'Beep, beep' Barina toughens up though RS is more flagship city car than sporty hatch.
Hot Holdens also continue to be more associated with fast Commodores, so the Barina RS is a car that continues the brand’s sporadic dabbles with sporty-hatch territory.
There have been HSV versions of the Astra – the SV1800 of the late 1980s and the VXR last decade – and you have to go back to 2005 for this car’s immediate predecessor, the Barina SRi.
There has been a spate of baby hot-hatches in 2013, though the Holden Barina RS doesn’t compete against the likes of Ford’s Fiesta ST, Volkwagen’s Polo GTI, Peugeot’s 208 GTi or Renault’s imminent Sport Clio on either price or power.
A $20,990 starting sticker places it in the company of sporty city cars such as the Suzuki Swift Sport ($23,990), Kia Rio SLS ($19,990) and upcoming Ford Fiesta Sport ($20,525).
As with the Barina SRi before it, the Holden Barina RS pinches its engine from the small car above it. The SRi took the 1.8-litre from the Astra while the RS takes the 1.4-litre turbo from the locally made Cruze (and recently discontinued Opel Astra).
While smaller in size, the 1.4’s turbocharger helps serve up 103kW of power and 200Nm of torque.
When a manufacturer sticks a bigger engine in a smaller car, the results can often be thrilling, sometimes hilarious.
You don’t get either in the Barina RS, with the lack of excitement a combination of the 1.4-litre’s relatively slow-revving nature, the lack of a sporty exhaust note, and the fact the little Holden isn’t that light for a ‘light car’, as such cars are categorised in the industry.
Holden doesn’t provide acceleration claims though overseas figures for the Chevrolet Sonic RS, as this car was first known from its US debut, suggest somewhere in the 8.5 to 9.0 second region for the 0-100km/h sprint.
What the engine does serve up is a good dose of torque from just below 2000rpm that gives the Holden Barina RS some in-gear potency, and more flexibility than the regular model’s 1.6-litre that produces less torque (155 v 200Nm) and at higher revs (4000 v 1850rpm).
It means you won’t have to change gears that frequently if you opt for the standard manual transmission, which has an accurate if slightly notchy throw but combines nicely with a well calibrated clutch pedal.
The manual is not only a more natural fit for a sportier hatchback but it’s also the best gearbox available.
We’ve criticised the regular Barina auto’s lack of intuitiveness on the road and there are similar issues with the RS’s self-shifter that costs an extra $2200.
The six-speeder is too eager to shift up to higher gears – even when you’re driving up a hill – while conversely it’s too slow to downshift under braking. There is a 'Manual' mode, though this requires using your thumb to awkwardly flick a button on the side of the shift lever (as with some Ford autos).
Holden acknowledges the Barina RS would benefit hugely from the Sport mode featured on the Cruze SRi-V’s auto that is brilliantly responsive to the driver’s use of the throttle and brake.
The company also admits the Holden Barina RS is more warm than hot hatch, though that’s not to say all is lost on twisting roads.
Roads with quick direction changes and variable cambering reveal the RS is unquestionably a well balanced car.
The steering is quite quick (with a faster ratio than the regular Barina), so you don’t need much arm effort to negotiate bends, and it also deserves plaudits for its weighting consistency and immunity from rack rattle.
Saturated roads for our test – and a wet motorkhana set up by Holden at its proving ground – also showed that the RS’s 17-inch tyres are impressively grippy (but noisy) and that the traction control system works well out of tight corners.
The brakes – with discs all round rather than the drum rears of the regular Barina – also provide confidence wet or dry.
For those target 25 to 35 year olds (including the higher percentage of males – now about 40% – buying this generation Barina, according to Holden) looking for something that’s racier not just in looks but handling will find the Barina RS missing the finer details of dynamic brilliance.
The Barina RS doesn’t have the kind of road-to-driver communication, or front end bite that helps to suck the car into corners, like the best sporty hatches – and I’m particularly thinking Ford Fiesta here for the most direct comparison.
And while Holden did a great job on the steering – the only area it specifically calibrated for Australian roads – there’s still a small area of vagueness in the straight-ahead position that hinders precise lane driving on freeways, for example.
The Barina RS suspension could have done with more input from Holden’s excellent engineers rather than just a collaborative global effort with the lead team at GM Korea.
On urban roads local councils haven’t neglected, or some stretches of reasonably surfaced country roads, the firmer (and 10mm-lower) ride feels like a fair trade-off for the more focused handling.
Encounter bumpier and patchier bitumen, however, and the RS’s suspension starts to get annoyingly busy, sending little jolts into the cabin over sharper edges.
The RS-embossed leather front seats (with heating) are comfortable, though, with a good, deep cushion if wanting for a bit more side bolstering.
Other interior parts exclusive to the Holden Barina RS include sporty-looking pedals, leather-wrapped gearlever, and piano black trim.
The latter does little to lift the overall sense of quality for an interior rife with hard plastics, though the seven-inch colour touchscreen will win hearts and minds in the showroom.
This infotainment display includes the set-up for Holden’s MyLink and its world of embedded apps.
This includes the BringGo app that can link sat nav maps on your smartphone to the screen, though during the day we experienced consistent issues with a number of cars where the connection would cut out – leaving you fumbling around trying to re-establish the link so as not to get lost.
Some of the audible directions are also confusing – telling you to make left and right turns when all you’re doing is following the same road … to the left or right.
It is free sat-nav in a $20,990 car, though, and follows the strong value proposition of the Barina RS that also gets foglights, auto headlights and rear parking sensors to be unrivalled on features at the price.
This is certainly the best Holden Barina – with the RS offering the same roomy rear seat and decent boot space as the regular models.
However, if you’re looking for a city car with good performance rather than sporty looks, you can have the most complete city car currently available – the Volkswagen Polo 77TSI – for a bit less money.
And if a sportier look and the driving experience are more important than the number of standard features, the Swift Sport and Fiesta Sport are test-drive musts. (It would also be worth seeing if you could stretch your budget to the sensational $25,990 Fiesta ST.)