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Holden Barina RS 2014 review

The words "Barina" and "sporty" have only lived in the same sentence when written by an ambitious copywriter trying to shift an asthmatic little hatchback with a shiny set of alloy wheels and an attractive price tag.

Let's be honest – the Barina is nothing more than a cheap runabout with a decent spec level to tempt you away from more accomplished offerings built by Volkswagen, Mazda, Ford, Suzuki and Toyota.

Except, that is, when you hand the car over to a global team inside GM with a mandate to make the car better, worthy enough to stick an RS badge on the rump and not get laughed out of town.

So, with a lot of input from Holden's own engineering group, the Barina RS launched itself into the fray with its traditional value-for-money proposition – the promise of more oomph and a more interesting drive.

Styling

Apart from a reasonably cool set of 17-inch wheels, the Barina RS isn't startlingly different from other CDX Barinas. It does get the unique-to-RS retina-searing Orange Rock paint as an option but it's still a tall box on wheels. The drop in ride height does improve things visually and the skirts and deeper bumpers also give a more ready-for-action look. The front bumper also scores a pair of elliptical fog lights and the deeper rear bumper surrounds a trapezoidal single exhaust.

Inside is still very Barina, but with some red stitching on the seats and a few RS logos scattered around. The instrument pod is still that vaguely wacky layout it shares with the Trax faux-SUV and there's a splash or two of piano black plastic around the cabin.

Value

The RS is pretty cheap. Kicking off at $20,990 for the six-speed manual and finishing at $23,190 for the six-speed automatic, it's an easy $2000 cheaper than its nearest logical rival, the Suzuki Swift Sport.

For your money you get seats and trim covered in something that does a very good impression of leather, heated sports front seats, air conditioning, cruise control, reversing sensors, sports steering wheel and drilled-look pedals. Unlike the majority of its competitors, the Barina RS also has four-wheel disc brakes.

Safety

Five stars come courtesy of six airbags, ABS, traction and stability control, brake force distribution and lap-sash seatbelts all round.

Infotainment

Holden's very good MyLink powers a 7-inch screen through which you can access your phone via Bluetooth as well as stream music through the RS's six speakers. Using the glovebox USB port, you can also control phone apps like Pandora, Stitcher and the BringGo sat-nav.

Engine/Transmission

The 1.4-litre turbo is pinched from the bigger, heavier Holden Cruze. Developing 104kW and 200Nm of torque, it sends the go to the road via the front wheels and either a six-speed manual or six-speed torque converter automatic.

Driving

Let's get one thing straight – the RS badge, when viewed in the context of, say, a Ford, is massively over-promising. This is a warm hatch built on a stone-cold base. The project team had a lot of work to do to make this car a viable alternative.

As soon as you pull away, this is obviously not Aunty Mabel's Barina. The steering is meaty with good feel and just the right weighting. That electric steering setup is unique to the Australian spec car and Holden is justifiably proud to tell us that.

The steering's feel is backed up by the lower, stiffer suspension that makes the Barina a terrific car to fling around, even in the wet. It certainly doesn't have the go of more expensive, genuine hot hatches like the Fiesta ST or RenaultSport Clio, but will easily keep up with the Fiesta Sport and the Swift Sport.

One of the keys to its success – and drastic improvement over the standard Barina – is a stiffer body, unique to the RS.

It doggedly refuses to understeer when thrown at corners in the dry (it does eventually let go) and is very settled on some of the worst surfaces we deliberately seek to test things like roadholding and ride. There's a little bit of body roll – you can only defy physics for so long – but that also means the ride won't require you to undergo back surgery in a few years time.

The 1.4-litre engine is enthusiastic but very coarse when given some stick, although the automatic we had does a good job of keeping things on the boil. It shifts well and at the right time, the ratios are well-matched to the revvy engine.

Sadly, there are no paddles to shift the gears the way you might like. The manual mode on the automatic is dire - there's a rocker switch on the side of the shifter you're expected to operate with your thumb and it's just not worth the trouble. Having previously driven the manual Barina, we can point you in its direction and tell you with confidence you'll have more fun.

When trundling around town, it could be any other Barina (but better), despite its firmer suspension and big wheels. The extra torque from the turbo is worth upgrading to just for the extra flexibility and low-down shove.

There are a couple of little dramas – there appears to be next to no insulation in the roof, so when the rain falls it sounds like the entire cast of Chicago is tapping away on the sheetmetal.

Verdict

There's no denying the Barina RS is excellent value, with a high spec-level and that low starting price. It has more power than most of its closest competitors, rides well and you can forgive some of its lower-rent plastics and finish deficiencies.

What's great about the Barina RS is that it confidently bridges the gap to those competitors. Its starting point is nothing more than competent, so to catch up to the still-excellent Swift Sport is no small achievement. It's still at the back of that pack, but there isn't the huge gulf that you might expect. It's a great little car that drives well, swallows four adults and won't break the bank.

Pricing Guides

$9,990
Based on 104 cars listed for sale in the last 6 months
Lowest Price
$6,990
Highest Price
$14,490

Range and Specs

VehicleSpecsPrice*
CD 1.6L, ULP, 6 SP AUTO $7,999 – 12,990 2014 Holden Barina 2014 CD Pricing and Specs
CD Trio 1.6L, ULP, 6 SP AUTO $9,990 – 9,999 2014 Holden Barina 2014 CD Trio Pricing and Specs
CDX 1.6L, ULP, 6 SP AUTO $9,990 – 13,990 2014 Holden Barina 2014 CDX Pricing and Specs
RS 1.4L, PULP, 6 SP AUTO $8,995 – 14,490 2014 Holden Barina 2014 RS Pricing and Specs
Peter Anderson
Contributing journalist

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