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Car reviews - Holden - Barina - SRi 3-dr hatch

Our Opinion

We like
Sharper handling, strong engine, Irmscher bodykit
Room for improvement
Optional air-conditioning, rear seat access, steel spare wheel

12 Dec 2001

SELLING cars has got a lot to do with tapping into people's weak spots. And performance - in look, feel and in the tasting - is the area where the mere mortal is most vulnerable.

Resisting the urge is not all that hard when the car is worth a fortune. Those of us with a modicum of inner strength will settle for the screen saver rather than set off on a life of crime.

But what happens when the damn thing falls within our price range? What then?

Ever since the fiery Barina GSi was discontinued in the spring of 1998 and particularly since the new generation arrived last summer, Holden has delivered compact hatches of great moral rectitude.

The new range has a straight-laced appearance, acceptable performance, dependable handling, competent brakes, a comfortable ride, good safety credentials and a string of features not often seen at this level, such as audio controls on the steering wheel and "active" headrests for the front passengers.

Yet rather than stick to these virtues, Holden has also now set about attacking our weaknesses with the tempting sports-oriented SRi.

The method has not changed since those depraved days when the GSi got our attention. Body adornments - these ones sourced from German tuning firm Irmscher - intertwine with beefed-up engine and braking performance, firmed-up suspension and a substantial list of standard features. All for the starting price of just over $20,000.

It's a total that takes this Barina past its obvious rivals and an excellent three-door and five-door Astra. Air-conditioning calls for another couple of thousand while power for the windows and external mirrors, well, that can't be called for at all.

But take a look at the enticements.

SRi picks up cruise control, traction control, ABS brakes, 15-inch alloy wheels and front foglights. On the inside it has well-bolstered bucket seats, a leather-clad steering wheel, white-faced instrument dials and aluminium-look details on the dash, gearshift and handbrake.

This is also the sole Beep-Beeper with rear headrests, the lone three-door in the range with height adjustment for the driver's seat and steering wheel.

And now consider all the gear Barina has fitted standard in the first place: a great-sounding Blaupunkt CD stereo, remote locking with dual-stage unlock, a couple of airbags, electric headlamp adjustment, 60/40 split-fold rear seat, the aforementioned steering controls ...

You get the drift. SRi is priced high but represents great value - a fact reinforced each time the master and apprentice find themselves alone together on a snaking stretch of road.

This is no Clio Renaultsport and no Peugeot 206 when it comes to pure driving entertainment. Holden has not ventured that far into the den of iniquity. But it hasn't made a token effort either.

While the local engineers who tinkered with the SRi had a sound chassis from which to work in the first place, the wider track, lower ride height, stiffer suspension and use of 15-inch rims with 185/55 rubber all combine to improve the handling properties.

Provided the driver is prepared to sacrifice some ride comfort and live with occasional noise and vibration sent up through to the cabin, he or she will be rewarded with greater amounts of roadholding and a heightened sense of poise and control from the compact Holden.

Indeed, the SRi will hang on in places where other cars surrender and it refuses to build up much understeer when pushed into tight turns. The traction control system, which cannot be switched off, also refrains from making its presence felt until it detects a substantial loss of adhesion.

The lower-profile tyres have served to sharpen up the steering response, adding to the favourable impression created with nice weighting of the steering wheel at higher speeds and good communication between front wheels and driver.

There is also no trace of kickback when bumps are encountered during a corner, nor is there interference with the steering as torque makes its way down to the road from the 1.8-litre engine.

Ah, yes. Engine.

Designed to run on premium unleaded petrol, the multi-valve double overhead cam "Astra" engine can deliver 92kW at 6000rpm and 165Nm at 4600rpm - ample amounts, really, to shift the 1147kg SRi and enough to make life quite a bit more interesting than it was before.

Though not the sweetest-sounding powerplant, the 1.8 is smooth and strong throughout its rev range and, in contrast to the 1.4 powering the rest of the range, has loads of torque on tap from low engine speeds. Rushing from point to point and storming up gradients is par for the course.

The engine makes a decent combination with the positive-shifting clutch and five-speed manual, both of which were strengthened to cope with the increased power and torque, and its preference for top-shelf fuel won't burn a hole in the pocket because consumption is frugal.

Stopping power, known to be good with the four-wheel disc arrangement, also goes up a notch with the inclusion of an effective Bosch anti-lock braking system.

Inside, the Euro-firm front pews keep occupants rigid and all drivers great and small will find an acceptable position with the help of good fore/aft movement and height adjustment for both the steering wheel and seat.

Neither front seat, however, has a slide function to make access to or from the rear compartment a simple event and the reach required back to the seatbelt from either front position is abhorrent.

The binocular-shaped tacho and speedo cluster is legible, despite the faddish white faces, and the fake metallic inserts on the dash facia are effective and appealing but take on different shades of silver with each portion. Hard, unwelcoming plastic also abounds throughout the cockpit.

Further distancing itself from the run-of-the-mill three-door Barina, SRi picks up some of the storage solutions found on the five-door model, including a shallow tray underneath the front passenger seat and a sunglasses-holder which hides the screw holes for the grabhandle above the driver's head.

A full-size alloy (as opposed to steel) spare wheel would have been appreciated and more thought should have gone into underfloor access.

But of course when we talk about weak spots it is the effect this car has on the consumers - and us - rather than the half a dozen easily snapped plastic pull-rings holding down the cargo floor.

Holden has led us into temptation - and we've got to admit that the SRi tastes good enough to make us wish for more.

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