The iconic RS badge might be the pinnacle of performance for Audi and Ford, but Holden has stuck it on a warmed-up version of its budget-priced Barina hatch.
Powered by a 1.4-litre turbo four-cylinder petrol engine, the Barina RS is among the growing number of "warm hatches", or as someone else put it this week, "tepid hatches". Purists might scoff at the use of the RS name but, as we would discover, the effort hasn’t gone completely to waste.
Explore the 2014 Holden Barina Range
With a super-sharp price of $20,990 plus on-road costs (plus Holden’s $550 gouge for metallic paint, the dearest of the mass-market brands) for a six-speed manual, the Barina RS at least starts on a strong footing.
The six-speed automatic version costs $23,190 plus on-roads. And remember, these prices are for five-door hatches, not the three-doors of most rivals.
The Barina RS undercuts most competitors by a significant margin, even if it doesn’t quite have the performance to match the true hot hatches such as the three-door-only $25,990 Ford Fiesta ST and the $29,990 Peugeot 208 GTI.
The Barina RS gains Holden’s new MyLink system which means the audio and phone are controlled via a touchscreen. It also has built-in app so you can use Tune-In radio more easily, and Bring-Go, a navigation app which works ok but costs about $90 to download the maps.
Most importantly, Holden has fitted a better quality sound system. It won’t make the mirrors vibrate but it’s a lot better than the two speaker transistor radio Holden originally fitted to the Barina.
Its sleek appearance is deceiving. The Barina is one of the roomiest cars in its class, with plenty of space for heads, shoulders, knees and toes front and rear. The cargo area is sizeable, too. Best of all are the dozen or so cubbies to store stuff.
Some of the materials are hard to the touch and look cheap but Holden has added some soft padding to a couple of places. The “piano black” highlights and partial leather seats (with RS stitching) also spruce things up a bit. The steering wheel is a bit special on a car this cheap.
There is a 12V power socket as well as a USB port, but an extra USB port would be welcome if you’re going to live the dream portrayed in the ads and have giggly tech-connected friends in the car.
Six airbags, a five-star safety rating, strong brakes and really really really good road-holding from the 17-inch European Continental tyres, especially in the wet (see "driving").
It didn’t not rain the entire time we were behind the wheel of the Barina RS on the outskirts of Melbourne, winding our way to Holden’s proving ground at Lang Lang, about 100km south east of the Victorian capital.
Buy you know what? Holden couldn’t have prayed for better conditions. The handling and grip of the baby Barina RS are superb, even when conditions are not.
The suspension has been lowered a little and the springs and dampers are a little more taut, but they’re not unbearable. The suspension work was led by the Barina RS team based in Korea, where the car is made, but Holden had input to the electric power steering to suit local roads.
The only thing naff about it is the up and down switch on the automatic transmission in manual mode. It’s clumsy to operate and doesn’t always work when you want it to.
The 1.4-litre turbo engine won’t pin your ears back (even though it is the most powerful Barina ever) but there’s enough urge to notice you’re driving something a little out of the ordinary. It has a pleasing engine and exhaust, note, too.
Holden still predicts that women will account for most buyers of the Barina RS, but if there was one to suit macho types, this is as close as it’s going to get.