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Car reviews - Holden - Barina - 3-dr hatch

Our Opinion

We like
Revised engine, solid handling, feature list, excellent stereo
Room for improvement
Safety omissions, wall-to-wall plastic, rear seat/boot accommodation

27 Apr 2001

RATHER than descend into an unholy discount war with its all-new Astra late in 1998, Holden started preaching the virtues of "adding value".

Australians were told to dig a little deeper and were promised peace and tranquility, a rich driving experience and pride in knowing they were doing their bit to help protect resale values, profit margins and assist with Holden's quest to become the complete - as opposed to one-car - company.

The believers responded - twice as many Astras were sold last year - and the same call has now gone out again with the coming of the new-generation Barina.

This is good, wholesome motoring we're talking about here, not hot gospel. Pricing started from a solid $13,990 at launch, the features carefully chosen and the appearance utterly orthodox, though Barina did take on a sharper edge and Astra styling cues to lure a broader audience than mums and daughters to the fold.

The dollars will not bring enticements like free scheduled servicing, inclusive on-road costs, electric windows, electric external mirrors, air-conditioning, alloy wheels and height adjustment for the steering wheel and driver's seat (that luxury is reserved for the five-door version).

Indeed, few cars in this segment offer a complete package.

But with the much-anticipated Barina there is no offer of anti-lock brakes, and no seating creativity, as seen on the Toyota Echo for example, to free up the small amount of room found in either the back seat or luggage compartment.

Of course, we could wave all of the above off as just a fact of life with compact cars at the bottom of the food chain. But we have come to expect better.

As it stands, the Barina's rear entry/egress is hindered by a lack of slide function on either front pew and, once out back, the space is cramped and a number of important items are missing: head restraints, a lap-sash seatbelt in the centre-rear position, and useful grabhandles and storage facilities.

That said, Barina is not alone in foregoing safe, practical details such as these to keep the price low.

And, in its favour, the new model has a lot of redeeming features.

What the dollars do bring is power steering, dual airbags, rear foglamps, remote central locking with deadlocking and two-stage door opening, disc brakes on all four wheels, a full-size spare wheel and an excellent six-speaker Blaupunkt CD stereo supported by steering wheel-mounted controls.

Consider also that the front seats have anti-whiplash head restraints (a rarity at this level), seatbelt pretensioners and belt-force limiters the dash is modern, uncluttered and noteworthy for its neatly integrated and large, legible controls a useful multi-function display shows time, date, outside temperature and audio settings storage locations, not all of them handy, are readily found shoulder room is no longer a problem up front and the pedals, at long last, are comfortably placed.

Some design flair helps break up the huge expanse of dull, hard and unwelcoming plastic trim: the uprated (optional) air-conditioning system is superb the thick, three-spoke steering wheel fits snugly in the driver's hands and a tacho has made its way on to the instrument panel.

Out the back, the small, 260-litre boot space can be extended using the 60/40 split-fold rear bench which folds flat but does not slide fore-aft or tumble forward like the gymnastic Echo.

Child seat anchorage points are also ideally located on the rear seatback.

Above all else, Holden's "value-added" sermon really starts to hit home on the road.

The 1.4-litre four-cylinder engine bears little resemblance to its predecessor, now with DOHC and 16 valves, and producing 66kW at 6000rpm and 120Nm at 4000rpm.

It is a substantial improvement on the previous generation: smooth, quiet and willing, though still lacking response whenever a steep climb is encountered.

A tall set of gears doesn't help matters here, nor do the extra kilos of the new car - at 1052kg, the three-door is almost 190kg heavier than the previous City model - and, not surprisingly, fuel economy suffers as a result.

But that weight has gone to good use. The all-new body structure is stronger and stiffer, and combined with substantial chassis, steering and suspension reform, helps keep the Barina's nose in front of most other compacts when it comes to handling.

You will appreciate the effort that's gone making this a confident and well-controlled little car. The ride is competent enough, but it's the excellent level of front-end grip and communicative, direct and nicely weighted steering that impress most.

The tyres send up a fair bit of noise on rough surfaces and freeway speeds prompt some wind noise around the mirrors. But these are minor details. Good braking performance, easy manoeuvrability around town and a good quality of manufacture are, perhaps, more to the point.

There is enough maturity in its presentation and vigour in its driving characteristics to ensure Barina is no longer simply a car for mum or sis, or for grandma to drive to church on Sundays. But it's no TV evangelist, either.

It lacks the excitement and the inventiveness many people (and car manufacturers) are searching for, but has quality, integrity and good all-round ability on its side.

And, significantly, Opel uses the Suzuki Wagon R+ as its clever micro car in Europe - and that lesson has already been taught here.

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