Holden Barina Spark 2011 Review

There’s no doubt that a small spark can be a powerful thing. Spark is a vital element of the internal combustion engine and it’s often a small spark that can start the largest fires. But can Holden’s new Barina Spark blaze its way into the affections of small hatch buyers on a budget in NZ, or will it fizzle out? With unique micro-car styling, quirky features and an emphasis on safety the Spark has a good chance of scoring some serious sales. Car and SUV spent a week fanning the flames to see if the Barina Spark will become hot property.

Designed and built in Korea, the Barina Spark is a truly global product for General Motors that will be sold in over 150 countries. Here in NZ, the Spark is the latest in a line of sub-compact hatches Holden has given the Barina badge and sold over the years. How does it stack up? Well, it’s certainly the most striking model to wear the nameplate.

Aimed largely at female buyers the Spark has definite cute appeal but also mixes in many modern, sporty design cues. Like a dog that’s carried in a handbag the Spark’s petite proportions and wide-eyed face will get the ladies swooning. Huge wrap-over headlights, a gaping lower air dam and a chrome-framed Holden grille, set up what is a sharply angled front end. Along the flanks things get clever with prominent sculpting around the wheel arches, a dipped window line and hidden rear door handles that are designed to give the Spark the look of a two-door coupe. At the rear, circular tail lamps look sharp and our tested high-spec CDX gets the faux sporty treatment with a hatch spoiler, body kit and an exhaust pipe integrated into the rear diffuser. Available in a range of fashionable hues our test subject was well colour-coded in Moroccan Blue with 15-inch alloy wheels as standard. Overall, it’s a bold and highly styled wedge-shape design that achieves the objective of standing out, while it might be too much for conservative tastes, for some the Spark’s design will be a real selling point.

At only 3.5 meters in length and just under 1.6 meters in width the Spark is smaller than the average supermini, but space is cleverly managed in the cabin. Even taller drivers can get comfortable with correct seat adjustment and thanks to the Spark’s relatively tall (1.5 meters) body shape, headroom isn’t an issue for occupants. The rear seat is set quite far back in the car and while there are three seatbelts on hand it would best accommodate two people and offers fair legroom for a sub-compact hatch. The side window line sweeps upward which is an important feature of the Spark’s exterior design but could mean reduced side visibility for shorter back seat passengers. Luggage capacity in the hatch is limited at just 170 litres, but the rear seats split fold (60:40) down to create a more usable 580-litre loading area.

The Spark’s interior design matches the fun nature of the exterior with a motorcycle-inspired instrument cluster that mixes a conventional analogue speedo with a digital tachometer. It looks cool and illuminates nicely in blue, it’s also attached to the steering column so always remains in view. The LCD screen shows a fuel read out and various trip computer information but is a touch small to read easily. The dashboard is symmetrical in shape with dark plastics broken up by silver trim or alternatively the Spark’s exterior colour can feature on the dashboard and door surrounds. The switchgear is simply laid out and is highly functional with all controls concentrated within the centre stack. There is a whole range of cup/bottle holders, door bins and small storage options in the Spark cabin to throw cell phones, sunglasses and cosmetics. There’s also a clever slide out drawer beneath the front seat to stash valuables. The imitation leather seats in the Spark CDX look the part and are nicely soft, but they could offer more thigh support and may not prove highly durable in the long-term. Elsewhere the Spark’s interior quality is mixed, some of the plastics feel of a cheap grade but the overall build quality is very good and you’d expect to make some small concessions at this budget price point.

Standard equipment on the Barina Spark CDX includes electric windows, 4-speaker CD stereo with USB and AUX input for iPods, trip computer, air-conditioning, steering wheel audio controls, keyless entry and covered mirrors on both driver and passenger sunvisors.

So with aesthetics and tricks now well covered, what’s under the Spark’s stumpy bonnet?

The Spark uses a 1.2-litre four-cylinder petrol engine that produces 59kW of power and 107Nm of torque. Acceleration from standing isn’t rapid in the Spark, but if you are willing to rev it hard it can show a little pep through the mid-range. The small engine is mated exclusively to a 5-speed manual transmission, so there is currently no automatic option for the Spark. The driver will need to keep busy with the gear changes when ascending hills or navigating windy roads to stop the Spark from bogging down at low revs. This isn’t an issue as the clutch is light and the gearstick has a smooth shifting nature. Fuel economy is impressive at just 5.6 litres per 100km on a combined cycle making it one of the cheapest conventional petrol vehicles to run.

Dynamically, the Spark is naturally best suited to city and suburban driving. It has a very tight turning circle and its size makes for excellent maneuverability in narrow lanes and effortless parking ability. With the exception of tackling steep hills the Spark is very easy to drive and has a relaxed nature. The power-assisted steering is light and has a naturally predictable feel.

Leave the city and the Spark still represents itself well, it will cruise comfortably at the open road speed limit and although plenty of space is required for overtaking, it’s still capable. On twisted back roads the Spark’s 165/60 R15 tyres show a tenacious level of grip for their limited width only giving into understeer when pushed hard. There is some body roll but no more than you’d expect from a vehicle that is almost as tall as it is wide.

Ride quality is also quite good with the Spark getting over urban corrugations and potholes with relative ease. Some road noise will enter the cabin on rough road surfaces and the engine can get a bit loud and coarse at high rpm but during daily commuting the Spark is a fairly peaceful, low-key ride.

Excellent levels of safety are on offer with the Spark sporting six airbags including full-length curtain bags. There’s also ABS brakes, brake assist, electronic stability control, traction control and brake force distribution. No corners have been cut here and it’s an impressive safety package for a budget buy.

That leaves just one question; can the Barina Spark set off more sales for Holden in the sub-compact segment?

Definitely, the Spark is design driven and while not all will love its brazen exterior styling it’s a look that ‘s accurately aimed at its female target market. The interior is fun but not at the expense of practicality, and despite the diminutive dimensions there’s a surprising amount of space in the cabin. When it comes to performance the Spark doesn’t have much to offer, but it’s not expected to. That said, it is dynamically competent on the open road and with it’s tight turning circle and lightweight steering is tailor made for urban driving. It also offers an attractive level of fuel economy and low running costs. The biggest obstacle to success for the Barina Spark comes from the current lack of an automatic option. An automatic version may not be available for some time and this will dissuade many who don’t want to self shift the gears. But the Spark’s endearing design and sub $20k price point will no doubt have some keen buyers working a clutch pedal once again.

Price: from $16,990 as tested CDX – $18,990

What we like:

  • Brave and modern exterior design
  • Clever use of limited cabin space
  • Excellent safety specifications for a budget vehicle
  • Fuel economy

What we don’t like:

  • No automatic transmission option
  • Low powered engine keeps you busy changing gears
  • Front seats could use more support

Words and Photos: Adam Mamo

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