With three cars in the small car segment, Holden New Zealand suggested we spend a day with them sampling their cars in this range; the Spark, Trax, and Astra.

While many would question if the Astra is a small car, it did mean some time behind the wheel of three models. So why not?

A quick flight to Auckland first, a quick briefing on the three cars we were going to be driving today, off to Hobbiton in Matamata for lunch, then return to Auckland.

The Briefing

First up were changes to the Spark; for model-year 2019, there’s been some changes in additional features with only a small increase in the launch price. The Spark gets a new front fascia and grille, projector headlights, LED daytime running lights (on the LT model), new 15” alloy wheels (on the LT), new set trim design, and dual USB ports (instead of a single port).

The MyLink infotainment system has been upgraded too, with faster processing, and a new layout and design.

There’s also two new colours for the Spark range; Vixen (think hot pink) and Caribbean Blue.

For the top-spec LT model, there’s a good selection of features as standard. You get leather seating, keyless entry and start, a leather steering wheel, cruise control, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto capability, a 5 star ANCAP rating, rear park assist and a reversing camera. The LT model retails at just $20,990, which is great value. This model has the 1.4-litre four-cylinder engine with a CVT transmission. The engine outputs 73kW and 128Nm of torque. Not too bad for such a light car.

The Spark range starts at $17,490 for the LS with a manual gearbox, then moves up to the LS auto at $18,990.

Next car was the Trax LTZ. This is fitted with a 1.4-litre, four-cylinder turbo motor with a 6-speed automatic ‘box. This engine puts out 103kW of power and 200Nm of torque. The LTZ is the top of the Trax model range, at $36,990.

The LTZ is well equipped too, with leather, keyless entry and start, a sunroof, and heated front seats.

All Trax models come with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto capability, a reversing camera, rear park assist, a 5-star ANCAP rating, and a 7” colour touchscreen for the infotainment system.

The base Trax model is the LS at $32,990, then the LT at $35,490. All models are automatic.

The Astra RS-V was the third car on today’s drive, and was the winner of 2016 European Car of the Year award. The RS-V is the top-spec model in the Astra range, which starts with the R manual at $30,990 (auto $32,490), then the RS manual at $33,990 (auto $35,990). The RS-V manual is 36,990, and our test car (an automatic) retails at $38,490.

The RS-V comes with a 1.6-litre, four-cylinder petrol engine which manages to put out 147kW of power and 300Nm of torque. That’s pretty impressive for such a small motor. We’ve done a full review on this car, which you can read here.

The Astra is quite possibly the only car under $40,000 with a heated steering wheel – those who have used a heated steering wheel will know that they aren’t just nice, they are really nice. There’s also heated seats in the RS-V, and advanced park assist (auto parking).

All new Holdens come with three years of free servicing.

The Drive

Trax LTZ

Time to hit the road. We grabbed the bright red Trax LTZ first up, me as passenger. It was a sprint to the car, since it was now pouring down. I must admit, the interior is nice on a first look, with the leather seats, and sunroof letting what daylight there was, into the car. The headlining and pillars are finished in beige, which I always like. I’m not a beige type of guy, but for the roof and pillars, beige makes a car feel a whole lot bigger inside.

We got to the Southern Motorway, and settled into traffic. I hadn’t actually been in a Trax, so this was new for me. Good to see four (!) cupholders in the centre console. I turned on my heated seat, but a shame it’s only a single setting. The rain got even heavier, but the Trax did well.

There is a reasonable amount of road noise coming into the cabin, but this could be because of the weather too.

We switched spots, and I took the wheel until our café morning tea stop. That 1.4 turbo motor seems to go well, a good amount of low-down torque. The midrange felt a bit lacking when passing people, but overall the motor seemed a good match for the car, and was relatively smooth as well.

The updated MyLink infotainment system is pretty much the same, but better. The clarity of the screen was excellent – super clear.

Spark LT

We got to the Woodturners’ Café in Mangatarata for a coffee and food stop. After that, we switched to the slightly updated Spark.

I’m not sure I’m sold on the look of the Spark, but Rob tested one a while ago and declared it pretty good.

For this leg, I drove first, and was reasonably impressed. This is really a city car, but it did well in the heavy rain, at open road speeds. The car was generally quiet inside, and that 1.4-litre motor pulls the little and light Spark around easily.

Even the CVT wasn’t too bad, and at times felt like a ‘normal’ automatic. I’m by far not a fan of CVTs, but this one was bordering on acceptable.

The interior of the Spark is tastefully done, and the fit and finish looks excellent for the money. For those looking at a used car for $20K, well they should include a brand-new Spark LT on the shortlist.

It drives well, and again we were in heavy rain at open roads speeds in a car designed to stay in the city most of its life. The ride can be jiggly at certain speeds, but this car is so very light, so no surprises there.

We got to Hobbiton a bit late (after getting lost) and grabbed lunch, while bus load after bus load of tourists went out to do a Hobbiton tour, in the rain.

Astra RS-V

By complete coincidence (or was it?), we managed to get into the Astra RS-V when leaving Hobbiton, with me behind the wheel. I reviewed this same car, and liked it, except for a few things, like rock-hard seats. These seats are heated too, with three settings available.

We took a left turn from the café at Hobbiton, which meant twisty, windy roads in rain bordering on torrential.

Perfect.

I pushed that Astra RS-V along in the corners – remember it’s only FWD – and it stuck well, and handled well. I thought the rain would get it sliding quite easily, but no. It was fun too, with that 1.6 turbo motor happy to wind out to redline if you want it to. The punch out of the corners was great fun, although there was some lag, until I remember I hadn’t turned Sport mode on. That fixed it.

Did I think the seats were too hard? Oh yeah, still like rocks. But my co-driver, who is a lot taller and likely quite a bit heavier than me (I think – I didn’t ask), didn’t think they were hard at all.

The rain continued to absolutely pour down, and at one point we switched seats. It still impressed me that the fit and finish in the Astra is just so good – it is really right up there with the best in class.

Once we joined back on Highway 1, it was time to crawl through lots of roadworks and traffic.

Verdict? The Astra still impresses me, and is a worthy recipient of that Euro Car of the Year Award.

The End

All of a sudden, we were back at the airport. You would think that the rain would have made this for a bad day to test cars, but in fact it was the opposite. The Spark and Trax proved themselves as competent cars, rain or shine.

The Astra was better than I remembered it to be, and as I said in my review, this should be on your shortlist if you are looking at a 5-door medium hatchback. It is a genuinely good car.

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