Welcome to the cheapest new Holden you can buy. I’ve got to say, once you start driving a Barina you soon notice just how many of them are about – in the cities at least. So is this sub-$20K Holden a worthy competitor in our $20K Challenge?

The Barina has been with us since the mid-80s (that long?) and is now in its 6th generation, which was released in 2011. Can a 5 year-old design cut it in this class?

First Impressions

We called the Barina ‘Stumpy’ as it looks like some designer has just chopped the back end off. One thing is for certain – there is no mistaking a Barina from the back. That is one distinctive rear end, and I’ve got to say I love what they’ve done with the exhaust tip, just poking it out of the bumper like that. It’s little styling clues like that that makes a car just that little bit different. The rest of the car I think is a ‘personal choice’, if you like the design or not.

Love that tailpipe treatment.

For many manufacturers, when they make a cheaper car, they try to avoid anyone inside the car being able to see painted metal – a sure sign of cost cutting. Not so with the Barina – it’s shows off painted metal, loud and proud. In fact they’ve added extra painted metal/plastic on the inside to make it a little funky – and it works. The doors have cup holders and other parts in painted metal, and it gets attention and as a bonus looks great.

Don't show painted metal? Pah!
Don’t show painted metal? Pah!

The interior is light and airy, and when you jump in the driver’s seat the speedo is the first thing to catch your eye. It’s a ‘motorcycle inspired’ unit, and to start with looks a little weird. The speedo is a big round unit, and then everything else (fuel gauge, other info) is all digital on a panel to the right. The thing is, that speedo is just about the best speedo ever. The dial is large and clear, the numbering on the speedo is also large, and it just works so well I couldn’t believe it. I really thought it was a gimmick, but when I jumped into another car, the speedo felt antiquated and hard to read. Check out the photo – yes it looks strange (and it moves up and down with the steering wheel adjustment) but take my word for it, the speedo is awesome. The digital panel is just ok – it’s very busy, trying to show too much info. A bigger display would have been better.


First impressions when driving the Spark is its initial take off – very quick to move off the mark. This lulls you into a sense of good all round performance. Unfortunately, that isn’t the case with the 1.2 litre Spark model. More on that later.

For a 5-door car, the Spark really is short, but that doesn’t mean rear leg room is bad. It’s not a Jazz, but it’s more than acceptable for the length of the car. Even the boot space is usable.

When I picked up the test Spark, I was told it was priced at $15K. This is a lot of car for that sort of money. RRP is $16,990 for the auto model (which we tested). Like other cars in our $20K Challenge, the Spark looks really well made with good gap lines and a well-made interior. That’s one great feature of the Spark: fit and finish. The paint is deep, the quality of materials looks good and it’s put together well.

Interestingly, on the top of the dash is a raised cowl which probably shows some sort of read outs in the higher-spec models. In the Spark, it has a piece of black plastic there instead. I kept expecting some numbers or something to show up there, but it’s just a blanking plate. I found it’s a good place to store your sunglasses.

Equipment levels are good – auto headlights (not wipers though), front fog lights, height adjustable driver’s seat, Bluetooth with steering wheel controls, USB and AUX ports for your music, heated mirrors, 14” alloy wheels and power front windows (there is no auto function however).

One of the best things about the Spark: the interior.

Safety is covered with features like Electronic Stability Control (ESC), Anti-lock Braking System (ABS) and six airbags including driver and passenger, side and curtain airbags, and a 4-star ANCAP rating.

The auto models have electric power steering, while the manual is listed as having hydraulic power steering. The steering is pretty light – you can tell this is made to be a city car, it’s almost too light with very little feedback at any speed.

What’s it like to live with

Let’s get the worst part of the Spark over and done with. That engine and transmission. Powered by a 1.25 litre 4-cylinder engine that puts out 63kw, the Spark is fine…some of the time. At cruising speeds on the motorway, or even just driving around town at a steady speed, it’s sort of quiet. But give it some gas, or just on take-off, and this is one noisy engine. Mated to that noisy engine is a 4-speed auto that’s, well, not very good. For example, when you are on the motorway (with just a driver) and you put your foot down some, not much happens in the way of acceleration. Push a little harder, and the auto drops down to 3rd gear and the engine revs its guts out. And lets you know about it. Loudly. It’s a frustrating experience and lets down what is overall not a bad little car.


I think if you were on the motorway, four up, you’d find yourself either struggling in top gear or the car changing down to 3rd at the drop of a hat (or maybe leaving it in 3rd). I’m happy to say the engine revs to the red line pretty easily, but you just don’t want to take it there due to the noise. My next test car for the $20K Challenge is the 1.6 litre Barina CD, and I’m told it’s like another car altogether. I can’t wait to see the difference.

You could of course opt for the 5-speed manual Spark, but for some reason it has a different engine, with 43 less cc and 4Kw less power. I didn’t drive a Manual Spark, but it would be worth a test drive. It’s got to be better than the 4-speed auto.

