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Car reviews - Holden - Barina Spark - 5-dr hatch range

Our Opinion

We like
Youthful styling, funky dash, neat handling, grippy roadholding, ride over big bumps, quiet engine operation, low emission engine, good turning circle
Room for improvement
Barina name suggests a larger car, mechanical vibration at 100km/h, engine flat spot around 3500rpm, thick C-pillars ruin reversing vision, smallish boot, no telescopic wheel adjustment, horrid vinyl trim (base model gets cloth!) no seat height adjustment, male exclusionist marketing

21 Oct 2010

AT LAST, Holden fans, light car salvation is in sight.

You’ve had it really bad for far too long with the turgid TK Barina – a God-awful buzz box with a rubbish gear change, rough drivetrain, below-par ride, boomy cabin, toxic trim and sub-par safety kit. It’s just not worthy of the lion badge.

Sadly, though, the MJ Barina Spark is just not it. Not yet. Wait a little longer for the next-generation Barina ‘Aveo’ (or Sonic) due in the second half of next year.

So, are we saying that the Spark is not good enough? No. It’s just not big enough to brandish the Barina badge. By doing so Holden is misleading buyers into thinking that this car is of a certain shape and size – and it is patently not so.

What we have instead is an all-new type of Holden – the smallest, as well as cheapest, ever offered in Oz. A ‘sub-B’ segment contender, it is as tiny as a light car can get nowadays without being an A-segment player like the Smart ForTwo or Toyota iQ.

With an architecture loosely based on the current Horrid Barina’s (yes, thank you, it took us just five years to come up with that nickname!), and an engine that dates back to the dinosaurs, the Spark is hardly ‘all new’ underneath its modish skin, but this helps explain the base price of just $12,490 – or $13,990 plus on-road costs for the CDX tested here.

And that’s bloody cheap for an entry level new car, let alone for one fitted with ESC, ABS, six airbags, ‘breakaway’ pedals, a body kit, power steering, fog lights, alloy wheels, air-con, front power windows, remote central locking, electric mirrors, CD/radio/MP3/AUX input/USB input audio with steering wheel-mounted controls, a trip computer, an exterior temperature gauge, bottle holders, rear wiper, and a 60/40 spilt folding rear seat.

Twenty years ago, when houses cost a fraction of what they do today in some parts of Australia, the, ahem, MF Barina cost $13,524 and included a radio-cassette player, remote hatch release, and carpet. Only the (also sub-B sized) Suzuki Alto and Proton S16 are less expensive than the Spark nowadays, but both feel cheaper and tinnier while the latter lacks some vital safety gear such as ABS (let alone stability control).

So we get it. If you want the security and peace of mind of a new vehicle for you and/or your loved ones, then the Holden begs to be on your short list. This was hammered home to us recently when we witnessed a Nissan Pintara with ‘P’ plates but no tail-lights meandering all over the place in heavy rain.

Short yet tall externally, and surprisingly spacious internally, the tiniest Holden’s showroom allure is also obvious in the dry from the moment you open one of its four doors. Entry is unfettered and the seats are set high.

Too high for some, as it turns out, since there is no height adjuster for the driver. Even young women can be tall. The front seats generally feel flat and unsupportive while the clammy vinyl trim (don’t be fooled by their ‘Sportec’ label) doesn’t breathe. The young and groovy only want to see vinyl on a turntable, Holden.

With more than one person aboard, the Spark’s narrowness becomes obvious, with shoulders at close quarters, a lack of rear knee space, and a tiny boot all betraying this car’s sub-B status. While there are three seat belts across the back seat, good luck getting a trio of average sized adults in there comfortably.

Then there is the cheap hi-fi trim. While the CDX includes smart faux carbon fibre console trim and matt metal finish for the steering wheel spokes, the glitzier metal spears on the trailing edge of the dash and doors clash, as do the similarly plastic silver bits that jazz up the door pockets. Ay ya yay – what an eyesore! The painted bits look like nail polish. The blinker stalk clangs like it’s going to snap off. And at night a cornucopia of colours dot the cabin like suburban Christmas decoration lights.

Happily, though, the Spark’s basic functionality stuff is sorted – like the large on-off/volume button for the (feeble) CD/MP3/radio system, (effective) air-con controls that inhabit the main area of the centre console and (good to hold) steering wheel. We have no gripes about the general fit and finish either.

