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Car reviews - Holden - Barina - 5-dr hatch

Our Opinion

We like
Price, space, quality cabin, overall performance, versatility, value
Room for improvement
No ABS option, bland appearance, middling dynamics, new engine’s low-rev tractability

19 Nov 2004

HOLDEN’S Barina has been the classic Curate’s Egg scenario. You know - good in some parts, bad in others.

The first one was mostly good. It burst onto our market in early 1985 in MB guise courtesy of General Motors’ Japanese affiliate Suzuki, which also sold its near-identical SA Swift here as well.

Buyers were switched on to the Barina’s boisterous performance, airy cabin, exceptional frugality and city-friendly manoeuvrability, choosing to ignore its flimsy build and weedy styling.

The second generation (and final Japanese-built) 1989-1994 MF/H Barina was better, adding quality and substance to the basic economy hatch package. But shortsighted marketing ploys like the "Sportsgirl" edition severely limited this model’s demographic appeal.

The proverbial egg was whiffy when the Opel-sourced, Spanish-built SB stepped in instead in mid-1994, with inconsistent quality, poor performance, recalcitrant electronics and driveability woes weighing against it.

But it looked great and felt solid – the opposite to the 1985 original.

Still, as a Holden insider once admitted, SB was nicknamed the "Son of a..." Barina internally. Which says it all, really.

Then everything changed in early 2001, when Holden’s baby bounced back with the advent of the current XC series.

Heavily revised engines aside, it was new, including a fresh platform Opel in Germany developed in place of the SB’s 1982-vintage relic.

Critics and buyers both responded in kind, revitalising Barina’s sales and reputation in an increasingly competitive segment. It even carried off a local Car of the Year award. But then again, so did the VN Commodore.

But fashion is fickle and progress stops for no Holden.

In 2004 the segment has been lit with luminaries as brilliant as the Honda Jazz, as stylish as the Mazda2 and – more recently – as dynamically accomplished as Ford’s fun-filled and award-winning WP Fiesta.

Meanwhile, at the cheaper (sub-$15,000) end of the light car arena, Toyota has sharpened the Echo’s appeal with more features for less money against the highly impressive (and great value for money) Hyundai Getz.

The poor Barina was caught in-between and left behind. In 2003 sales soured by around 50 per cent.

Holden hit back at the start of this year with the XC MY04-series Barina, boasting a new engine on some models, cosmetic changes inside and out, and – most importantly – a cheaper price tag.

Stylistically, there’s a new chrome grille, colour-coded bumpers, body-coloured door handles, mirrors and side rubber strips and a fresh colour palette.

Sure, they’re pretty small changes, but they’re enough to differentiate the MY04 from previous XC versions.

But it wasn’t enough and sales of the facelifted Barina failed to fire.

So hasty revisions took effect from July, with the $15,990 SXi three-door and $17,990 CD five-door (as tested here) disappearing for the $13,990 "three-door" and $15,990 "five-door" variants – with the previously optional (at $1880) air-con included.

This means that all post mid-year Barinas are known as the "MY04.5" models. Confused? You should be.

Nothing comes for free either, with the SXi/CD models’ alloy wheels, leather steering wheel and (CD-only) power mirrors also vanishing.

These are on top of the recent revelation that Holden quietly withdrew the active front head restraints from the Barina in 2002.

Still, buyers know a bargain. The MY04.5 revamp has seen Barina sales bounce back.

There’s also more bounce (says Holden) to the MY04 Barina’s performance, thanks to a new 1.4-litre Twinport four-cylinder engine that’s the real heart of the changes – but only for manual models.

It produces the same amount of power as before (66kW), but at 5600rpm, occurring at 400rpm lower than before. That’s due to a new lower-stroke engine with variable intake control and a revised exhaust.

You certainly can feel the extra sparkle down low. Acceleration is very lively for a 1.4, with the motor mustering all 125Nm of torque to its advantage.

The Barina’s official fuel consumption also benefits, registering a 5.9L/100km average, when before it was closer to 6.5. In real-world motoring situations around 8.0L/100km isn’t an unreasonable expectation.

However, there are downsides.

The weight of extra passengers really takes a toll on performance, not a total surprise for a tot this tiny. But it is evident, especially when overtaking on highways. It requires more prodigious use of the notchy five-speed manual gearshift and lumpy clutch.

And low-speed tootling (surely a city car specialty) can be difficult because the test car would stall if left to stagger along at idle in second gear.

The handling is as absolutely safe and benign, with responsive steering and an agreeable amount of grip in most situations.

But through fast corners lifting off the throttle can really lighten up the tail, which is fun if you’re that way inclined but a little disconcerting if unexpected. I should stress though the tail never swung out fully, even when provoked.

Which wouldn’t happen much anyway, since the XC’s (electrically assisted) steering has a slightly wooden feel to its feedback, discouraging keen drivers to press on hard.

Perhaps the most disappointing aspect though is the ride comfort. The alloy-wheel clad CD tested (just before the MY04.5 makeover) lacked the previous XC models’ suppleness, erring on the hard side once too many times.

It’s not unreasonable to assume that Holden reverting back to steel wheels (shod with classy looking hubcaps) will reinstate the quality feel of the steel-wheel clad 2001 XC Barina tested.

The brakes are on the ball though, as all MY04 models gain Brake Assist technology to reduce pedal effort during hard braking.

However, no anti-lock availability (except the sporty 1.8-litre SRi, which continues unchanged at $22,490 by the way) is disappointing, and a sorry oversight Holden surely can’t be too far away in rectifying.

At least it’s reassuring that the pedals still have the ‘breakaway’ function for much-reduced foot and lower-leg injury.

Inside the Barina makes a much stronger case for itself.

Even taller adults can spread their legs up front (try doing that in the old Sportsgirl), with equally accommodating headroom and shoulder space. But longer trips betray the seat’s flatness.

Rear seat passengers are also adequately catered for, with an acceptable amount of comfort and support. For 2004 the backrest is a 60/40 split-fold lockable arrangement. A full-sized bicycle minus the front wheels will easily fit when the seats are appropriately folded.

Current Barina owners will sport the classy new charcoal trim, swish metallic centre console and instrumentation surrounds. It all adds up to the very model of German clarity, efficiency and solidity. And you won’t get that in your Toyota Echo.

In the end the 2004 XC is firmly in the middle of the pack.

While preferable to the Kia Rio or Hyundai Accent, it now is level-pegging with the Getz and ageing Echo it is now much more sensibly priced against. It all comes down to what appeals to you most.

Against the newer generation tiny tots however, this Barina isn’t the blistering baby car buy it was almost four years ago.

But it’s still a pretty good egg overall


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