Monday March 14, 2016
By Richard Bosselman
CHASING Holden’s top test driver at tyre squealing pace around an ascending hill course deep within the brand’s testing ground, reversing through a coned slalom using only the backing camera for reference then charging into a second timed challenge, this time tailwagging in the dirt – with encouragement to handbrake slide.
Is this any way to treat a modest-sized budget hatchback running a wee 1.4-litre petrol engine married, in the main, to a constantly variable transmission?
Actually, it might be. There’s reasonable probability life for small cars will be a torture test, given their customer profile.
Historically, the Spark and its rivals – cited by Holden as the Suzuki Celerio, Nissan Micra and the Mitsubishi Mirage – do tend to attract particular attention from blue rinse street racers looking for a decent see-me-out drive.
Without seeking to pick a fight with Grey Power, the abuse meted by OAPs on small cars –destruction-testing drivetrains through to plunging through shop windows – does suggest that the older we get, the less mechanical sympathy some of us possess.
One assumes makers bear this in mind when sorting their cars during the durability development phase, at places such as where I met the Spark; Holden’s Lang Lang proving ground in rural Victoria, Australia, is pretty much the automotive equivalent of an SAS proving course for cars.
Spark did okay there. I reckon it’s tough enough to withstand the worst gran and grand-dad can put it through.
However, meeting old scores isn't as much a priority for this car as it might be for others of its ilk. Spark is actually on a dual assignment, one that also takes it to the other end of the age and driving experience spectrum.
Holden is anticipating that this new car will also be of interest to so-called ‘Millennials’; those born on or around the turn of this century who, one presumes, having perhaps only recently stowed their ‘L’ plates might also still be finessing their driving techniques. Some research suggests this age group has low interest in cars – it’s all travel, clothes and pubs for this lot - to the point where a growing count don’t bother with driving at all. Yet Holden wagers this offer is right on styling, price, pep and specification to win interest from young, uni-fresh professional types.
The hook starts with the sticker. At $17,990 to $19,990 (or $16,490 with a special order manual gearbox) Spark starts off $500 cheaper than the outgoing Barina Spark and price-matches against almost its competitors.
More relevantly, it lands with the most powerful engine in the sector, the best equipment level and, though the ANCAP crash test doesn’t occur until next month, is expected to be the safest choice. Ability to secure the high five-star score that Holden reckons is in the wind will surely play well with anxious parents who are sure to have a say in the purchase process. It will also bring Spark up to a level already achieved by every other Holden passenger model – the Barina Spark having let the side down, a touch, by being a four-star car.
In the meantime, another plus point comes from testimony that it has top-scored in a novel part of the in-house development programme.
After the engineers finished finetuning of this South Korea-sourced offer’s suspension, steering and brakes, Holden undertook a “captive test fleet” process in which 29 young employees, some interns, enjoyed two cars over a three-month period.
Their task was to score the car’s social standing. Did it look smart enough, was the colour palette right, where the accessories - red, green or gloss black highlights to the grille surround, mirror caps, alloy wheel options and a roof spoiler - chic enough?
Most importantly, what’d this age bracket make of the new media interface which supports Apple CarPlay and Android Auto?
The latter is undoubtedly an ace card for optimum cool wall status. It certainly diverts attention from the poverty packaging prerequisite in the sub $20k category. Even though the LS shows cost constraint with its wind-up rear windows and hard-wearing cloth seat covers (the LT is a bit stronger equipped with a reversing camera and full electrics but even it’s ‘leather’ is pretty cheap), you tend to look past that when considering a segment-first provision that effectively turns this car into a mobile app, delivering internet radio streaming, voice control and satellite navigation – all downloads that operate with the phone as a hard-drive – plus all the usual smartphone functions.
As an iPhone user I cannot speak to the functionality of the Android side, but certainly with my preferred device the only thing is a superb cinch. You simply connect your phone with the provided cable, provide the necessary permissions then, presto - all of your phone features are accessible through the 7.0-inch colour touchscreen. It works seamlessly and is simply brilliant. That youth target market will be able to operate it with their eyes closed.
