A light to lead the way
The tiny Spark has the engineering smarts to wear the Holden badge
CHEERING fans and big ratings at this year’s Bathurst 1000 showed that Holden is still an Australian heartland brand.
I’m thinking about Mount Panorama as I slide into Holden’s newest hero, the Spark.
The South Korean-built tiddler could not be further from the big Aussie six that’s marked for extinction next year but it only takes a couple of kilometres to discover the Spark is a worthy sidekick for — and successor to — the Commodore.
It might be priced from just $13,990 plus on-roads but it drives so much better than the tin cans some brands have put on wheels in the recent past.
That’s a salute to the remaining design and engineering talent at Holden, which can still take something basic and make it better.
Holden says its input on the Spark began at the early stages on Korean drawing boards and culminated with the final engineering tweaks to the suspension and driveline.
So, although it still has an unlovely constantly variable transmission, its ride and handling balance is the best in class and it gets along pretty well.
For people who are arriving late, the Spark is the car that was once the Barina.
But Holden wants to bring younger buyers to its showrooms, particularly women, and is trying to shift away from its image as the Commodore car company — good luck with that.
The Spark is good enough to do the job but, even so, it’s most popular with older buyers in the 50-plus range who want a runabout for the city and suburbs.
It comes with a lot of standard safety gear — six airbags, hill-start assist, fivestar ANCAP crash rating — as well as Apple Carplay and Android Auto connectivity.
The basics are simple, though. There is a 1.4-litre fourcylinder engine, front-wheel drive and a baby body that puts it into the same class as the Suzuki Celerio and Kia Picanto.
The problem is the price. The Spark starts at $13,990 for the LS, but putting a CVT into the deal takes the price to $15,690 and a fully loaded LT — with alloy wheels and seat trim that Holden calls Sportec (but I see fake leather), is $18,990 and well into a class that contains the Kia Cerato as a price leader.
Even so, Holden is confident about the car’s chances and talking big about the localisation program.
“Our engineers have made sure it performs exceptionally in Australia’s varied road conditions,” says Holden director of vehicle performance Ian Butler.
“We have been working with GM Korea since the beginning of the program.
“Key to developing the drive characteristics was a significant round of testing and development at our Lang Lang proving ground.”
ON THE ROAD
For once, a car maker’s big talk on a micro car is right. The Spark drives tight but there is surprising compliance in the suspension, very low noise levels and quite a lot of comfort.
Halfway through my first drive I’m looking around to make sure the Spark really is a micro car and not something from the next class up. I reach across to the passenger side and easily touch the door, confirming the size.
It’s reinforced when I check the boot, which is small and has a space-saver spare.
It might be a suburban car but the rear seat is only for kids and you won’t want to have too much to bring back from Bunnings.
The car gets along well and the four-cylinder engine is much smoother than its three-pot rivals. Outputs of 73kW/128Nm ease any strain on the CVT gearbox, which performs better than many of its ilk.
Holden claims economy of 5.2L/100km — I can’t verify the numbers as the car runs quite a long way without a top-up.
The dash layout is clean and effective, the controls work well and the interior finishing is fine for the price and class. Which means it’s nowhere close to a Cerato at $18,990 drive-away.
The real joy in the Spark is heading into the country and discovering that the car copes easily with typical backroads and highway runs.
It has excellent cornering grip, is not upset by bumps or potholes and is much more relaxing to drive than anything in its class.
My test car is a fully loaded LT and I like the trim, the look of the alloy wheels and the operation of the infotainment.
It’s also good to have a pushbutton start for showing off, with a leather-wrapped wheel for comfort and a reversing camera for parking.
I have to admit, I’m surprised. And happy.
The Spark is one of the most impressive tiddlers I have driven.
It’s better than I expect, as good as it should be and only hurt by pricing that makes the top-spec LT too expensive against its rivals.
But the basics are sound, so for the first time in a long while — after a bunch of lacklustre arrivals from South Korea — I can see that Holden still has the right stuff to ensure a solid future beyond the Commodore. The Tick? You bet.