Plus, placing the very Nissan 350Z-esque analogue speedo and digital fuel gauge/trip info cluster on the (height-only adjustable) steering column works surprisingly well. Holden calls it ‘motorcycle’ style. In fact the straight-ahead view is quite futuristic, aided by those MPV-style A-frame pillars that give the Spark a space shuttle look.

Kudos, too, for rear seat squabs that tip forward (Ford Fiesta – are you listening?) The resulting lower load height with the backrests folded makes the Spark more practical than its pert proportions suggest. With the front passenger seat slid forward we could fit a full-sized bicycle (sans one wheel) inside.

Overall, then, the P-plater peeps will probably connect with the modern and smartly presented dashboard, which looks youthful without coming across as Mazda2 twee.

Earlier we mentioned the Alto and S16, and both of these cars’ cabins are louder than the Spark’s. But that doesn’t mean the Holden is a relaxation Shangri-La – this boom box could sure use some road noise sound deadening. Rain sloshing around the wheel arches and a constant drone from the rear is enough to make you wear OH&S earplugs.

While we’re isolating NVH issues, an annoying resonance came through our particular Spark’s accelerator pedal from about 100km/h. It was like standing on a shivering wasp.

However, that’s nothing compared to the dire rear vision caused by the silly external rear door handle that is somehow meant to transform this boxy hatch into a swoopy coupe. Please! It’s like giving granny a glow stick at a rave so everybody will believe she’s 21 again.

So much for going backwards – how’s the Holden moving forwards then?

Well, at start-up the Spark impresses with its quiet four-cylinder petrol engine that immediately sounds smoother than the three-pot units found in the Alto and K13 Nissan Micra ST. It is fond of a rev too.

But as the littlest Holden isn’t exactly a featherweight, it needs a heavy right foot to get going, so step-off acceleration is ordinary at best with just one person on board and the air-con on. Add more souls and the Spark needs to be worked hard.

Now that’s not entirely unexpected given this car’s diminutive size and capacity, but the light and easy five-speed manual gearbox’s ratios can’t quite mask a performance drop off at around 3500rpm.

So you’re driving along at about 60km/h and there’s an incline or the need to overtake arises, and you put your foot down and …nothing you find that fourth is too high and third is too low. This can happen joining a motorway or trying to merge with flowing traffic. Basically, the Spark has nothing in reserve when you need some extra oomph, except to rev its tinny little head off. And that doesn’t do the fuel economy any good either.

On the positive side the steering is sharp and responsive, and even provides some feedback through corners the handling stays flat and composed even when you power through a turn (though the car eventually does run wide into an understeer situation) and there is grip galore, even in the wet. This is miles more enjoyable than a regular Barina. The brakes are also well up to the task, with a consistent pedal action and short stopping distance.

We have misgivings about the Spark’s ride quality though. It feels busy and unsettled on the urban rutted surfaces that other cars have no problem smothering out, yet larger bumps and big speed humps are no issue thanks to what feels like generous suspension travel. On rural roads and gravel the Holden holds its own.

But this isn’t meant to be an out-of-town car, so we feel there’s more work needed in the chassis department if the Spark is going to cut it as an effective city runabout. The lack of automatic gearbox availability doesn’t help either.

So what do we make of the smallest-ever Holden?

On one hand, it has a low price, funky styling, lots of safety gear, plenty of standard features, eager handling and a trusted badge behind it.

But the engine’s lack of performance, unsupportive seats, surprising spec omissions, limited rear vision, lumpy low-frequency ride and boomy cabin really rub the shine off the showroom gloss.

And, unfortunately, there’s more.

In November, Nissan launched the fourth-generation Micra: a larger, roomier, comfier and more refined light car with the sort of standard features you want (like Bluetooth) as well as those that you would miss in the Holden (like that seat-height adjuster and auto gearbox option).

So while this isn’t a car comparison, it is obvious that the Nissan is shifting the light-car paradigm in Australia, redefining value the bottom end of the market with a much more suitable proposition than the Spark, Alto or S16 can. Come to think of it, even the outgoing Kia Rio and Hyundai Getz can’t match the Micra.

By all means then, seek out the Spark over a TK Barina, Holden fans. But our suggestion is to look elsewhere, haggle even harder on that already impressively low price, or wait until the properly sized next-generation GM light car arrives in the latter half of 2011.

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