HOLDEN'S BRAND NEW 2016 SPARK COMES WITH TWO THINGS YOU MIGHT NOT EXPECT IN A MICRO HATCH: first, it's a joy to drive, and second, its killer app - Android Auto and Apple CarPlay smartphone mirroring.
Then there's the spunky styling, and affordable price.
No question, the new Spark has come a long way from the car it replaces, the not-greatly loved and bare-bones Barina Spark. It still costs very little, but this is a car you'll enjoy.
Vehicle Style: Micro hatchback
Price: $13,990 (LS manual) to $18,990 (plus on-roads)
Engine/trans: 73kW/128Nm 1.4 petrol 4cyl | 5sp manual or CVT auto
Fuel Economy claimed: 5.3 l/100km (manual) 5.5 l/100km (automatic)
The sub-light “microcar” segment is contracting, with year-to-date sales of sub-light hatchbacks down by 34.7 percent against the same period last year.
But Holden believes the Spark has a key advantage in its advanced infotainment system. Apple CarPlay and Android auto have only just become available in the light car segment (in the Volkswagen Polo and Skoda Fabia), so if you’re after a tiny sub-$15k hatch with smartphone mirroring there’s just one choice - Holden Spark.
There are also plenty of customisation options in the form of contrast-coloured mirror caps, spoilers, grille surrounds and wheel inserts.
- LS: Cloth seat trim, air conditioning, remote central locking, steering wheel audio controls, driver information cluster, front power windows, 14-inch steel wheels
- LT: (in addition to LS) Push-button start, Sportec vinyl seat trim, leather steering wheel, Mirotec white interior highlights, reversing camera, rear park sensors, cruise control, 15-inch alloy wheels
- Infotainment: 7-inch touchscreen display with Android Auto and Apple CarPlay smartphone mirroring, incorporating sat-nav, internet music streaming phone and voice commands plus AM/FM/USB/Bluetooth audio.
- Cargo volume: 185 litres with rear seats up, 985 litres with rear seats lowered
Like many cars in the segment, there’s an awful lot of hard plastic on display in the Spark.
The presentation is good though, and quality is a cut above competitors like Mirage and Micra. The cabin design is also neat, modern and more mature than the outgoing Barina Spark, whose toy-like interior probably only appealed to kids of a non-car-buying age and few else.
The high-grade Spark LT feels a lot less spartan inside thanks to a push button starter, leather-wrapped steering wheel, black pleather upholstery, cruise control, powered rear windows and gloss white patterned dash trim, but at $18,990 it’s not up to the standard of some similarly-priced light cars.
But if you want to jazz it up inside, Holden will fit alloy pedals, sill plates or an alternative interior trim finish at extra cost.
Comfort isn’t too bad in the Spark. Its footprint measures just 3.6 metres long and 1.6 metres wide, but there’s plenty of room up front and enough headroom in the back for the average adult. A pair of adults could comfortably sit in the back of the Spark.
As you’d expect, legroom isn’t generous and boot volume measures just 185 litres with the rear seats up, or 985 litres with the 60/40 split rear seatbacks folded down.
Holden still has much to learn about making quality switchgear, though, and the ordinary cloth trim and manual window winders in the rear doors of the LT reinforce that this car is built to a low, low price.
But nestled in the centre console of every Spark is something that you won’t find elsewhere in the microcar segment: an infotainment system that allows you to mirror most of the basic functions of your smartphone on an integrated 7-inch touchscreen display.
And it extends well beyond the usual functions of Bluetooth integration. Using Android Auto or Apple CarPlay (both of which are integrated into the Spark’s infotainment hardware) you can use your phone’s mapping, internet music streaming apps like Pandora and Spotify and even dictate text messages using voice recognition.
Which, really, is brilliant in a car at the Spark's $13,990 entry point.
ON THE ROAD
- Engine: 73kW/128Nm (CVT), 73kW/124Nm (manual) 1.4 litre naturally-aspirated petrol inline four
- Transmission: 5-speed manual or CVT automatic, FWD
- Suspension: MacPherson strut front, torsion-beam rear
- Brakes: Ventilated discks front, drum rear
- Steering: Electrically assisted. 9.6m turning circle
Holden is justifiably proud of how the Spark drives, so much so that they invited the media to put the car through its paces at the company’s Lang Lang proving ground in Victoria.
