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Exclusive: GM’s new mini gets Holden touch

Cover up: A disguised Vauxhall Viva hits the road in Melbourne where several GM small cars are under test.

Opel Karl/Vauxhall Viva under test in Australia, set to replace Holden Barina Spark


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20 Jan 2015

GENERAL Motors’ new-generation micro car is out and about on the streets of Melbourne, two months out from its formal launch at the 2015 Geneva motor show.

To be known as Opel Karl in Europe and Vauxhall Viva in Britain, the little five-door hatch is also expected to replace the Chevrolet Spark and its Holden iteration, Barina Spark, in 2016.

It is unclear if Holden will retain the Barina Spark name or – in line with its strategy to import more Opel/Vauxhall models – revive the Viva badge here.

The right-hand-drive Vauxhall Viva development car caught here on camera leaving GM Holden’s engineering centre in Port Melbourne is one of several four-cylinder models under test by Holden engineers in league with overseas GM counterparts as the company prepares to reinvent its ageing four-cylinder line-up.

Most of the Holden work involves contract development and calibration programs – including hot-weather testing – on both open roads and at the Lang Lang proving ground that last year won a reprieve from closure in 2017, when GM pulls out of manufacturing in Australia.

As GoAuto reported last year, Holden engineers have been doing powertrain calibration for the latest Opel Corsa OPC hot hatch – known in the UK as Vauxhall Corsa VXR – and its Asian sister car, the Chevrolet Aveo RS (Aveo is also known as the Holden Barina and Chevrolet Sonic).

Mid-sized Vauxhall Insignia and Chinese-market Chevrolet Malibu sedans have also been put through the Holden engineering mill over the past year.

Last week, Holden released a facelifted Cruze – the last change for the locally made small car before the Adelaide assembly plant closes late in 2017.

The company also has confirmed a raft of Opel/Vauxhall-sourced products including the new Cascada 2+2 convertible, Astra GTC coupe and Astra VXR set to launch in Australia in the second quarter.

Although the engineering mule in our pictures is heavily disguised, telltale features such as the shape of the front mudguard, smiley-face chrome grille strip and positioning of the rear doorhandles gives it away as Karl/Viva – GM’s newest and smallest model.

Built on GM’s Gamma II small-car platform, the Karl/Viva is 3680mm long – 40mm longer than the Barina Spark – and weighs a featherweight 939kg. The latter contributes to its thrifty 4.3 litres per 100km fuel economy and low 99g/km CO2 emissions.

GM says the new Karl/Viva will be made by GM Korea which supplies several of Holden’s four-cylinder models including the Spark, Barina, Cruze Sportwagon, Malibu, Trax and Captiva.

Holden is tight-lipped on when a replacement for the Spark will arrive here, but insiders say the first half of 2016 is a good bet.

For now, the Karl/Viva will be sold in Europe and the UK with just one powertrain – GM’s new 55kW 1.0-litre three-cylinder Ecotec engine mated with a five-speed manual gearbox.

We expect the Australian version to be armed with an automatic transmission, as manual-only vehicles in this market are destined to struggle.

The current Spark was launched in Australia in manual-only form in late 2010, and took two years to gain a four-speed automatic as an alternative to the five-speed manual with the 1.2-litre four-cylinder engine.

Opel last week announced the new Karl will go on sale from €9500 ($A13,342), which is a sharp price in Germany and designed to woo buyers of the current Chevrolet Spark now that the Chevy brand has been discontinued in Europe.

In Australia, the current Barina Spark sells for $12,890 plus on-road costs, or $13,990 driveaway.

Sales of the little Holden have struggled in recent years, down 33.4 per cent in 2014 to just 1257 vehicles, about a third of its volume at its peak in 2011 (see link below).

It is not alone, however, as most cars in the micro market have suffered recently in a market beset by falling fuel prices and competition from cars one size larger.

The most important four-cylinder model in the Holden range, the freshly revised Cruze, will do battle for at least another two years.

Holden is yet to indicate what will replace Cruze when the axe falls on local manufacturing, but some pundits suggest it will be replaced by a European-sourced Astra.

An all-new Astra is waiting in the wings at Opel’s Russelsheim development centre, ready for an expected debut later this year.

Whether this car will provide a direct replacement for the mass-market Cruze in Australia is not a given, however.

Reports quoting GM factory unions in South Korea suggest an all-new Cruze – presumably based on the same platform as the new Astra and with similar powertrains – will go into production at GM Korea in 2017.

This reverses a decision by GM to end Cruze production at the former Daewoo plant in the wake of the axing on Chevrolet’s sales channel in Europe, where the Korean-built Cruze was a key member of the line-up.

If GM does intend to build another Cruze in Korea as unions are telling news agencies, then logic says it has export markets for the car, and that most likely means Australia.

In time, the Barina will have to be replaced as well, with the Opel Corsa – just released in Europe – looming as one possibility.

GM president Mary Barra last year signed off on a new eco-car plant to be built in Thailand, saying the factory would build an all-new Chevrolet global model that – under rules laid down by the Thai government – must achieve 99g/km (or less) of CO2 emissions.

With Spark destined for Korean production, perhaps the Barina replacement – armed with the same frugal three-cylinder engine as Karl/Viva – might have a Thai future.

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