A friend tells me to take a second look at the Holden Barina. "You will be surprised, I'm sure. It's not as bad as you think," he says.

So here I am, sitting at the wheel of the latest Barina RS. And it still looks cheap inside, the engine is not remotely RS-like despite its 103kW output and I'm worried about a starting price just over $21,000.

Explore the 2014 Holden Barina Range

That's a slanted view, admittedly, because the RS is fully loaded and you can get a basic five-door Barina for only $15,390 - or as little as $12,890 for the 1.2-litre Spark.

Today's Barina looks nice enough and has the price and badge - the red lion is still a powerful drawcard, as Captiva sales prove every month - to win buyers. However, it's competing in a super-tough showroom class, even if there are easybeats I can never remotely recommend, such as the Suzuki Alto.

Things have also just changed with Volkswagen's price cut on the Polo, which means it now starts from a super-competitive $16,290. Actually, since we're still inside the three-month launch window, the Polo really plays from $15,990 drive-away for the 66TSI Trendline with a five-speed manual gearbox.

For me, the Polo is the benchmark car in the class, at least until the arrival of the all-new Mazda2. And the Barina also needs to be assessed against the impressive new Honda Jazz and even the Toyota Yaris that's the starting point for a lot of shoppers.

So, where does it rate? For me, it's definitely not a Polo and I'm also putting it behind the Jazz. And, most likely, the Mazda2.

But back to the driving, since that's what you need to do to appreciate a surprisingly nice ride, a slick six-speed manual gearbox and a cabin that's pretty quiet at a 110km/h motorway cruise. The storage space in the rear is flexible, with a double-layer boot, although that's only if you choose not to take the no-cost optional spare wheel.

The Barina also looks good with the RS alloys, the dash has plenty of storage space, and the instrument display - modelled on a high-performance motorcycle - makes a change from most of the other mainstream players.

But the plastics look and feel brittle, the seat trimming is cheap, and there is something fundamentally wrong with the engine tuning - probably because of emission and economy requirements - which means it holds revs far too long. It's something I know well from the awful work on baby Protons, and do not expect on a Holden, because it makes gearchanges tougher with too much noise.

There is not much cornering grip in the Barina, the steering feels light but not particularly responsive and the brakes are nothing special.

I also spend a few kilometres in an auto. The "manual" shift button on the side of the shift lever is counterintuitive, difficult to use and feels flimsy. It's even slightly worse than the Ford Focus auto's silly switch.

There is not much cornering grip in the Barina, the steering feels light but not particularly responsive and the brakes are nothing special. That's probably fine in the basic Barina, but - once again - I'm looking at the RS badge and wondering what the fuss is about.