2013 HOLDEN BARINA SPARK REVIEW
Vehicle Style: Light/City hatch
Price: $14,490 (plus on-roads)
Engine/transmission: 1.25 litre/four-speed auto
Fuel Economy listed: 5.8 l/100km | tested: 7.5 l/100km
When it was first launched, the Holden Barina Spark was squarely aimed at female buyers. Why else would the advert promoting it talk about being “short skirtable”?
It’s fair to say that the strategy has worked; most Barina Spark buyers are young girls and women.
In 2013, what’s changed? A few interior improvements make the driver’s seat a more asthetically-pleasing place to be, but that’s about it; it’s essentially the same car, with the same target market.
But the Spark's young buyers wanted an auto option, so while we’d tested the manual version a couple of years ago, it was time to try the latest addition – the automatic Barina Spark. Let’s see if its appeal goes beyond price.
Quality: It's relative; this is an inexpensive car, so don't go looking for premium textures, trim or fabrics. Huge slabs of hard plastic cover the doors, while a swirl-pattern moulded into the dashtop with splashes of silver try to lift the ambience, without much success.
The instrumentation ahead of the driver has been updated, which is the biggest improvement here; the machine-gun bullet-hole-style display surround is now a lot classier and easier to read.
While everything seems to be put together quite well, with no obvious build issues, shutting the doors reveals a very tinny-sounding clunk. The plasticky steering-wheel only heightens the sense of cost-cutting.
Comfort: The seats are quite flat and firm, but the cloth trim yields a comfortable base with its slightly stretchy weave.
While steering wheel movement isn’t huge, finding a good position behind the wheel isn’t too difficult with a six-way adjustable driver’s seat.
There’s a good amount of space for those up front and even the back seats can house adults thanks to the headroom allowed by high roof-line. Three abreast is possible but not recommended.
Opting for the automatic however gives you Bluetooth phone and audio. But don’t get too excited. The Bluetooth streaming is dire in its audio quality through the four-speaker system.
A non-switchable auto-equaliser dampens the bass so that successive beats are softened to the point where the volume lowers completely.
For a car aimed at young women, who are clearly going to be using their iPods or phones for music, the substandard audio is a real turn-off.
Other features include alloy wheels, headlights with auto-off, heated mirrors, electric front windows and USB connectivity.
Storage: If there’s one thing the Barina Spark has in spades, it's storage options.
Aside from the glovebox, there’s a card/phone holder to the right of the steering wheel on the dash, with a long recess on the passenger side. There are cupholders front and back, with a small storage area just under the centre-stack.
The boot space of 170 litres (rear seat up) can be expanded to 568 with the split-fold rear seats down. Choose to fit a child-seat, though, and the usable space is reduced as the anchor point is near the boot lip, causing it to be split in two by the top-tether strap.
ON THE ROAD
Driveability: Despite its tall-boy shape, the Barina Spark drives better than you expect. The steering is sharp and handling is quite reasonable with a sure-footed feel that defies those tiny wheels.
While braking is fine and the firm ride acceptable, the lack of torque can test the patience. With only four gears to choose from, the Spark is not fast, not by any stretch.
The auto has four more kilowatts (63 kW @ 6400 rpm) and six more Newton-metres (113 Nm @ 4200pm) than the manual car, along with variable valve timing. At 1.25-litres, it also gains a smidge more capacity.
But not that you'd notice. Away from the lights the Spark will keep up with the traffic, but forward progress is best described as steady. Ideally, it needs an extra ratio or two to keep the engine around peak torque (but then it would be more costly).
Load the car with passengers and performance is really dulled. In this respect, the Barina Spark is outclassed by its competitors.
Of course, being a tiny vehicle with a 9.9m turning circle has its advantages – if you have trouble parking this thing, hand in your licence.
The 35 litre fuel tank also means refills aren’t going to break the bank.
Refinement: While the 1.25-litre Gen II petrol four seems to have all the right ingredients (DOHC, VVT, multi-port injection), it is quite rorty and loud.
Given the masses of light-weight plastic abounding inside, it’s no surprise that extra sound deadening could be put to good use.
Suspension: With a McPherson strut front and torsion beam rear, there’s nothing new here. However it combines good steering with good handling, making it quite involving when punting around corners.
Braking: Up front you’ll find 256mm front ventilated discs and 200mm rear drums with good pedal feel and no brake fade to speak of.
ANCAP rating: 4-Star (six airbags but marked down in the off-set crash test)
Safety features: Electronic Stability Control (ESC) with Anti-lock Braking System (ABS) Electronic Brakeforce Distribution (EBD), Traction Control System (TCS) and Brake Assist.
There are six airbags (driver, front passenger, front side and curtain) and a collapsible pedal release system. Holden says its crumple zones create minimal impact into the passenger cell.
WARRANTY AND SERVICING
Warranty: Three years/100,000km.
Service costs: Holden is currently offering three years free servicing with up to four standard scheduled services for the first three years or 60,000km. This offer ends 30/4/2013.
HOW IT COMPARES | VALUE FOR MONEY
Mitsubishi Mirage automatic ($15,240) – While the Mitsu suffers a similar interior “cheapness” as the Spark, it gains more space, notably in the boot. It doesn’t feel as confident when pushed hard though. (See Mirage reviews)
Nissan Micra automatic ($14,990) – Probably the pick of the bunch, the Micra’s looks, reasonable interior and decent drive sees it fare well in this company. (See Micra reviews)
Suzuki Alto automatic ($13,290) – By far the cheapest of these four, the Alto’s thrummy three-cylinder gets the nod over the Barina Spark’s unrefined four. It's a line-ball call between the two (See Alto reviews)
Note: all prices are Manufacturer’s List Price and do not include dealer delivery or on-road costs.
TMR VERDICT | OVERALL
Holden’s grab for the light car market relies heavily on price, and as a result sacrifices refinement and quality. The Barina Spark is feeling the pinch too – in the first three months of this year it’s been outsold by all of its competitors.
There’s a reason – it’s not the best car in this segment. Still, it’s quirky, safe, and has plenty of room for passengers. And we've no doubt it will give years of good service as a city runabout.
But before you buy, write yourself a list of priorities. For perky style you might be drawn to the Spark, but - in a 'much of a muchness' segment - the Spark is bettered by the Micra among the tiny automatics.