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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    The Chevrolet rear door handle was driven by a dimensional requirement in the Korean domestic market that made the width in that area critical. The Opel variant, which was later sold to VINFAST didn’t have that requirement. (Too bad the author felt the need to be snarky and try to attribute this to bean-counting.)

    He is correct in calling out the awful dumbing down of the rear bumper appearance with the black (unpainted) section on a bumper not designed for that treatment. A really dumb call – but not surprising as GM North America has never understood how to approach the segment. That inability was combined with the corporation not really trying to sell the vehicles due to push back from labor (not made in N.A.) and the NIH approach of the Corporation. (Ever see much advertising for it?) Ironic as the program met all of its metrics in terms of cost, performance, safety, etc. – a rarity in its introduction era (early-mid 2010’s). I know this as I was the Executive in Charge of the first Spark and of this one through its architecture development. Ah, the stories one can tell about Detroit egos and lack of rational thinking……..

    BTW – VINFAST could have had the Opel Variant on the road as a VINFAST model with a lot less investment on their part but felt the need to re-skin it despite the sheetmetal already being unique from the GM retained Spark.

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