The headlines say Australians are deserting large cars like the Commodore, but they’ve also forgotten ultra-cheap hatchbacks like the Holden Barina Spark.
Before it’s claimed that a lack of automatic transmission availability has affected popularity, the Barina Spark’s 1168 sales to October 2012 compares poorly with its also-manual-only Daewoo Matiz successor, which recorded 3148 sales in the first 10 months of the year 2000.
Even Daihatsu managed to shift 2038 Sirions to the month after the Sydney Olympics, and both numbers were recorded despite the market being substantially larger twelve years later…
Sales trivia aside, buyer tastes are clearly changing for the better, because until the arrival of the Volkswagen Up, the sub-light class has been evolving at turtoise pace – incremental improvements from a low base of ability.
The Spark – called Barina only to leverage badge cache – is now available with an automatic transmission, for the first time since its launch two years ago.
However, the Holden Barina Spark utilises a four-speed automatic, the same number of ratios eventually provided as an option in the Matiz a decade ago. Holden charges $2000 extra for the auto-shifter, the single-spec $14,490 CD priced $500 less than the Nissan Micra ST auto but $1200 more than the Suzuki Alto GL auto. Neither the (awful) Chery J1 or (brilliant) Up are available with an auto, though.
Curiously, only the facelifted Spark auto gets a GM ‘Gen II’ engine, but it’s no small-block V8, sadly. Instead the lightly-upgraded 1.2-litre four-cylinder, now with variable valve and cam timing, produces 63kW at 6400rpm and 113Nm at 4200rpm, marginally up on the manual’s 59kW/107Nm. The auto also gets fuel-saving electro-mechanical power steering where the manual retains its hydraulic power assistance. Claimed combined consumption still favours the self shifter, 5.2L/100km versus 5.8L.
The most impressive thing about the 3.6-metre long Holden Barina Spark is its body. There’s nothing remarkable about the predictably cute styling, nor the cabin quality. Plastics are mostly of the cheap and hard variety, but nicely textured surfacing dominates the dash top, and the gloss-silver plastic highlights in the door and dash pockets add colour.
The facelift sees the ‘motorcycle-inspired’ square speedometer and tachometer replaced with more conventional round units. The standard ‘Sportec’ trim – a euphemism for vinyl – is as unappealing and boiling as it is in a Falcon taxi on a summer’s day, while rear window winders keep the Spark in another era. Even a 1998 Sirion had rear fast glass.
A feeling of body strength and decent cabin packaging, however, is competitive. On rough coarse-chip rural roads, the smallest Holden provides decent ride quality and reasonable refinement, relative to its price. It doesn’t feel tinny, and the metal is backed by standard six airbags and stability control. For a car likely to be purchased by younger, less experienced drivers, the strong safety story is particularly appealing.
Unfortunately, the bits that connect driver to the Barina Spark are less impressive. The steering is sadly vague, turn-in requiring slightly increased degrees of lock to segue between emptiness to actual movement of the front wheels. The front-strut/torsion-beam rear suspension is troubled by larger bumps, and the chassis lacks the balance to bother pushing past the limited grip levels provided by the 14-inch Kumho tyres.
The 1.2-litre engine is uninspired and noisy, though it pushes the Spark along with competitive foot-flat performance – that is when the four-cog auto isn’t desperately shuffling between gears. It isn’t only the lack of gear ratios that is problematic, but the auto’s lack of intuition means each time the throttle is eased, it immediately slurs into taller gears, before hunting back up the chain, to the detriment of economy. Selecting the ‘intermediate’ or ‘low’ detente is a must, but there’s little incentive to cane the engine when it offers little reward.
Much of this won’t matter to buyers wanting a cheap, competent sub-light hatch to point towards the shops or university using only light throttle. As the sales figures show, however, less Australians want a car that performs only basic duties well. Buyers are demanding increasing levels of sophistication in a hatchback and are clearly willing to pay for it.
Meanwhile Volkswagen has produced a sub-light hatchback with real depth, one that is impressive in all aspects. If an auto is absolutely required, the Micra is also a superior car.
With the exception of body strength and safety equipment, the Holden Barina Spark is stuck in another era, specifically in the period when the segment actually sold well. Having actually been badged as a Daewoo overseas when it launched, and with Epica defunct, Barina and Malibu developed by GM, and Cruze built here, it is the Holden brand’s final connection to the ill-fated Korean brand.
In many ways, yet with the exception of sharing healthy sales figures, it shows.