GM's Spark EV Underwhelming, but Electric Motor Could Threaten Tesla

NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- I just spent a week driving GM's (GM) Chevrolet Spark EV electric car, and frankly I'm underwhelmed. Most drivers would do better buying a competing vehicle such as the Nissan LEAF (NSANY) or Volkswagen (VLKAY) eGolf.

The Spark EV, however, contains a powerful motor that will be a key component of a much more exciting GM vehicle in the future. I expect GM and other major car companies to bring electric cars with a 200-mile range to market by 2017 in an effort to compete with Tesla's (TSLA) planned Model 3.

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Building on its experience with the Chevrolet Volt, GM has produced a motor with 402 pound feet of torque. That's more than a Ferrari 458. The new motor is built in a factory in Baltimore and then sent to Korea, where final assembly of the Spark EV takes place.

The Chevrolet Spark EV uses a battery pack based on cells from LG. The range is rated at 82 miles. In my testing, I was able to exceed this range almost all the time. I averaged very close to 100 miles, especially when I wasn't driving at freeway speeds.

 The Chevrolet Spark EV costs $29,610 fully loaded and is sold only in California and Oregon.

So what is it like to drive? Well, for starters it's tiny. It has four doors and fits four adults, but it is short and narrow.

The front seat is uncomfortable and one of the worst I have encountered in years. It is mushy and has nonexistent side bolstering. The seat material is the kind of vinyl one thought the auto industry had abandoned.

But wait, there's more! The seating position is terrible. The steering wheel doesn't telescope, and my left knee hit the door handle. I think the only car I've driven in recent memory that was any worse is the Fiat (FIATY) 500.

The top of the dashboard reflects badly in the windshield. The infotainment screens need constant adjustment between night and day conditions. Pairing Bluetooth? I tried four Android smartphones, and it wouldn't pair with any of them.

Backup camera? Forget it.

The storage bins between the front seats sit so low that you need orangutan arms to reach your stuff. The leather steering wheel is OK for a budget car.

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The back seat is surprisingly usable, with adequate space for two adults no taller than 5'11''. The luggage space is small but not unexpectedly so for a car of this size.

The build quality and overall NVH (noise, vibration, harshness) is good. I would argue that it's better than the Chevrolet Volt.

How does it drive? Given the 402 pound feet of torque and the sub-3,000 pound weight, it should be no surprise that the Spark EV accelerates like a rocket. Combined with the tiny footprint (length and width), this is the closest thing to an electric go-kart you'll get in the market today.

Straight-line acceleration is one thing. Taking curves is another. The Spark EV feels very uncomfortable as soon as you turn the steering wheel. You almost fall out of the mushy seats, and the electronic stability system cuts into your experience in an almost scary way.

The AC charger is only 3.3 kW, or half the Nissan LEAF's 6.6 kW rate. BMW's i3 and VW's eGolf are 7.2 kW, and the Mercedes B-Class is 10 kW. The DC charger enabled me to add almost 20 miles of charge for every five minutes of being plugged in, but it didn't work at all in one DC charger location.

On the whole, the Chevy Spark EV is no match for the Nissan LEAF. The LEAF is a much more comfortable car for a driver and has more usable space. The same goes for the 2015 VW eGolf, the BMW i3 and Mercedes B-Class Electric.

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Really the only arguments in favor of the Chevrolet Spark EV are:

  1. Superior acceleration.
  2. Small footprint, which makes it easy to park (although it lacks a backup camera).
  3. Lowest price in the group for a fully loaded car.

In the end, very few people are -- or should be -- buying the Spark EV over competent rival vehicles such as the Nissan LEAF and Volkswagen eGolf.

It's important to note, however, that fewer than 200 Spark EVs are sold each month in the U.S. That's two decimal points away from justifying a factory in Baltimore!

I would argue that there's a bigger story here. It's obvious that the Spark EV is simply a test bed for an all-new, purpose-built, 200-mile EV that I expect GM to start producing by 2017. The company needs to test this electric motor to ensure there are no drivetrain failures or warranty costs when the rubber meets the road in 2017.

It's not the slightest mystery as to how GM could increase the range of another car using the same motor to 200 miles from the stated 82 miles on the Spark EV. There are just two steps involved:
  1. Use a bigger car body, which can hold a battery pack with 2.5 times the capacity of this LG battery pack and be aerodynamically more efficient.
  2. Have LG -- or Samsung or Panasonic -- produce the larger battery pack.

That's it. I'd expect GM to do this, along with Nissan, Ford (F) , Volkswagen/Audi, BMW and other major automakers. We can also expect these cars to roll off production lines by 2017. Perhaps Tesla will be able to deliver its planned Model 3 car in volume by that time as well.

What will be the price of these 200-mile EVs in 2017? Most likely low enough for the big players to threaten Tesla and prevent it from making profits on its equivalent car. The major automakers will just continue to cross-subsidize their EVs using profits from other vehicles as necessary.

To me, it's transparent that the Spark EV car is the drivetrain testbed for a GM 200-mile EV that we should expect by 2017. This powerful electric motor will easily propel the much larger, more practical and refined car that we can expect by that time.

A GM representative said, "We do not comment on potential future product speculation."

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If you have the slightest imagination and logic, you can easily estimate that a larger electric car will be very competitive for its price. In the meantime, you can drive that electric motor already today, as I did for a week.

At the time of publication, the author held no positions in any of the stocks mentioned, although positions may change at any time.

Follow @antonwahlman

This article is commentary by an independent contributor, separate from TheStreet's regular news coverage.

TheStreet Ratings team rates GENERAL MOTORS CO as a Buy with a ratings score of B. TheStreet Ratings Team has this to say about their recommendation:

"We rate GENERAL MOTORS CO (GM) a BUY. This is driven by multiple strengths, which we believe should have a greater impact than any weaknesses, and should give investors a better performance opportunity than most stocks we cover. The company's strengths can be seen in multiple areas, such as its revenue growth and largely solid financial position with reasonable debt levels by most measures. We feel these strengths outweigh the fact that the company has had sub par growth in net income."

You can view the full analysis from the report here: GM Ratings Report

TheStreet Ratings team rates TESLA MOTORS INC as a Hold with a ratings score of C-. TheStreet Ratings Team has this to say about their recommendation:

"We rate TESLA MOTORS INC (TSLA) a HOLD. The primary factors that have impacted our rating are mixed ? some indicating strength, some showing weaknesses, with little evidence to justify the expectation of either a positive or negative performance for this stock relative to most other stocks. The company's strengths can be seen in multiple areas, such as its robust revenue growth, solid stock price performance and good cash flow from operations. However, as a counter to these strengths, we also find weaknesses including unimpressive growth in net income, poor profit margins and generally higher debt management risk."

You can view the full analysis from the report here: TSLA Ratings Report

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