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

Launch Story

21 Oct 2010

JUST under a decade ago Holden released the best ever Barina in the MY01 XC from Europe fast-forward five years and its MY06 TK replacement from Korea has easily been the worst – and not by a small margin either.

For the MJ Spark then – saddled with the ‘Barina’ prefix and part replacement for the three-door versions of the continuing TK until the all-new ‘big’ Barina bounces in from mid-2011 – anything is possible.

Good news first.

Holden’s bolshie new baby is as good as the soon-to-die Daewoo T200 Kalos-based TK is turgid.

For buyers in the bottom end of the Barina spectrum, the Spark waves goodbye to awful gear changes, a rough drivetrain, below-par ride and handling traits, noisy cabins, bargain-basement cabin trim, and sub-standard safety kit.

Instead, the Spark offers a perfectly adequate (though by no means class-leading due to its notchiness) five-speed manual action, tied to a tried and tested 1.2-litre twin-cam 16-valve four-cylinder petrol engine that – while not a powerhouse – provides sufficient torque at low revs and a willingness to hit the redline without too much harshness or hesitation. And we achieved this with two adults on board and the air-con on over hilly Sydney terrain.

Only when attempting to merge with fast-moving on-coming traffic did the Spark’s mini-me motor’s lack of cubic centimetres become obvious, with a worrying flat spot that required a quick down-change and a muffled expletive to help the dinkiest Barina regain some speed as it revved its way out of danger. Otherwise, this is a perfectly workmanlike unit.

‘Benign’ best describes the steering – a light and easy affair with an agreeable degree of weighting, okay levels of responsiveness but nothing near the feel or feedback of the Ford Fiesta and Mazda2 superminis.

We cannot imagine the Spark’s overtly female-skewed demographic – as depicted in Holden’s ads – complaining too much about the dynamics though. As for the non-bimbos of this world that more accurately represent women – they’d probably just say “Meh!” – the Spark is that type of car to drive.

Actually, we went from ‘meh’ to ‘O-Kay!’ when we pushed the Spark a little over some winding roads in the Ku-ring-gai Chase National Park, as the little Holden felt controllable and composed, with not as much understeer as we might have imagined and adequate amounts of grip. It’s no Mini, but not too bad.

And what about the ride quality then? On 15-inch alloys the newcomer conquered Sydney’s rapidly dilapidating road network with competence while the 14-inch version seemed to do an even better job of absorbing bumps and irregularities it is a massive improvement over the TK Barina, and quite an achievement for a hatch as stout as this.

Here’s something worth noting too: Earlier this year some overseas reports damned the Chevrolet Spark version for its lacklustre performance and dull dynamics, but Holden’s engineers helped drive a raft of minor changes that make the MY11 models – like ours – globally a smoother and more responsive drive. Good one, GM.

Keeping in mind that this is a $12,490 entry-level runabout from Korea, the Spark does somewhat of a fine job pleasing its occupants inside.

The “motorcycle” inspired binnacle – perched directly in front of the driver on a steering column that tilts but, sadly, does not telescope – brings a bit of pizzazz to the cockpit, as does the CDX’s perforated pleather (vinyl to you and me) seat faces. We also like the ample forward vision, plethora of storage options, and easy to find and operate controls.

There is sufficient amount of space up front for an average sized driver, and the back is actually remarkably good on legroom. And unlike a Fiesta, the rear cushions tilt forward for a low and flat load area, increasing the miserably small boot space.

But here come the bad bits.

There is no doubting the Spark’s bottom-end positioning in terms of finish (lots of hard cheap plastic – especially out back) and sizing (shoulders are very close together compared to, say, a Yaris). Using ex-Daewoo brittle-feeling wiper and indicator stalks painted in sheeny black is not a good move either.

Unbelievably, considering the female slant, the driver’s seat has no height adjuster! What? And then, at the alter of fashion presumably, the rear door-handles that are hidden in the pillar make for great big blind spots when trying to peer out of the car – especially if you’re behind the steering wheel. The A-pillars are also too fat, as we discovered at Ku-ring-gai.

At least the designers had the good sense to fit a deep rear window, easing reversing considerably as long as nobody is sitting on the firm and shapeless rear bench, which almost makes up for the thick C-pillars.

And… that’s about it really.

After the heinous TK Barina, we expected the same factory to churn out more sub-standard fare in the new MJ Barina Spark, but instead – save for the minor flaws outlined above – it has won us over during our first drive as a lively, willing and – yep – able little city runabout with no obvious glaring problems.

We haven’t yet driven Nissan’s 2011 K13 Micra, but the Spark does offer more features and oomph compared to the likeable little Suzuki Alto, and is really generations ahead of the rapid but safety kit (and style) averse Proton S16.

It might wear a Barina badge in Australia, but the Spark is good enough to, ahem, ignite some positivity back into the long-serving baby Holden brand.

And, fingers crossed, it also bodes very well for the next-generation full-sized Barina.

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