We drove the Spark through a trio of on-track activities to demonstrate its handling prowess both on and off the road, and we were deeply impressed.
First up, a motorkhana with a reverse slalom to demonstrate the Spark LT’s reversing camera (you won’t be able to option a reversing camera on a base model LS until June this year). A bit of fun, but unless you’re a stunt driver it’s unlikely you’ll ever have to replicate those conditions out on the real world. Relevant testing? Perhaps not.
But a number of laps around the “hill climb” section of Lang Lang’s extensive road network showcased the Spark’s admirable handling and superb steering.
Even on the pizzacutter 165-section tyres of the steel-wheeled Spark LS, this car corners well. Turn-in is precise, grip from the standard Continental rubber is excellent (even in the wet conditions we encountered) and the chassis balance is surprisingly sporty.
It’s anything but dull, but, most importantly, it grips the road in a way that inspires confidence and ensures safety. Comfort, meanwhile, hasn’t been compromised - the Spark is impressively compliant.
Its balance and safety cred was reinforced on the dirt road slalom exercise, where the Spark’s stability and stability control calibration made it easy to control on fast direction changes on loose surfaces without interrupting power.
And it’s all thanks to an extensive localisation effort that sees the Holden Spark sit on a unique suspension tune that’s actually firmer and more dynamic that what European versions (badged as Opels and Vauxhalls) will receive.
Holden’s efforts with honing this particular suspension tune is greatly appreciated in a segment that isn’t known for capable handling.
Another area that received local tuning was the steering. It’s light and accurate and loads up in weight the faster you go, and feels more like a traditional hydraulic rack in its weighting and feedback.
The turning circle is a tight 9.6 metres.
Engine-wise, the Spark leads its segment with a 73kW 1.4 litre petrol four with 128Nm of torque - easily more power and torque than the Suzuki Celerio, Nissan Micra or Mitsubishi Mirage. It does carry a slight weight penalty, however.
It’s a willing engine, and particularly fun when paired with the slick five-speed manual. It runs out of puff in the upper reaches of its rev range, but it’s got plenty of pep lower down.
Most buyers are expected to go for the optional CVT automatic (standard in Spark LT), and unlike some (we’re looking at you, Mirage), it’s a decent self-shifter.
Kickdown performance is acceptably quick and it will step through preset “gears” if you lay your boot into the accelerator. At sedate speeds it behaves like a traditional CVT, but without the excessive rev flaring of some continuously variable transmissions.
ANCAP rating: The Holden Spark has yet to be tested by ANCAP
Safety features: Six airbags (front, front side, full-length curtain) plus ABS, EBD, brake assist, traction control and stability control.
RIVALS TO CONSIDER
Holden identifies the Spark's primary rivals as the Mitsubishi Mirage, Nissan Micra and Suzuki Celerio.
The Micra has recently seen a surge in sales, while the Mirage has declined, but none of these models approach the same level of popularity as hatchbacks in the larger Light Car class.
Will the Spark leapfrog all of them? It very well may - in South Korea (where the Spark was designed and manufactured), the Spark has recently become the top-selling car in its segment.
TMR VERDICT | OVERALL
Holden boasts the Spark will “shake up the micro-car segment”, and it’s easy to see why its so confident.
Its smartphone mirroring capability is a huge advantage in a segment traditionally favoured by tech-savvy younger buyers, and the cutesy startled-rabbit look of the old Barina Spark has been replaced by a more universally-appealing exterior design.
Its price is perhaps the only negative.
The Spark LS manual arrives at a list price of $13,990 which makes it a little more expensive than the outgoing Barina Spark, not to mention $2000 more expensive than the entry-level Mirage Hatch and $500 more than the Micra ST (but it is quite a bit better than each of these).
The Celerio sells at $12,990 drive-away, meanwhile.
And consider that the Skoda Fabia 66TSI retails for $15,990, is bigger inside, has more torque and also ships with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto as standard, and there’s an argument that the Spark could stand to be a little cheaper.
Right now however, Holden dealers are offering a $14,990 drive-away price for the Spark LS manual. That makes compelling buying for a smart, tiny hatchback with smartphone mirroring.