A light to lead the way

The tiny Spark has the en­gi­neer­ing smarts to wear the Holden badge

The Courier-Mail - Motoring - - The Tick - WITH PAUL GOVER

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.

THE TICK

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.

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