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Holden Barina SRi


Generally, I prefer big cars. Give me a Holden VT Commodore or a Ford Falcon AU - of any sort, though Clubsport, SS or XR8 would be best-liked - and I'm happy.

I just like the feel of the big car, the rear-wheel drive, the power and smoothness of the Holden V6 or V8, the fierce bite of the Ford bent eight, and the space and ground-covering ability.

Little cars will get you there, I know, but a big capacity six or eight-powered car will do it so much more easily.

Sure, gas mileage is nowhere near as good, though the V6 Holdens will use less petrol than some 1800 or 2000cc Japanese cars.

But the key word when I'm talking about car preferences is generally, for I've been very impressed - captivated even - by two small cars I've driven recently.

First there was the sublime new Mini with its exquisite road manners and superb chassis tuning. It drives its front wheels but feels like a well-sorted rear-drive car. Understeer is near-absent, the steering is ultra-quick and beautifully communicative, the car simply stunning on a demanding winding road.

The Mini's only shortfall is the meagre power from its 86kW Chrysler-built 1600cc motor.

The second little car to captivate me is the Holden Barina SRi.

In fact I found myself singing its praises so much that I came close to wearing out my welcome in more places than one.

It truly is a little gem - more powerful and brisker than the Mini and with a chassis that comes close to the German masterpiece's composure.

It's not quite as good, understeers more and the 92kW (on 96 octane petrol) 1.8-litre motor will cause the car to lose a little front-wheel grip under hard acceleration on wet roads (despite the standard traction control).

But it does get tantalisingly close to the Mini and has the advantage of better rear seat legroom (though boot space is still tight) and a $29,500 pricetag which undercuts the Mini Cooper by around $8000. And $37,900 will buy you only a base spec Cooper. By the time you've added some desirable options, you're well into the $40,000 bracket.

The Barina comes with a reasonably comprehensive standard specification.

We like the base model 1400cc Barina which has modern yet clean and car-like looks (no sign here of a monobox body).

The SRi adds an Irmscher body kit - front air dam, side skirts rear roof spoiler - and smart 15-inch diameter alloy wheels. The front air dam incorporates foglights.

Our only quibble about the SRi's exterior is a tendency for the front spoiler lip to catch on wheel stops in carparks. Fortunately the spoiler bounced back into place, but the test car was showing scuffing and scratching.

Barina SRis are available in Star Silver II, Diamond Black, Magma Red and Aruba Blue.

The interior gets supportive, well side-bolstered sports-style seats. They're comfortable and well-shaped and do hold you in place during vigorous cornering.

They're upholstered in an exclusive jacquard fabric trim.

But the best thing about the seats is the way they combine with the steering wheel and pedals to provide a superb driving position. We could get nicely low without sacrificing forward vision, and using the seat and steering wheel adjustments came up with a near-perfect driving position that added to the car's fun factor in brisk open-road driving.

The steering wheel is leather wrapped, is a nice size and has a pleasant-to-use rim.

It has remote controls for the sound system. The standard single-play Compact Disc unit has a silver fascia.

There is aluminium-look metallic detailing on the centre console area, handbrake lever, gearshift knob and door handles.

Safety equipment includes disc brakes on all four wheels and a Bosch 5.3 ABS anti-skid braking system. Traction control is standard.There are driver's and front seat passenger's airbags and all three rear seating positions are fitted with padded head restraints and lap/sash seatbelts.

Front seat headrests are active, moving forward to reduce the risk of whiplash injury in a crash.

Holden Powertrain Engineering developed the new generation 1.8-litre engine.

The DOHC 16-valve unit develops its 92kW of maximum power at 6000rpm. Peak torque of 165Nm arrives at 4600rpm, but there's a nice spread of torque lower in the rev range.

In use it's a willing, lively performer, revving freely and endowing the car with brisk performance.

Holden engineers also modified the five-speed manual gearbox from the Barina 1.4, strengthening it to deal with the increased power and torque.

We found the five-speed to be the standard Barina's weakest link, with an obstructive shift from first to second.

The SRi's was much improved.

Zipping up and down through the nicely-close ratios and keeping the engine singing is lots of fun.

The engineers also did some effective development work on the Barina chassis. In standard form the car handles well, but the more firmly-sprung SRi adds a new dimension.

Chassis changes include a 13mm wider track front and rear, lower ride height and sports suspension. The front dampers and spring rates have been revised.

The SRi rides on 6-inch by 15-inch alloy wheels shod with 185/55R low profile tyres.

Turn-in to corners is eager and direct and the steering gives a good feel for what the front wheels are doing.

The day we conducted our open road handling test was plagued by intermittent heavy rain.

Initially we were a little too tentative, but the more confident we got the better the Barina seemed to handle.

In really tight going you could break the front wheels' grip momentarily on the wet and slippery roads, and there was some wet surface scrabble under hard acceleration.

But in most circumstances - including on very wet surfaces - the car hung on well, with predictable, vice-free and forgiving handling.

On a challenging sequence of moderate-speed corners - where the Mini Copper was absolutely faultless - the SRi acquitted itself confidently and well.

It wasn't quite as good as the German car, but it wasn't far away.

Open road cruising is effortless and noise levels are low.

The SRi rides firmly but with sufficient suppleness to never be uncomfortable.

Fuel economy is good.

Holden says the SRi will use fuel at the rate of 7.8 litres per 100 kilometres on the city cycle and 5.4 litres/100kms on the highway cycle (91 octane fuel). Figures on 96 which gives more power and torque (2kW and 5Nm higher) would be slightly worse.

We liked the Barina SRi very much, and if it had five doors we'd like it even more.

As it stands, it's a car we'd give careful consideration to if we were looking for a multi purpose city/touring and fun car.

It has high comfort levels, good economy, enough get up and go and absolutely entertaining road manners. It's a car which makes you feel good.

And despite the fact it's manual-only we could live with a Barina in Auckland's nightmare commuter traffic. The clutch is light and takes up well, the gearshift is slick and pleasant, the car a pleasure to drive.

We could definitely live with a Barina SRi as everyday transport, knowing that when we wanted to blow out the cobwebs with a spirited drive in the country, it'd do that equally as well.

AutoPoint road test team: story and photographs by Mike Stock.

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