But that’s enough complaining about the engine and transmission.

As mentioned, the steering is too light, and that will please most purchasers of the Spark. Handling is safe and predictable, if a little more body roll in the corners than I would have liked. But for the target market? Spot on.

The Spark rides like most in this segment, jittery over small bumps, but overall just fine.

One thing I did notice is that when faced with side winds, Stumpy did get a bit rolly-polly on the motorway. Not enough to be disconcerting, but more so than others in this class.

A couple of points I did find where there were budget cuts; there’s no driver’s footrest, and the front seat belts aren’t height adjustable. I haven’t seen a car without these two features for years. Not a deal breaker though, and the angle of the floor for your left foot was a little raised, so no great problem really.


The Spark’s seats are pretty good for a budget car – not too flat, reasonable support and comfort levels were fine, at least on short trips. They look good too, with some coloured designs to break up the interior. Other manufacturers of budget cars could take a good lesson from Holden on this front.

The audio system is fine for a budget model, and I paired up my iPhone easily. Call quality over Bluetooth was fine too. One thing that was a little strange was the audio controls on the steering wheel. They were all on one side, which was okay, but to skip forward a song you press the ‘skip track’ button inwards – easy – but to adjust the volume up or down you pull the volume buttons towards you. Like the seat belts this isn’t a deal breaker, but one of those quirks where you can’t work out if it designed like that on purpose (and why) or if someone just cocked up.

Owner’s POV: Deb Wheeler


Debbie Wheeler has owned two Barina Sparks in the last couple of years. She initially had a manual 1200 cc when it initially came out and then swapped for an automatic in 2013.

Why did she buy a Spark in the first place? “Cause we wouldn’t buy a Ford :). It’s a good compact car around town and very economical. The initial reason was we saw the advert on TV and liked some of the features such as USB and iPhone compatibility. We decided to take for a test drive and really liked it. We swapped it for a Holden Commodore SS as was so much easier for me to drive.”

Debbie loves how the Spark is small, nippy, great around town and easy to park. “The car is black and I like the green trim on the inside,” she says. “It is basic, but has enough features to make it nice. The price was really good for a new car.”

There are some things she doesn’t like though. “The manual wind up windows at the back, and on the dash there is a blank space which would be perfect for the clock. The pedal position on the brake is funny and in traffic my legs gets quite sore if you need your foot on the brake for a while.” She’s surprised that it needs new tyres on the next Wof, since it’s only done 25,000Kms.

What it’s up against:

As the Spark is part of our $20k Challenge, you can compare it on this table with the latest updates here.


The good and the bad.

Pros Cons
  • Build quality
  • Equipment levels
  • Value for money
  • Engine noise
  • Auto transmission



What do we think?

I had a love-hate relationship with Stumpy. That engine and transmission…ug. But the rest of the car is better than I had expected. Sure, it’s a brainless get-in-and-drive experience, but for the money, it’s a nicely equipped little runabout and many buyers in this segment only want an easy driving experience.

But that drivetrain lets the team down badly and I can only give the Spark a 3 Chevron rating. If you want a Spark – and it’s a good option in many ways – buy a manual model, but bear in mind the manual comes with that slightly smaller, less powerful motor.

Let’s see how that Barina CD goes next, hopefully it raises the bar in a big way, while still fitting within the criteria for our $20K Challenge.

Chevron Rating: 3





Autoclique would like to thank Johnstone Ebbett Holden in Wellington for supplying us with the review car.  Visit their website here.


We would not have been able to complete the $20K Challenge without Johnston Ebbett’s kind assistance.

Read more about the Barina Spark on Holden New Zealand’s website.

Vehicle Type 5-door Small City Car
Starting Price $16,990
Tested Price $14,990 (see text)
Engine 1.25 Litre 4-cylinder DOHC petrol, 63Kw
Transmission 4 speed automatic
0 – 100 kph na
Kerb Weight 967 Kg
Length x Width x Height 3595x1597x1522
Cargo Capacity 170 litre cargo space with the seats up, or 568 litres of cargo space with the rear seats folded down flat.
Fuel Tank 35 Litres
ANCAP Safety Ratings 4 Star
Warranty 3-years, 100,000km


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Fred Alvrez
How on earth to start this? I've been car/bike/truck crazy since I was a teen. Like John, I had the obligatory Countach poster on the wall. I guess I'm more officially into classic and muscle cars than anything else - I currently have a '65 Sunbeam Tiger that left the factory the same day as I left the hospital as a newborn with my mother. How could I not buy that car? In 2016 my wife and I drove across the USA in a brand-new Dodge Challenger, and then shipped it home. You can read more on www.usa2nz.co.nz. We did this again in 2019 in a 1990 Chev Corvette - you can read about that trip on DriveLife. I'm a driving instructor and an Observer for the Institute of Advanced Motorists - trying to do my bit to make our roads safer.


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