Bright spark

Surprisingly, Ponch has had little trouble swapping his mighty C63 for a baby hatch

NATHAN PONCHARD

IF VARIETY and balance are the keys to an interesting and successful life, then this Holden Spark LS should be the yin to my old C63 long-termerís yang. From a $170K twin-turbo V8 to a $14K price-leader with a plastic steering wheel, plastic hubcaps and a teensy 73kW atmo 1.4. Hardly enough to get the pulse racing, but I have a deep affection for small cars and can honestly admit to being a bit excited about seeing this nimble little Spark parked out front.

Having been slightly underwhelmed by the CVT-equipped Spark LT wearing 16-inch alloys in our three-car comparison (Wheels July), I thought Iíd take a punt on the simple pleasures of a base LS with 14-inch wheels, a five-speed manual and an RRP of just $13,990.

But the LS is no poverty pack. You get air-con, power front windows, remote central locking, a height-adjustable driverís seat, a trip computer, daytime running lights (halogen, not LED), a six-speaker stereo

On the juice

Itís official fuel number might be a miserly 5.2L/100km, but the reality is nothing like that good. Not yet anyway, with the first month doing heavy urban work. Having arrived with just 944km on the clock, though, itís still early days and consumption should improve with more mileage under its belt. Given the thirsty reputation of the Sparkís older siblings (Barina, Trax, Malibu and Captiva), Holden needs a win in this department.

OurGarage

with 7.0-inch colour touchscreen and Apple CarPlay (or Android Auto if youíre an Applehater), Bluetooth phone connection and, on MY17 models, standard cruise control.

Indeed, the only option is a Ďdriver assistance packí that adds a reversing camera and rear parking sensors for $550.

Thing is, the base Spark is much more than the sum of its parts. Even on the journey home from Suttons Arncliffe to Newtown, the Spark instantly impressed with its ride, refinement and grown-up feel. Thereís a strength and solidity that transcends its small, inexpensive origins, yet with all the benefits of minimal weight and compact size to enhance its agility.

The biggest surprise, however, is the Sparkís manual gearbox. Fearing the rubbery, notchy shift feel that typified GM manuals for many years, the Sparkís neat little five-speeder is a revelation. Slick, positive and a breeze to use, the manual allows the tractability of the Sparkís new-gen, all-aluminium 1399cc naturally aspirated four to truly shine. It pulls cleanly, if casually, from just 800rpm in third gear and would make even the laziest driver seem smooth and proficient.

In conjunction with sharp steering, keen handling and grippy little 165/65R14 Continentals, the eager drivetrain makes it a bundle of fun around the suburbs. You donít need to be doing illegal speeds to enjoy motoring in the Spark, and there are the added benefits of a tight 9.6m turning circle, excellent forward vision and unexpectedly good seat support.

I even like the Sparkís looks, despite the overbearing brightness of its ĎStraya Postí red paint (which Holden prefers to call Absolute Red) and the cheapness of its five-spoke plastic wheelcovers. A bit more effort in this department couldíve really lifted the Spark LSís visuals, so Iíve been led to Ďrally specí it (which is to say Iíve taken them off).

The Spark does have one obvious flaw.

While its five-door body and neatly shaped 185-litre boot make it a peach for shopping and general urban duties, the rear-seat folding procedure is a pain in the arse.

Holden claims you can either fold the backrests forward or flip up the 60/40 split cushion, then dump the backrests for a fully flat floor, but the reality isnít that simple. The backrests will barely tip forward if you donít flip the cushions, and when you do, you need to remove all three headrests and slide both front seats forward to get the back seat flat.

Three stitched-in pockets to house each headrest makes the process neater, but itís a far from simple procedure, and I canít maintain my normal seating position when the rear seat is down. Thankfully, thatís a rare compromise; otherwise, the manual Spark is proving a genuine delight.

Yes to the dress?

Holden has gone further than usual with optional dress-up gear for Spark, but itís restricted to the upmarket, CVT-only LT ($18,990).

Stylish 15- and 16-inch alloys in various colours including black, coloured grille inserts and mirror caps, a roof spoiler, bodykit and bonnet and roof decals can make your Spark a bedazzled (and rather expensive) little micro hatch. But itís baffling why you canít option the black 16s ($1530) to complement black mirror caps ($160) on a white LS manual to create a funky look.

HOLDEN SPARK LS

Date acquired: September 2016 as tested: $13,990 month: 211km @ 11.6L/100km Overall: 211km @ 11.6L/100km Price This Over 34 3 334 3 34 3 334 44 3 0 0 1 1 5 5 WEEK 4 URBAN COUNTRY SPORTS FAMILY MOTORWAY