FIRST DRIVE: Holden Barina RS

BARINA GIRL has just become Barina Bloke. Out goes the old ‘Generation III’ Family One 1.6 and in comes the direct-injection 1.4-litre turbo donk from the Cruze – a modern-ish engine fit for a warm-ish hatch like this. They call it RS.

The Barina RS should’ve been with us two years ago, but Holden’s marketing department wanted a lean line-up and didn’t think they needed it. Wrong. Even though 40 percent of current Barina buyers are male, Holden’s light-car mainstay has been crying out for a dose of testosterone since the Opel Corsa-based SRi died in 2005. Boys and girls like sporty little hatches, and so do we.

Given its $20,990 starting point, Barina RS was never intended to challenge Ford’s brilliant Fiesta ST. Holden reckons the RS is an alternative to the imminent, turbo-triple 1.0-litre Fiesta Sport, and perhaps a Swift Sport if you can screw the dealer down from its steep $25,990 retail sticker.

What you get for $21K amounts to a sweet-shifting six-speed manual ’box, smoked 17-inch alloys with 205/50R17 Continental tyres, sports front seats with leather facings and faux-suede ‘mouse fur’ inserts, cool-looking aluminium pedals, a flat-bottomed sports steering wheel and a bunch of other hardware and equipment upgrades.

The RS sits 10mm lower on springs roughly 15 percent stiffer, its dampers have been firmed up, and it gets 268mm rear disc brakes (instead of 230mm drums). Best news for our version is that the electric power steering runs a specific Holden tune, giving it consistently firm weighting and a quick 2.3 turns lock-to-lock. Combined with a neatly balanced, grippy chassis, well-placed pedals and the 1.4 turbo’s mid-range punch, you can actually have some fun in a Barina RS.

The engine itself has identical on-paper specs to the Cruze but it’s been given a mild dose of induction growl, and, at 1249kg, the manual Barina weighs around 150kg less than its bigger brother. American tests of the near-identical Chevrolet Sonic RS say the Barina should be good for 0-100km/h in around 8.0sec.

Thing is, the RS isn’t quite good enough to raise your pulse. The handling might be tidy but the ride is restless and tiring on bumpy roads, avoiding crash-through but lacking suppleness of any kind. And then there’s the optional six-speed auto, which lacks the Cruze’s excellent local calibration and is hell-bent on grabbing the highest gear possible as soon as you ease the throttle.

Given that you can get a Cruze 1.4T auto for exactly the same price as an auto Barina RS, or Renault’s excellent Clio Expression TCe120 for just $19,790, the blokey Barina’s appeal starts to evaporate. For the sake of Barina’s image, however, better late than never.

Ford Fighter

Acutely aware of Ford’s excellent ST-badged products, and the Fiesta ST’s impending launch in the US, GM is rumoured to be considering a high-performance version of the Sonic/Barina RS. The heart of the matter is likely to be the turbocharged 1.6 currently doing business in Astra and Cruze – an engine that could potentially have 150kW and 300Nm up its sleeve. GM might also want to investigate the Fiesta ST’s sensational chassis tune.

PLUS Decent steering; tidy handling; torquey performance
MINUS Abrupt ride; unintuitive six-speed auto; flat rear seat

Holden Barina RS Specifications

Engine  1364cc in-line 4, dohc, 16v, turbo
Max power  103kW @ 4900rpm
Max torque  200Nm @ 1850-4900rpm
Transmission  6-speed manual
Weight  1249kg
0-100km/h  8.0sec (estimated)
Price  $20,990
On sale  Now

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