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First Oz drive: Holden hot hatches impress
Barina and Astra join the hot hatch brigade
29 Oct 2001
By JUSTIN LACY
HOLDEN has unleashed a two-pronged attack on the hot hatch market with the Barina SRi and Astra SRi models both going on sale in the last month.
As the regular Barina and Astra models continue to exert a strong sales presence in their respective Light and Small segments, Holden is looking to the SRi twins to reinforce the sporting overtones already evident in both product lines.
The extra 2000 sales Holden has forecast for the Astra nameplate, courtesy of the arrival of the SRi, may be just enough for the small car to come over the top of its main rival in the sales race, Toyota's Corolla.
And while Holden's annual target of 700 units for the Barina SRi will not impact significantly on the Hyundai Accent's dominance of the light category, it should give the Barina range some breathing space in the close battle for second in class with Toyota's Echo.
Priced at $20,990, the Barina SRi is strategically positioned between its main competitors, the two Echo Sportivo offerings. It is $1000 more expensive than the equivalent three-door and the same amount cheaper than the five-door.
But it trumps its rivals in the power and equipment stakes with 92kW from its 1.8-litre engine, standard 15-inch alloy wheels, ABS and traction control. The Sportivo's 1.5-litre engine produces 80kW and it has 14-inch alloy wheels and optional ABS.
The Astra is also competitive on price, coming in at $28,065 for the five-speed manual and $29,915 for the four-speed automatic, to be marginally cheaper than its main rivals the Ford Laser SR2 and Mazda's 323 Astina SP20.
Its 2.2-litre engine, which produces 108kW of power, outguns the 98kW 2.0-litre powerplants in the Ford and Mazda models, but equipment levels are more even with each having standard 16-inch alloy wheels, ABS and a CD player.
However, the Astra SRi is alone in having traction control, while the Laser SR2 is the one car to miss out on cruise control.
DRIVE IMPRESSIONS:Astra SRi The base Astra is the leader in the small class when it comes to performance, ride and handling - a fact supported by its sales results of recent times, particularly when compared to the previous model.
That said, you would expect the latest model to join the range, the sporty SRi, to build on the existing strengths and it doesn't disappoint.
A brief drive over asphalt and dirt roads showed the SRi to be worthy of its hot hatch tag and it is sure to throw some stiff competition the way of the Ford SR2 and Mazda's SP20, even though they have two extra doors.
After stepping out of the entry-level City model into the SRi, the extra work that has gone into the sports model's suspension tune and overall set-up is immediately evident.
The larger wheel/tyre combination offers more front-end grip, while the stiffer spring/damper rates and lower ride height mean less bodyroll and a tauter, more responsive chassis.
Yet the ride has not suffered unnecessarily as a result. The Astra is not an out and out sports car, but the overall package is a good example of an appropriate ride/handling compromise for this end of the market.
On the dirt, the SRi was confidence inspiring and impressed with its neutral attitude. The calibration of the traction control also surprised, as in the conditions it was not overly intrusive and allowed momentum to be maintained.
The sports seats offered adequate lateral support when cornering, as well as an extra level of adjustment with an extendable seat base.
In the styling department, the SRi looks the part without going to extremes that may alienate some buyers. Attractive 16-inch alloy wheels distinguish it as the sports model, along with a high rear spoiler, deeper front airdam and front foglights.
All in all, the SRi improves on what was already a competent package courtesy of some well-executed modifications.
Barina SRi Just like its Astra big brother, the base Barina is a good package in standard trim that you would expect to respond well to some performance enhancements.
Holden has achieved just that with the SRi, turning the Barina into a capable light sports contender.
The transformation is not exactly mild to wild, but the SRi does offer a higher level of performance and handling.
And while our brief drive was focussed more on extracting economy than speed from the small hatch, it was obvious the use of the Astra's 1.8-litre engine has given the SRi the power it needed to be a rewarding drive.
Like the Astra SRi, the Barina's revised suspension set-up has produced a good blend of ride comfort and handling prowess.
Understeer will still prevail at the limit, but that is no much higher courtesy of stiffer spring/damper rates, a lower ride height and 15-inch wheels and tyres.
The sports seats were more comfortable than the regular items, but the driving position remains somewhat "long arms/short legs" in the typical European style - not to the extent of the Peugeot 206 mind you, but not quite spot on all the same.
From the outside, the deeper front airdam sets the SRi apart from its lesser siblings, but it proves to be too low and can catch you out over driveways and kerbs.
The rest of the body kit package, incorporating side skirts, rear roof spoiler, front foglights and tinted tail-lights, works well to distinguish the SRi as the sports model.
Overall, the car feels sporty and responds in the same manner, which is a good sign Holden has made the right choice in going for substantial under-the-skin changes and not just cosmetic enhancements to attract the hot hatch crowd.
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