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Car reviews - Holden - Barina - 5-dr hatch

Our Opinion

We like
Handsome styling, roomy cabin, solid dash, five-star safety, generous equipment levels
Room for improvement
Rubbery manual gearshift, harsh engine with annoying flat spots, stiff ride, twee instrument pod, only Korean-built light car without five-year warranty

Holden logo14 Oct 2011

By BYRON MATHIOUDAKIS

WHEN the poorest performing kid in class goes from a crushing ‘F’ to an easy ‘C’ then things are indeed looking up.

However, when said kid’s parent is our own Holden – the local division of one of the largest car companies on earth and creator of brilliant models like the VE Commodore – then should we just be happy that a new Barina no longer equals a big fat fail?

This is a vexing question, particularly as just two generations ago the Opel-based XC Barina was good enough to win the most prestigious car of the year gong around – like getting an A if we’re to continue the school kid theme.

As the newest light car in a booming class, we have no hesitation pronouncing the (almost) all-new TM Barina a good little car – even up with the best if you factor in safety and equipment, especially for $15,990 plus-on roads.

Further plus points include design, dashboard presentation and cabin space (thanks to its larger-than-usual proportions).

But the latest Barina’s drivetrain belongs on the D-list. Truly. The dynamics are distinctly average.

And the three-year warranty is ho-hum against the five-year plan offered by Kia, Hyundai, Renault and Mitsubishi.

Nine competitors – the Ford Fiesta, Mazda2, Volkswagen Polo, Suzuki Swift, Honda Jazz, Kia Rio, Hyundai i20, Toyota Yaris and Nissan Micra – all bring something more than just capable, practical and safe to the table.

Before we ‘C’ why a new model manages only a mid-field placement, let’s recount some sad and sorry recent history.

In a move rivalling that from Bill to George W, in late 2005 high-flying Holden horrified a huge chunk of Australia by ditching the XC for a reheated Daewoo Kalos, one of Korea’s less appetising motoring morsels.

Even against its predecessor – never mind the fast-improving competition – the TK Barina felt crude and cheap, and trailed most rivals shamefully for safety. Only a low $12,990 price tag enticed so, while buyers followed, critics howled.

Thankfully, for the new TM model, GM Korea, which is half controlled by Holden, utilised the platform of the six-year old Opel Corsa (ironically the XC replacement in Europe) as a starting point to develop a far more modern machine than the tired old TK architecture.

This explains the new Barina’s huge leap in size. It easily breaches the four-metre length barrier, is wider as well as higher than before, and boasts a longer wheelbase.

It means that even a two-metre-tall adult will find just enough space up front, and manage to fit in the back seat if the person up front compromises a little. That’s an impressive amount of room inside.

Taller folk in the back seat will appreciate the ample levels of headroom and foot space beneath the front seat, as well as the overhead grab handles, single map pocket and large cupholder residing at the rear of the centre console.

But, despite a general air of robust quality, the cheap, loose-fitting carpet in our test car jarred. And the bench itself, sufficiently comfy on short-haul journeys, started to feel flat and under-padded on longer jaunts.

On the bright side, however, the news up front is almost universally positive.

The headline act is the grown-up cabin ambience that is presented in a modern Euro fashion. While hard and sounding hollow to the touch, the varying plastics look good and fit nicely.

Aided by a height-adjustable seat and an attractive (and happily not-so-small) steering wheel that both tilts and telescopes (unlike the rival Fiesta’s), the Barina’s driving position is beaut.

Front vision is good but the view out the back is impeded by fat C-pillars.

And we’re no fans of the twee instrumentation. Similar to that found in the smaller Spark, the oversized analogue tachometer and digital speedo are absolutely crystal clear and work well enough, while the integration of the fuel gauge is clever, but what a contrast to the overall sobriety of the dashboard. What does a motorcycle-inspired binnacle have to do with a Barina?

The centre console is a lesson in elegant simplicity. Apart from aesthetics, it functions with pleasing efficiency, due to excellent ventilation, seamless Bluetooth/audio streaming and literally stacks of storage access and options to lose stuff in.

As with big brother Cruze, the Barina’s showroom appeal will surely draw many customers to the lion brand. And that’s before buyers discover the relatively long, deep and easy to access luggage area.

The boot volume is rated at between 290 and 653 litres, there is a full-sized (though steel instead of alloy) spare beneath the floor and child-seat harness points located out of the way behind the (split-fold) rear seat backrest.

The carryover – though much modified – decades-old Family One 1.6-litre petrol engine is one of the more powerful, on paper at least, producing a healthy 85kW of power and 155Nm of torque.

It drives fine if you are undemanding, but explore the middle rev range and the four-pot unit starts to protest loudly, upping the noise, vibration and harshness levels to the point where most people will not see the point of continuing to push the engine.

Furthermore, easing off the pedal even slightly reveals a big fat flat-spot. What a drag!

You can moderate the accelerator to stay within a small torque band for a steady urban pace and relative peace, but even then you are unlikely to be very impressed with the performance. And the fuel consumption – a disappointing 8.5L/100km over mostly highway driving – was the final straw for us.

Most rivals offer much better engine alternatives than the Barina.

And, while better than before, the five-speed manual’s shift action is never satisfyingly smooth or effortless because the lever needs to be handled from cog to cog like stirring a pot. Again, others do it better.

The same week we drove the Barina we also tested the Cruze hatch with the 1.4 turbo engine – a delightfully slick and engaging drivetrain that is offered in the TM’s Chevrolet Sonic twin in the US. The difference between ours and theirs is like the difference between Peter and Tim Costello. So go on Holden we know it fits.

Pleasingly, the TM’s chassis feels solid, secure and well-planted, like everything works together in unison. By comparison, the TK felt loose and bitsy.

The steering responds to driver inputs faithfully. Aim and turn the tiller and the Barina will go where it is pointed. Smaller bumps and rough roads do little to corrupt the composure, for the Holden just ploughs right on through.

As with most light cars, push a little harder, maybe apply some more power, and the nose just runs out a little wider as the 16-inch Kuhmo tyres gamely try to keep on gripping and the flashing traction light – ESC is standard at last – warns that the electronic nannies are intervening even at a whiff of lost traction.

Driving the Barina like a hot hatch is utterly pointless, so keener drivers will find the Barina’s dynamics a numbing experience. Precious little feedback reaches the driver, so you can’t really feel what the road is like. Wooden is the adjective that springs to mind.

That ably describes the ride quality, too, with many road irregularities resulting in a bouncy and fidgety attitude – as with most of the Barina’s competition, though not the best of them.

However, the brakes behave exactly as they should, bringing the Holden to a halt without cause for alarm.

The good news is that choosing the latest Barina will expose you to one of the safest, roomiest and best-equipped value propositions available. Even alloys, cruise control and a full suite of airbags are included for $15,990.

However, is that enough? The Barina’s talents may have catapulted it from bottom rung to perhaps a top five spot four years ago, but today, as the light-car segment continues to evolve, there are better options out there that drive and feel better.

So it is with a sigh, and words of encouragement tinged with disappointment, that the latest little Holden is handed a worthy ‘C’. The truth is, the Barina must try harder.

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