Holden Barina Spark
Price Guide: (recommended price before statutory and delivery charges): $14,490
?Options fitted: (not included in above price): None
?Crash rating: Four-star (ANCAP)
?Fuel: 91 RON unleaded?
Claimed fuel economy (L/100km): 5.8?
CO2 emissions (g/km): 139?
Also consider: Suzuki Alto GL auto ($13,290), Mitsubishi Mirage auto ($14,990),Volkswagen up! ($14,990 – manual five-door), Nissan Micra ST auto ($14,990)
Holden is still waiting for the recently launched auto version of its sub-Light Barina Spark to ignite sales.
The funky little Korean-built five-door hatch continues to lag behind much of its opposition when year-to-date sales figures are scanned. With a dismal performance in 2012 (down 66 per cent on 2011) the micro Holden badly needed the self-shifting version (the company says autos account for about 68 per cent of sales in the category) but the positive effects of the auto addition are still to be reflected in sales figures.
The Spark ticks most of the boxes in the sub-Light class and, as we discovered in our recent five-car comparison test, it is nothing if not competitive. It didn’t win the comparo, but it didn’t come last either.
Looking at the latest, origami-shaped Barina Spark, there are a few things that help it stand out from its competition. In auto form, it comes with a racy body kit, Bluetooth connectivity, and the only standard-equipment alloy wheels in the sub-Light class. In fact the equipment list is probably the most extensive in category with (front only) power windows, trip computer, multi-function steering wheel and heated door mirrors all standard.
The Spark is also a four-cylinder where all its direct competitors use three-cylinder engines. The bigger engine gives it the best power and torque figures in the class.
And the auto transmission is not simply bolted onto the 1.2-litre engine seen in the five-speed manual variant. As well us picking up a minuscule capacity increase from 1206cc to 1249cc, it is made more efficient via dual variable valve timing, electric throttle control and neutral idle control. Hill start assist, which is also standard, helps prevent rollback when starting from a standstill on an upward gradient.
With its capacity increase, and the adoption of variable valve timing (along with other upgrades including an electronically controlled thermostat and the use of low friction engine oil), the “Gen II” Spark engine pumps out more power and torque (from 59kW at 6400rpm to 63kW at 6400rpm, and from 107Nm at 4800rpm to 113Nm at a more relaxed 4200rpm).
All this works well to minimise any performance loss but, although Holden says the revisions have improved engine efficiency, it is a bit less economical and a slightly dirtier at the tailpipe. Official consumption rises from 5.2L/100km for the manual to 5.8L/100km for the auto, while CO2 emissions are up from 125g/km to 139g/km. Both Spark engines are E10 fuel compatible.
The auto is a conventional torque converter type with “automatic overdrive.” This simply means fourth gear is higher, at 0.70:1, than a nominal one-to-one ratio and helps keep the revs down when cruising the freeway.
Which is something the Barina Spark auto manages quite well. Compared with some of its competition, the little Holden will bravely keep pace on long uphill gradients where some of its opposition gets a little rowdy and not at all sure of which ratio to select.
The Spark auto downshifts when it needs to but, despite the fact that some hunting back and forth as the transmission tries to keep the engine spinning at effective rpm is inevitable, the rowdy but happy engine generally makes a good fist of maintaining speed.
What does show up is that official fuel consumption figures don’t seem to gel with real-world experience. Over our extended test, the auto Spark averaged out at 6.7L/100km, or almost one litre more consumptive than Holden’s figure. Mind you this was better than early in the test, with more urban-weighted work, when the trip computer was quoting 8.5L/100km.
The Spark’s cabin is about what you’d expect with a car quoting a wheelbase of just 2375mm and an overall length of 3595mm.
No problems up front, even for tall passengers, but very tight in the back. Further, the splitfold rear-seat backrest gives way to a very skimpy boot. Spark buyers need to think carefully when they make the choice between an inflator kit and a (no extra cost) steel spare wheel.
The Spark’s interior has its pros and cons. The trip computer controls look as if they’ve been supplied by a two-dollar shop, with buttons so small it’s difficult to select the information you’re after. Hard-touch surfaces and silver-painted plastic lining the door bins also give the Spark a cheap look.
This is in contrast to the smart faux leather trim on the seats, and the motorcycle style instrument dials that moved up and down with the (tilt-only) steering column.
Driving around town, the Spark is clearly in its element. Parking is ridiculously easy via the expectedly light steering, which offers a welcome degree of feel and predictability, and the generally good vision in all directions.
The engine works through the lower ratios nicely but at higher speeds the lack of a fifth gear compromises ratio spread. And the accelerator pedal is far too sensitive, making it tricky to accelerate in a stately manner from the traffic lights.
Barina Spark's four-star Euro NCAP safety rating is average for the class. Only VW up! and Mirage currently boast five stars. The Holden does, however, come with six airbags plus the mandated stability and traction control. I rated well in side impact testing (scoring 16 points out of 16) but scored as marginal in protection against chest and upper leg injuries in offset frontal impacts.
In all, the latest Barina Spark is a solid competitor in the teeny car segment. If you need a handy runabout around town that will happily take on board the odd long trip, then Holden’s smallest will do the job better than many.
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