Holden’s homeground-delivered dynamic refinements also enhance the car. Don’t think Spark has become an appliance as result of this level of diversion.
The only way to judge how a Holden-ised Spark compares dynamically those fronting elsewhere in the world would have been to have the Chevrolet and Vauxhall editions also on hand. GM’s Australian division couldn’t quite manage that for us – though it does seem they do have a lot of foreign metal in various carparks and workshops around the place – yet the driving tests laid on suggests the local crew hasn’t shirked on fundamental duties. It seems fair to say that every conventional aspect of driver engagement has also been competently attended to.
While it is still primarily a city car designed for nipping around town, it has divested the paint by numbers feel of its predecessor. That bodes well for any future comparison with the rivals, only one of which – the Celerio – could be considered new. Both Micra and Mirage have been around for long enough to become retirement home staples.
There’s definitely more complexity to the Spark’s chassis, suspension tuning and steering. Yes, it’s still a busy car on the open road – there’s enough road noise generating off Victoria’s coarse chip to suggest that one of the improvements, come facelift time, should be an extra layer of sound-proofing.
With maximum outputs of 73kW and 128Nm of torque (or 120Nm in manual) being better than those three-cylinder competitors, the 1.4-litre might win approval for being the big banger, but bear in mind that in this segment the bang isn’t very big at all. Holden’s engine does have some zest, but it needs to be worked: the power band is quite narrow, though, and it’s rev hungry. Yet overall it is more comfortable tackling motorway and country road conditions than the preceding Barina Spark 1.2-litre, that gave 10kW and 25Nm less.
Shelving a four-speed auto for a CVT transmission is also a plus point for urgency and economy. The Spark’s is a new version in which the simulated 'gear shifts' are programmed to be more obvious, notably at open-road speeds. It’s not like an automated manual, of course, and yet is less horrible than a lot of other small car CVTs, being less prone to scream under hard acceleration. It’s actually preferable in some ways to the manual, which has a vague and doughy feel, perhaps intentionally, though would also be better were a six-speed rather than a five. As is, there’s a big gap between second and third.
Overall the Spark has the demeanour of a car that isn’t out to change the world but nonetheless feels quite well acquitted to meet the demands of the specific environment in which it will be pitched.
There’s still nothing hugely avant garde about the shape or styling, but it offers reasonable roominess, doesn’t feel as though it’s going to flip in the first decent corner and lends impression that it’ll take all knocks of urban warfare.
It was certainly being taken to trial during our time at Lang Lang. Maybe it's being toughened up for a future ‘Spark Survivor’ television programme.
On his advice, I found the best way to maintain equal pace with Holden’s ace dynamics engineer, Rob Trubiani – yeah, the guy who caught the world’s attention back in 2013 when he set a world-class Nurburgring lap record with the Commodore SS-V ute – as he charged up the test track’s biggest hill was to keep the engine operating raucously near its 6500rpm cut-off. In the manual, that meant sticking to second gear, in the CVT using the ‘L’ mode that keeps the motor on much more of a boil than the usual ‘Drive’ setting.
The transmission also took a toasting during the reversing camera exercise. The course layout dictated that the car needed to be driven in Reverse one way then put into Drive for much of the other. The temptation to quick shift to save milliseconds was strong, but tempered by some distressing noises emanating from the box. CVTs, apparently, do not enjoy the stick being shoved from Reverse to Drive before the engine has a chance to reach idle revs. Maybe I should have waited until the car had ceased moving backward before I strove to make it shoot forward.
All the same, the cars that took this kind of punishment all morning seemed none the worse for wear when they were subsequently driven at more of a real-world pace, albeit still briskly, on the open road that afternoon.
The toughest test for the Spark might be to raise the stature of the microcar sector, which on current trend is just as small as the product occupying it. Last year’s Barina Spark sales count of 340 units is considered a fail – Holden NZ wants the new one to equal, or beat, the segment-leading Mirage. But it’s still a small target: the Mitsi only found 680 homes in 2015.
For Spark to become a giant will depend, perhaps, on the sales campaign. Holden hasn’t missed a beat in respect to that; the bulk of the promotional spend will go into a social media spruik with “an experimental focus.”