Great car for women, affordable, fuel efficient, hip, easy to drive
No automatic transmission - yet. Barely adequate straight-line performance.
OUR RATING 5/ 10
The Holden Barina Spark is aimed squarely and unashamedly at Generation Y females. Emma Pinwill, Holden’s marketing manager for the small car segment describes it as the “sexy, ‘gotta have’ small car”. It’s equal parts transportation and fashion accessory. So don’t worry: Your bum definitely won’t look big in it.
A smaller, secondary group of consumers at whom this car is targeted is women who remember their fortieth birthdays.
It would be easy to have a series of cheap, blokey shots at the Barina Spark – purely based on its positioning. One of the seven colours in the range is actually called Luscious Kiss Pink. But, when you think about it, though, it’s positioned exactly like the Holden Ute – albeit in relation to the opposite gender.
(Holden Utes are aimed almost exclusively at men. Less than 10 per cent of buyers there are women. Same thing with the Barina Spark – only the gender proportions are reversed.)
According to Ms Pinwill, the top five items on the Generation Y female’s automotive ‘must have’ hit parade are: exterior design, interior design, safety, being ‘fun to drive’ and value. The Spark certainly ticks all of those boxes – in the context of the likely customers.
Styling is an exclusively subjective thing – it’s in the eye of the beholder – but the design is also very clever and quite practical. It’s clever because the car looks as cool as a two-door coupe when you look at it side-on. It’s practical because it’s actually a five-door hatch, with a concealed black door handle on the rear doors to trick your eye. For any men still reading this review, the practicality of this feature derives from it being much easier to emerge from the rear seat of a five-door with your dignity intact while you are wearing a short skirt. Personally, I can’t attest to this, and I can’t see myself ever giving it a go (but you never know…). Whatever; the Holden chicks I canvassed on this matter all nodded sagely and referred to this functionality as being “short-skirtable”, which is something you’ll see in the Barina Spark advertising campaign. Paparazzi will detest it.
Another clever/practical trick: the instrument cluster, which is clever, cool and based on a motorcycle’s instruments, and which features a linear-style LCD tacho and a conventional analogue speedo, is attached to the steering column – so it rises and falls as you height-adjust the wheel. It’s the one point of commonality between a Nissan GTR and a Barina Spark. There are also dozens of places inside the car to store essential female items (or lose them, if you’re a man).
The control layout is easy to understand and instinctive. It all just works. There are a variety of audio inputs (USB and 3mm audio jack) – but not Bluetooth streaming for music. Bluetooth for mobile phone is optional.
The Barina Spark is a very safe car for a young driver. It ticks the most important boxes there, with electronic stability control and six airbags as standard equipment across the range. Brake assist, brakeforce distribution and traction control are also standard. Holden deserves considerable recognition for packing this lifesaving potential into the car even in the entry model, because elsewhere in the market such safety equipment is optional – and buyers overwhelmingly elect not to spend the extra money on the safety pack. It would have been easy to drive the entry price even lower by deleting some of those safety items, so the company deserves the biggest of ticks for putting the public interest ahead of the quest for every last sale.
According to James Soo, the Barina Spark vehicle performance manager, the Spark was crashed by Euro NCAP and has earned a four-star safety rating in Europe. Mr Soo told us the actual structural performance of the European car was adequate to earn a five-star rating. The reason it didn’t was that the Euro-tested car lacked electronic stability control, which is a five-star prerequisite. So it will be interesting to see what happens when ANCAP crash tests the Barina Spark locally, given that ESC is standard here.
The bottom line is of course that a car like the Barina Spark is significantly more likely to protect a young driver than a typical Australian young driver’s car (that is, a second-hand dungbox more than 10 years old, lacking current life-saving safety features).
That leaves ‘fun to drive’ and ‘value’ on the Gen Y woman’s top five list of vital automotive attributes. For some of us, ‘fun to drive’ involves a list of prerequisites like ‘more than 250kW’, at least 225mm of rubber at each corner and paddles behind the steering wheel. However, according to Ms Pinwill, the Gen Y woman’s definition of ‘fun to drive’ prerequisites includes things like being ‘zippy’, having more storage spaces than a closet full of Prada handbags and being easy to drive and, importantly, park.
