The drive programme pretty much said it all. At the launch of the original Barina Spark we drove the vehicle around Sydney streets. Nothing more than 80 kays then. It’s a city car, Holden reckoned, and even at that it was hardly sparkling. Interesting then that the all-new second-generation Spark – the Barina badge has been dropped – was presented to the motoring media at Holden’s Lang Lang Proving Grounds where we got to bully it over their rough and tumble hill climb road. Which was evidently quite a privilege; few outside of Holden have driven this wonderfully up and down, round and around section of tarmac, which Spark was undaunted by. On one fast and rough corner, it showed off suspension action beautifully. And then for another hour or so we took in some beautiful empty ribbons of smooth tarmac in the local vicinity, so not a city street in sight for the launch of the much sassier, much improved Spark. Where there was none before, there’s certainly some life and spark to the car now.
That’s not just because of its enlivened engine either. As it happens, the talking heads paid scant attention to motive power. While the 1.4 four potter might not be anything particularly special it does enough to put Spark up there for performance in its class. It’s a far cry from the old 1.2, output up 20 per cent to 73kW and torque rising by 20Nm to 128Nm. So it may not win any fuel economy runs – competition like Mirage and Celerio are in the high fours whereas this is rated at 5.5L/100km – but at least now it doesn’t feel to be running on only three of its four pots. And there seems to be virtually no difference in performance between the two different transmission options, perhaps because the manual gets slightly less torque (120Nm). For our market, there’s essentially just the auto; the five-speed manual is to-order only. The all-new engine (developed in Europe, built in Korea) comes hooked up to a fresh CVT which works well in this setting. Besides, city cars are built primarily for city running, and manuals, even lightweight shifters like this, can still be tiresome in bumper to bumper traffic.
Holden is rather proud of its new tranny. We found Spark auto a touch hesitant off the mark, but under the pump it ‘shifts’ like a regular automatic, and it also has an L position, mainly for improved engine braking. On the testing hill circuit, the L position was a winner, helping it keep pace on the hills. Roughly four clicks long the hill track has an example of almost every corner imaginable. We only got to drive the base LS models there, more’s the pity, as the LT has extra rubber on 15-inch alloys and tends to grip better, squeal less. Still, the new chassis that underpins the Spark proved entertaining to drive, though the real beneficiary is much improved ride quality. Holden engineers tuned the suspension at Lang Lang, opting for firmer dampers, improving road holding and body control. They also calibrated steering for better on centre sensitivity, and progressive build-up of steering effort. ESP was tuned too, to work well on gravel and tarmac. Holden engineers had laid out
a slalom run on a flat gravel road to highlight their ESP tweaks, which allow a little slip at the rear before intervening. One could be brisk providing steering inputs were smooth, limiting ESP-induced brake nipping. This was serious fun, in contrast to a near run-in with a tiger snake when searching for a spot to water the garden.
A bit of door play at lunch revealed little in the way of hatch space (185L), and the split folding system leaves the seat backs at an annoying 40-degree angle. However, styling and connectivity are highlights. The Spark no longer looks cartoon-like; it’s a cleaner design, with a lower roofline, a slightly longer wheelbase with wheels pushed to the corners and a range of paint colours, some bright, to appeal to the largely young (19-29), female audience. Special features include a seven-inch touch screen with Apple Car-Play and Android Auto as standard. There’s also voice recognition.
Two versions of Spark are available, LS and LT. The former costs $17,990 and comes with 14-inch steel wheels, cloth seats, audio controls on the wheel, air con, six airbags, the usual safety electronics, and trip computer. Add $2000 to step up to the LT version and you add a smart key and push button start, 15-inch alloys, leather-look seats, rear view camera and parking sonar, cruise control, power windows fore and aft and a leather wrap wheel. If you’re buying to a budget the to-order-only manual variant saves $1500, at $16,490. There are also personalisation options, with contrasting colours for mirror caps, wheels and grille.
From being just another wannabe, the new Spark now vies for city car leadership, while appealing especially to young millennials with its well considered tech and safety package.
This was serious fun, in contrast to a near run-in with a tiger snake when searching for a spot to water the garden
Handbrake turn the quickest way round the
pole; steelies on the base LS; bright colours continue to be popular given the skew towards young and young-at