2011 Holden MJ Barina Spark Review Photo:
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Tony O'Kane | Oct, 25 2010 | 15 Comments


Holden makes no bones about it: the 2011 Barina Spark is a girl's car.

The marketing campaigns are unapologetically feminine, the styling is cutesy and the pricing – and spec lists – are designed to appeal to young women.

Priced from $12,490 before on-road costs (the Barina Spark CD launches with a special $14,490 drive-away price), Holden has Gen-Y females squarely in its sights, the majority of which will likely be trading up from a second-hand car.

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Empty-nesters and women above the age of 40 are the secondary demographic for the Barina Spark, but male buyers are expected to only account for 10 percent – or less – of overall sales.

The Spark dukes it out with the Suzuki Alto and Proton S16 in the sub-light segment – while the upcoming 2011 Nissan Micra light car will compete at a similar price point.

The Barina Spark also replaces the discontinued Barina three-door in Holden's line-up.

Developed and built in Korea, tested in Europe, Asia and Australia, the Spark is a global GM product that will be built in four countries and sold in over 150.

Australian Sparks are currently sourced from GM's South Korea plant, but Aus-market production will shift to Port Elizabeth, South Africa in early 2012.

It's got plenty of visual pizzaz to appeal to the twenty-something women that Holden is chasing, but what's the overall package like?

We had our first taste of the Spark at its national media launch in Sydney, where we drove it through crowded city streets and congested urban roads.

First impressions of the cabin are generally good. The motorcycle-style instrument cluster has a large, clear speedometer and is easily visible, while all controls on the centre stack fall within easy reach.

The faux-leather upholstery in the CDX is soft, but the cloth of the base CD feels more durable.

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The driver's seat slides fore and aft, and the backrest is adjustable for tilt. However, there's no squab height adjustment, and the steering column is adjustable only for tilt, not reach.

The rear door handles are integrated into the window surround to give the Barina Spark the appearance of a three-door, however the downward slope of the roofline makes it easier to hit your head on the door frame while clambering into the back seat. It also limits rear headroom.

Storage-wise, there's a plethora of pockets, crannies, shelves and cubbies for your stuff, and CDX models get a handy slide-out drawer beneath the front seat.

The boot has enough room for a few small bags or one suitcase, and measures 170 litres with the seats up and 580 litres with the rear seats folded.

The driving experience is a mixed bag.


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Spark rides well on its skinny 155-section tyres, regardless of whether those tyres are fitted to the CD's 14-inch alloys or the CDX's 15-inch alloys.

The front MacPherson struts and rear torsion beam axle provide plenty of compliance for urban driving; the Spark had no issue handling Sydney's notoriously poor roads.

Steering is light and the turning circle tight, but driver vision is hampered by the shallowly-raked A-pillars, thick C-pillars and rising beltline.

However, the Barina Spark's biggest shortcoming is its powertrain. With just 59kW and 107Nm, the little naturally-aspirated 1.2 litre has trouble moving the Spark up hills in anything above third gear, and acceleration is never swift.

The engine needs to be revved well above 3500rpm in second gear on steeper inclines, not surprising given peak torque comes in at a relatively high 4800rpm.

Its cause isn't helped by the clutch which has a vague friction point and is difficult to modulate. There's no getting around it either. A five-speed manual is the only transmission available for the Barina Spark.

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An automatic variant is available overseas, but only with the European and Korean-market 1.0 litre engine – which has been deemed not powerful enough for the Australian market.

An automatic gearbox is in development for the 1.2 litre Spark, but a timeline for its introduction has not been finalised.

This point is a big one: with the majority of buyers expected to be young females, the absence of an automatic could be a big turn off. However, Holden says around 70 percent of female buyers of the discontinued Barina three-door opted for the manual transmission.

It believes the Spark will still find plenty of customers within the Gen-Y demographic despite the lack of an auto.

Fuel economy is good. Holden claims the Spark consumes just 5.6 l/100km on the combined cycle, and it runs on regular 91-octane unleaded.

It must be kept in mind that with females between the ages of 18 and 30 making up the Barina Spark's core owner group, the emphasis is not on performance.

Instead, Holden reckons buyers are less likely to see the Spark as mere transportation, but as a fashion accessory instead – something to complement their sartorial style, image and lifestyle.

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Seven exterior colours are available – Nitrate Silver, Olympic White, Luscious Kiss Pink, Chilli Red, Morrocan Blue, Cocktail Green and Carbon Flash Black – with premium paint colours attracting a $500 premium.

Interior trim varies according to exterior paint, with red trim pieces on red and black cars and silver/white trim on all others.

Three graphics packages are offered, giving owners the ability to add a touch of individuality to their cars.

An MP3-compatible CD tuner is standard on all models and comes equipped with a USB input for external music players, as well as steering wheel mounted controls.

Cruise control is not offered, but none of the Spark's direct competitors have it on their spec lists either.

Safety equipment is comprehensive, and the best in the sub-light segment. Stability control, traction control, ABS, EBD and brake assist are standard for both CD and CDX, and both are equipped with front, side and curtain airbags.

Local testing by ANCAP has yet to be conducted but the Spark has already earned a four-star safety rating from Euro NCAP.


Our First Drive Verdict

At just $12,490, despite some shortcomings, the 2011 Holden Barina Spark is excellent value. For less than $15,000 drive-away, we reckon there will be plenty of buyers keen to make the Spark their first new car purchase.

It's let down by its engine - it needs more power - and manual-only drivetrain, but for those looking for an inexpensive commuter, the Barina Spark certainly warrants serious consideration.

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