How I (kind of) set a range record in the Chevy Spark EV
Few men get to break records. Fewer still get to break automotive records. Some 115 years into the common automotive era, most worthwhile automotive feats have already been achieved.
Delightfully for me, there’s at least one automotive yardstick to be set: wringing every last mile from the 2014 Chevrolet Spark EV. We’ll leave history to decide whether it’s “worthwhile.”
The EPA rates the Spark EV range at 82 miles on a single charge, which puts it at 119 MPGe (miles per gallon equivalent). But when I asked some Chevrolet representatives how far the Spark EV could travel on a single charge in ideal conditions, they admitted no one had yet tried.
I prodded the Chevy team for more info. The Spark EV engineers admitted that in ideal conditions, the Spark could probably go 160 to 180 miles on a single charge, which – at 18.5 mph – would take around nine hours of non-stop driving.
Challenge accepted. Granted, it’s not the most glamorous challenge, but someone had to do it, and Chevy said it could be me.
When I got to Portland International Raceway at 7 a.m. the morning of the record-setting run, I found the light blue Spark EV awaiting me at the start of the track.
Still wet with dew, the cold little mini EV glistened in the early morning light. Knowing I would spend the next several hours behind the wheel of the eco-friendly subcompact, I patted it proudly and gave it an once-over.
Someone had to do it, and Chevy said it could be me. While it may be possible to hold 18.5 mph, Chevy’s engineers warned it might get extremely tiring, as cruise control wouldn’t activate below 24 mph. So to squeeze the most from the Spark EV, I’d need to hold the throttle steady with my foot for hours.
Along with a steel ankle, other things would have to be ideal to maximize range, too. Weather should be warmer than cooler; I was told 60-ish would be best. The transmission should be warm, to negate unnecessary drag. And the tires should be at the full-recommended psi.
I had no way of controlling the 40-degree weather that morning. So, in order to offset any drain cold weather might have on the powertrain, I disabled the MyLink system and the climate control.
Eager to get the mind-melting monotony of the range test started, I hit the ignition on the Spark EV, clicked my seat belt, put it into drive, and set off. I set the cruise control on at 24 mph and settled back for my great odyssey.
On the track
Driving 24 mph on a track for six hours sounds like it’ll be pretty darn boring. Don’t get me wrong; it is. It’s just not as horrid as I thought it’d be.
Electric vehicles are often derided for causing range anxiety. On the track in pursuit of a range record, I experienced the opposite sensation: range eagerness. I wasn’t worried how far it would go, but rather jazzed to see how many miles I could squeeze from the onboard 21-kWh lithium-ion battery pack.
This wasn’t the only sensation that overcame me mile after mile. With the climate control disabled, I was forced to play a delicate game of wiggling my extremities to stay warm. I hadn’t ever really noticed how limited my toe dexterity was until forced to keep them moving every few minutes.
This kept me entertained for a few hours. Eventually, though, nature came calling.
I began debating with myself out loud. “Do I pee into my now-empty Gatorade bottle or do I try to hold it for another four or more hours?”
I went back and forth on the subject, looking at myself the rearview mirror, as I lobbed counter arguments at myself.
“There’s no way you can hold it that long.”
“Going in a bottle is part of the challenge.”
“Going in a bottle is part of the challenge.”
“What will you do if you fumble the bottle or miss?”
Eventually I gave into my lesser self. Doing a seated leg press, I lifted my self in the seat and emptied my bladder into one my several Gatorade bottles.
It went surprisingly smoothly. When I was finished and the bottle was capped, I found myself with a new decision: what to do with a liter of piping hot urine.
Around hour four, after I had eaten my apple and emptied and refilled all my Gatorade bottles, the hunger pangs set in. So, too, did the boredom.
Without a better idea of how to alleviate either, I called my friend and contributor Peter Braun. I asked him to go to my house, get money off my dresser, go to a burger joint, and bring me a meal at the track.
Also a glutton for punishment, Peter obliged. Within an hour or so, he was on the track, burger sack in hand.
This is where the adventure got tricky. As I was not able to slow down, Peter would have to devise a way to hand the burger off to me at speed.
First, he tried to match speed on the front straight of the track in his pickup, driving from the passenger seat. He quickly discovered, though, that his first gear topped out before 24 mph, as he watched me whiz by.
On the second pass, he tried to get going into second gear before sliding into the passenger seat. This almost worked. But when I grabbed the bag, he didn’t let go. The speed difference between our two cars caused my arm to slam into Spark’s b-pillar with such force, I was surprised I didn’t break my arm.
Peter would have to devise a way to hand the burger off to me at speed. For the third attempt, Peter was on foot. He stood on the centerline with much trepidation and tried to lean the bag out within an arm’s length, as I dangled out of the Spark. At the last second, he chickened out and dove backward.
On the fourth pass, he just lobbed the bag into my open window. It wasn’t pretty but it worked. It was then I called him and told him to forget the coffee I had also requested. It wasn’t worth the risk.
After finishing my burger, I didn’t have to wait much longer for the Spark EV to give up the ghost.
At 138.9 miles, the Spark EV threw a warning on the dash reading, “Out of Energy, Charge Vehicle Now!” I assumed that an EV – like a gasoline car – would under estimate its range, as a safety precaution. Accordingly, I assumed it had a few more miles left. It didn’t.
At 139.5 miles the motor cut out and the car coasted to a stop, reaching a total of 139.7 miles on a single charge. I put the car into Park, put on my coat, and walked back to the main Portland International Raceway office to get a tow back to the charging station.
The hard-earned payoff
Later, I shared my hard-earned mileage record with the fine folks at Chevrolet. Apparently a room of EV engineers gasped when they learned of my range achievement.
When I prodded the Chevy reps to see if my effort was an official record, though, they were unwilling to say specifically. The most they would reveal is that they know of no other range test that exceeded my 139.7 miles, making it an unofficial record.
Why the aloofness from Chevrolet? Simply, the reps were concerned with upsetting the EPA.
So there we have it.
I walked into the Spark EV range test expecting to have a miserable time, and determined to set a world record for the Spark EV’s single charge range.
I did neither.
My feet got cold. I urinated into several bottles. I got wickedly hungry. I nearly broke my arm. And I did 139.7 miles on a single charge.
And official or not, that’s a record.