad the back ends of both vehicles need serious help.

The look falls apart from the rear, as both took the path not painted for the entire rear bumper. The cheapness presented here makes sense in Southeast Asia, as a more durable rear bumper fares better in traffic congestion. Ditto for the lift kit, which might be a lifesaver on rural Vietnamese roads. But the reality is far less generous when sold in America’s wide-open suburban utopia.

Get to the point already, Sajeev: while the Chevrolet Spark has merit, the ACTIV trim level shows how wrong a design’s decision analysis can go in a globalized, multinational corporation. This assumes the ACTIV’s trim work was originally created for the needs of a German subsidiary (or Vietnamese automaker?). It also assumes a U.S.-based product planner thought the ACTIV was worth the premium for an otherwise difficult-to-sell vehicle in this market.

Assumption pitfalls be damned, it really looks like someone thought it was worth the effort to make the Spark ACTIV with painfully obvious global parts bin engineering. The end result is a loss of soul for an honest little car. Tacky and unrefined design have no place on any automobile … even at the bottom of our vehicular spectrum.

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