A QUESTION started to form in my mind as we were pushing the all-new Holden Spark around a challenging, hilly section coiled over one corner of Holdenís vast Lang Lang proving ground. When was the last time a model went from worst-in-class to the segmentís best, in the space of just one generation?
Itís too early to say for sure if thatís the case for Holdenís new microcar, but thereís no doubting that the improvements the Spark delivers over its utterly unloveable and woefully underdone predecessor are vast.
The outgoing model saw no local involvement from Holden, and it showed. This one, built on a new global platform that brings both a longer wheelbase and wider track, has seen that situation reversed. Holdenís engineers were involved from the first phases of development and were able to specify a number FIRST AUSSIE DRIVE of key component sets, as well as develop the damper tune, steering calibration and ESC characteristics for Australia. After a day of driving the little Spark hard at both Lang Lang and on surrounding roads, the dynamic benefits brought by Holdenís involvement feel significant.
The car was designed in Korea under the direction of Australian Mike Simcoe. It is about 40mm lower than its predecessor and has less front overhang, yet manages the trick of being roomier inside, partly thanks to the larger platform, and partly due to a lower hip point and smarter interior packaging.
Under that stubby bonnet sits an all-new 1.4-litre four. Itís an all-aluminium construction with variable valve timing and port injection, making peak power of 73kW at 6200rpm, and redlined at 6500rpm. Max torque is 128Nm (auto) or 124Nm (manual) at 4400rpm, so it does need revs, but shortish gearing means it doesnít feel gutless. Throttle tip-in is eager but intuitive, the delivery pretty linear, and the top-end, while not exactly creamy-sweet, is neither harsh nor horrible.
In the base car, the new 1.4 is mated to a five-speed manual with a super-light clutch pedal and feathery, though slightly floppy shift action. But the bulk of buyers Ė thatís mainly females aged between 20 and 29, if you havenít already figured it out Ė will opt for the CVT. Itís actually a decent auto, with defined ratio steps to avoid excessive engine droning or rev flaring.
So the powertrain is good, but the dynamics are even more impressive. The steering has a nice, confident on-centre feel and a natural, linear flow on turn-in.
Work was done to add weight as lock is increased, but itís still light.
Grip levels are modest from the eco-biased Continental tyres, but chassis balance compensates.
Thereís a lively responsiveness and throttle adjustability that lifts Spark above the often onedimensional dross that can inhabit this end of the forecourt.
Subtle throttle lifts bring the bum into play and quell any sense of pushy nose-heaviness. Rebound control is a highlight, with big heaves and undulations soaked up with a level of composure you donít normally find at this level.
Spark drives with a level of verve and engagement that was nowhere to be found in its predecessor. It also packs a showroom funk factor and the Millennium-generation musthaves in terms of connectivity.
Only the pricing side of the equation looms as a potential issue (see sidebar).
In the meantime, itís just pleasing that Holdenís local engineering team have managed to deliver a Spark you no longer want to set fire to.
Sparkís rear doorhandles are semi-concealed to create a threedoor illusion, and open to a rear compartment that sits occupants quite upright on a short bench, but with reasonable legroom and ample head/foot room for adults.
Top-spec LT gets 15-inch alloys shod with 185/55 R15 tyres; base LS gets by on 14-inch steelies wearing 165/65R14s.
Rear brakes are drums Ė normal at this level Ė but light kerb weight means Spark has no stopping issues.
LT spec adds funkier dash inserts, leather-look seat trim, leather-wrapped wheel, keyless entry, reversing camera, cruise control and standard CVT auto.
Seven-inch touchscreen with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto standard on both Spark models.
Engaging, well-sorted chassis and likeable three-pot, but gives away 400cc and 23kW/38Nm. Also lacks Sparkís smartphone connectivity, but counters with super-sharp driveaway pricing.
Getting long in the tooth, though its revvy 1.2-litre triple is no bad thing.
Feels tinny and unrefined compared to Spark and is comprehensively out-performed by it for on-road sparkle, connectivity and equipment.
At this most dollarsensitive end of the market, Holden thinks the Spark can justify what is fairly premium pricing.
The base manual looks okay at $13,990, but the majority of buyers will want the auto, which at $15,690 is suddenly closing in on a $17K driveaway tag. Move up to the auto-only LT and youíre at $18,990 plus on-roads, which is in the thick of class-above action from the likes of Mazda 2, Toyota Yaris and Suzuki Swift. No doubt the marketís reaction will determine how resolutely Holden sticks with this pricing strategy, and weíd tip that driveaway deals will sharpen things up later in the year. mark determi s s d