HOLDEN’S 2016 SPARK LT STRADDLES A BLURRED LINE… it’s tiny, but sits at the top of the newly launched Spark range where it commands a hefty $18,990 plus on-road costs.
This puts it head-to-head with ‘one-size-larger’ hatchbacks such as the sales-leading Mazda2. Indeed, a middle-grade Mazda2 Maxx automatic is the same price as this micro-Holden.
So, while it might be the flagship of the Spark Range, its price has it competing against the class above – like a boxer fighting ‘above his weight’ – slotted into that fuzzy uncomfortable line where the micro segment and the light car class cross.
But will buyers notice, or is this latest model so good that traditional segmentation really doesn’t matter?
Vehicle Style: Micro hatch
Price: $18,990 (plus on-roads)
Engine/trans: 73kW/124Nm 1.4 litre 4cyl petrol | CVT automatic
Fuel Economy claimed: 5.5 l/100km | tested: 8.5 l/100km
Typically, a light hatchback such as the Mazda2 is bang-on 4.0-metres-long. The Holden Spark measures 3.6-metres from tip to toe, so there’s more than a 30cm ruler’s length between them.
And, granted, there are pluses in that: it could be the difference between snaring an inner city parking space or not. Conversely, the smaller interior of the Holden could be an issue for some, a fact most clearly highlighted by the 185-litre boot – versus 250 litres for the Mazda2.
Holden is attempting to woo buyers with extra equipment in its smallest car, such as faux leather upholstery and keyless auto-entry as standard equipment.
And the Spark’s 1.4-litre engine is pretty close to the Mazda2’s 1.5-litre. So then, let’s see if this LT specification really does deliver on the downsized-plus-extras promise…
- Standard equipment: power windows and mirrors, multi-function trip computer, air-conditioning, leatherette seats, cruise control, leather-wrapped steering wheel, remote keyless auto-entry with push button start
- Infotainment: 7.0-inch colour touchscreen with Bluetooth phone and audio streaming, USB input and Apple CarPlay/Android Auto connectivity
- Cargo Volume: 185 litres minimum, 985 litres maximum
Fresh and funky, the Holden Spark LT is an appreciable step-up on the entry Spark LS that retails from $15,690 (plus orc) in equivalent auto guise (the manual is just $13,990 plus orc).
Beyond the ‘Sportec’ faux leather trim – one of few cabin items to take a step backwards on the standard cloth variety – there’s iPhone-cool white trim and a leather-wrapped steering wheel to lift the mood, both of which are unique to LT.
Pride of place on the dashboard is a 7.0-inch colour touchscreen that easily eclipses anything else offered in the micro class and is better than most in the light segment.
With an easy plug-and-play USB port and choice of Apple CarPlay/Android Auto smartphone-mirroring technology or Pandora internet radio app connectivity, this Holden is simply the benchmark for infotainment usability for the price.
The Spark LT mostly feels grown up inside, with chunky doors and thick pillars providing a solidity that moves the game well beyond the tinny bodies of micro hatchbacks past.
Conversely, however, with flat seats and hard plastics, the interior ambience is a bit of a let-down. This little Holden doesn’t feel any better inside than the best sub-$20,000 hatchbacks from a decade ago.
There are also scant few surprise and delight features that might otherwise be expected from a flagship model, regardless of the segment. There’s no auto on/off headlights, no climate control air-conditioning nor auto-dimming rear-view mirror, for example.
All Sparks also lack autonomous emergency braking (AEB) technology, despite the similarly priced Skoda Fabia having it as standard, the Mazda2 offering it as a nominal $400 option, and former micro rival the Volkswagen Up! including it across the range back in 2012.
Impressive infotainment aside, a $19k micro car simply should come better equipped for practical features.
This Holden is also quite a bit smaller behind the front seats than might be expected, and the boot is strictly a bachelor or bachelorette’s gym bag affair only.
ON THE ROAD
- Engine: 73kW/124Nm 1.4 4cyl petrol
- Transmission: Automatic CVT, front wheel drive
- Suspension: MacPherson strut front, torsion beam rear
- Brakes: Ventilated front and rear drum brakes
- Steering: Electrically assisted mechanical steering, 9.6m turning circle
Here’s where things start to get interesting because Holden has equipped the micro Spark with the sort of engine expected in a larger hatchback, namely a 1.4-litre non-turbocharged four-cylinder petrol.
A Toyota Yaris, for example, has a 1.3-litre engine, despite being classified as a Mazda2 competitor. (Another ‘blurred line’...)
The upshot is the LT, which weighs a petite 1013kg, is very lively and perky to drive. The hatchback leaps off the line on light throttle and hunts down traffic gaps like an eager Chihuahua.
In the Spark LT, peak power of 73kW is made at 6200rpm; while peak torque is 124Nm at 4400rpm. But while those figures are healthy enough in a car this size and weight, the engine isn’t the most charming unit and it certainly deserves a better transmission.
Generally, a continuously variable automatic transmission (CVT) is well-suited to small engines. With virtually infinite gearing it allows the engine to relax at low revs on light throttle, then spin quickly into 'the action zone' - at or around peak torque - on full throttle.
The revs 'flare' first, then speed rises (as the CVT progressively feeds in load).
However, the CVT flares too much, revving then stretching like an elastic band when pressing and releasing the throttle. There’s far too much ‘slack’ in the driveline and smoothness is ultimately left wanting.
On the upside, a revelation occurred when driving the Spark LT, particularly after having previously tested the base Spark LS against its Kia Picanto rival for a TMR comparison test.
This LT rolls on 185mm-wide, 55-aspect 15-inch alloy wheels, versus the 165/65 14s of the base car. Unexpectedly, the lower profile tyres tighten up the steering feel of the Spark and also help make its handling feel less rubbery and lazy.
There is a slight loss in ride quality – there are jiggles but rarely harshness – but the upside is that the handling of this small Holden becomes quite a bit livelier in top guise.
Holden’s locally tuned suspension feels quintessentially Aussie-Holden in its sharp response and spirited dynamic feel; better than similarly sized rivals can achieve.
But the Spark is thirsty enough to be compared with larger cars – it slurped 8.5 litres per 100 kilometres on test – and those bigger models can challenge it for dynamics.
There really is a trend appearing here…
ANCAP rating: 5-Stars - this model scored 33.60 out of 37 possible points
Safety Features: Dual front, side and curtain airbags, ABS and ESC, rear parking sensors, reverse-view camera
RIVALS TO CONSIDER
The Spark is far better than its traditional Mitsubishi Mirage and Suzuki Celerio rivals, but the Kia Picanto runs it close.
As we explain below, the LT is the pick of the range over the base LS, but the price makes us wince – Holden has some work to do on the value equation.
TMR VERDICT | OVERALL
The Holden Spark LT is a likeable and accomplished micro hatchback let down by its high price and limited feature list. We can forgive its rubbery CVT, but, even with its impressive connectivity features, it is hardly ‘four-star’ buying at $19k plus on-roads.
In a number of ways, the smartly packaged LT could have thrown down the gauntlet in the micro class and set a new and convincing benchmark. But its price kills that ambition, which is a shame.
Of course, you can always bargain hard. Knock some dollars off and the Spark LT is a great little micro hatchback with strong performance, excellent infotainment and sprightly dynamics.
Otherwise, the lines between this good-looking micro hatch and some capable contenders from the light car segment above are simply too blurred.
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