A few points on all of that. The Barina Spark is not exactly zippy in relation to its straight-line performance. It’s adequate to keeping up with most city traffic, but it won’t set any kind of speed record in the foreseeable future. It struggles on steep hills. Even though its weight is under 1000kg the engine battles at times with the car’s inertia. The 1.2-litre produces 59kW and 107Nm – with peak torque at a fairly high 4800rpm. If you’re a keen driver, it won’t excite. But if you’re more of a car-as-fashion-accessory type, you probably won’t mind the borderline adequacy of its performance at all.
On the plus side, all the controls are quite light and the car is dead easy to steer, with benign handling – you just point it where you want it to go and it goes where you tell it without much fuss at all. It’s not a driver’s car or an inspiring performer, but it is quite capable in terms of conservative driving.
The Barina Spark is easy to park – although you can’t see the bonnet at all as you sit behind the wheel. The controls are all really light in weight (probably a real plus for the target consumers) but importantly they all provide adequate feedback, too. Your boyfriend will probably hate it. For the same reasons you probably don’t.
Two model grades are available: CD and CDX. Both come with the aforementioned ‘works burger’ of advanced safety features. The main difference being 14-inch seven-spoke alloys wearing 155/70 rubber on the CD and 15-inch five-spoke alloys with 165/60 tyres on the CDX. This alone is a reason to step up to the CDX because the extra rubber and lower profile really helps the CDX’s roadholding and steering feedback (and the bigger wheels look better, too, for the fashionistas). The difference between the models is $1500 – pretty cheap for a set of bigger alloys and lower-profile tyres. Plus, you also get a fair bit of additional equipment (as well as style bonuses).
CDX Barina Sparks also feature a Sportec-wrapped three-spoke steering wheel, which is really nice to hold, and colour-coded Sportec seat trim. The CDX’s seat trim colour combinations are defined by exterior colour and range from a conservative silver (on white, silver, pink, blue and green exteriors) to outrageously in-you-face red (available only on red exterior and black exterior cars). Sportec is an easy-clean water-repellant faux leather finish.
CDX also gets power windows all round, while CD languishes with old-fashioned hand-wound windows in the rear (remember those?) and electric windows in the front – an obvious concession to price.
Aside from that, the CD is remarkably well equipped – inclusive of engine immobiliser, keyless entry for doors and hatch, body coloured door handles and mirrors, rear spoiler, fog lamps, trip computer, auto headlights off (so no flat battery from that on the cards any time soon), power mirrors, audio controls on the steering wheel, 60:40 split fold rear seats, vanity mirrors for both driver and front passenger (possibly a redundant feature for Gen Y…already vain enough in many cases) and a load compartment cover.
The price? Very affordable – the CD kicks the tin at $12,490 rrp ($14,490 drive away) and the CDX has an rrp of $13,990. On paper the Barina Spark compares extremely favourably to the Suzuki Alto, with the Spark offering more power and torque (and an additional cylinder to the Alto’s three-cylinder engine).
The Barina Spark is called just the ‘Spark’ in other markets. Holden elected to hang the Barina moniker on the car thanks to the strong recognition of the Barina name in Australia, dating back 25-odd years. Sales of the conventional Barina will continue alongside the Spark. In fact, Holden is in the middle of a major product offensive at the moment, with 10 new cars due here in the next 20 months – including a new Barina based on the Chevy Aveo, which Holden boss Mike Devereaux describes as a “world-class small car”.
The Barina Spark is built by GM in South Korea, but Mr Devereaux is quick to point out that this car is one of the next-generation of GM-Daewoo cars – GM Daewoo 2.0, if you like – as opposed to what he publicly refers to as the “legacy products” first rolled out by GM Daewoo. This means the Barina Spark was not just built with GM’s hand on the tiller, it was also designed with GM steering the ship. It certainly feels well built – and the fit and finish seems on the money as well. It’s worth remembering, however, that the vast majority of South Korean cars in Australia are offered with five-year warranties whereas the Barina Spark, like all other Holdens, has a three-year/100,000km warranty.
The biggest impediment right now between many potential owners actually buying a Barina Spark is one of GM’s own making. Currently there is no auto transmission available. So the transmission choices are: five-speed manual, or buy another car. Plenty of young drivers these days don’t bother learning how to drive a manual, so the lack of an auto is a self-limiting sales proposition for the car. An auto, we’re told, is under development, but Holden was unable to provide any indication of the likely timing of its arrival in the lineup.
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*Pricing is a guide as recommended to us by the manufacturer and does not include dealer delivery, on-road or statutory charges.