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Barina SRi

What a brilliant car!

By Julian Edgar, pics by Julian Edgar and Holden

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This article was first published in 2002. The Barina was a brilliant car - and is even now better at today's used prices.
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Despite popular opinion, an assessment of the quality of a car doesn't happen on just a metaphorical drive around the block. Nor even a literal one. (Although by the same token, condemning a car with an appalling engine and lousy ride and handling doesn't always take very long.) But some cars take a while for their advantages to grow clear.

Take the Barina SRi, for example.

Yep, it's the neatly styled, small Holden sourced from Opel in Europe. Hmm, room is good - in the front and the back - and the equipment level is also pretty decent for a sporty budget leader.

Read the press release, hmmm - electronic throttle control!

What?! In a $21,590 car?!

Ya de ya de yaaaah, 39 percent more power than the base models, in fact 92kW when fed premium - in just an 1147kg body?!

What's this? It's fully galvanised?!

It's got traction control?

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It's got a clean air filter for the ventilation system?

It's got a CAN bus for on-board intercommunications?

The engine management uses cylinder-selective knock control?

The more that you look into - and drive - the Barina SRi, the more you're impressed. In fact, we've ended up so taken with the machine that we'd go w-a-y out on a limb to suggest that this is probably the best new car for the money that we've ever driven. Period.

A big statement?

Yep, it sure is.

But the Barina - SRi model at least - is so far ahead of the budget shitboxes that it's literally in another class. Yes it costs more as well, but we'd seriously place this car in the company of cars costing thirty grand and more.

And one of the aspects that we like so much about it is the non-marketing way in which the money has been spent. This is the brand leader - but it still has (low geared) manual windows, it still has manual rear vision mirrors. But we'd trade these any day for the sophisticated and effective cruise control, a quite brilliant traction control system, and handling prowess that on a tight, bumpy road can literally show the way home to cars costing, two, three and even four times the asking price.

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Look, all is not perfect. The exhaust has a booming resonance that intrudes above 3500 rpm, the electric power assisted steering (yes, electric power assist!) gives feel around centre that is always less than perfect, and the C-pillar creates a major blindspot during lane changes. But for the money, this is one fantastic little car. In fact, if you know of someone who is contemplating their first car - and is leaning towards something in the $16-$18,000 bracket - take them by the ear and insist that they spend a little more.

It's worth it....

The SRi's 1.8-litre engine develops 90kW at 6000 rpm (and that extra 2kW when on the optional premium brew). Unlike the paltry 66kW engine used in the other Barinas, the SRi's is a long-stroke design - but it never feels it. Instead, with the mixture of electronic throttle control and a really good torque curve, the 1.8 is as happy lugging up hills in fifth gear at 2000 rpm as it is spinning right through to the 6500 rpm redline.

It's the epitome of a modern, relatively refined and tractable engine that will not punish the novice driver, while at the same time allowing the experienced to revel in its abilities. The torque max (160Nm) might be at a highish 4600 rpm, but on the road this is no peaky engine. Helped by its relatively low gearing (33 km/h per 1000 rpm in fifth) this car picks up its heels and sprints off in any gear.

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Straightline performance stopwatches at around nine seconds flat for the 0-100 km/h sprint; that's a time that means the Barina can keep up in the cut and thrust of traffic light grands prix - even against the traditional rep-special category killer six-cylinder Falcons and Commodores. And despite its straightline power, the SRi also has the potential to get excellent fuel economy. We say 'potential' because in our hard drive we achieved a figure of only 8.6 litres/100; we'd say that the 7.8 litres/100 km AS2877 government City test figure would be much closer to everyday driving. And the Highway figure in the same test? It's a ballistic 5.4 litres/100, incredibly, just as good as the much less powerful 1.4-litre models.

The five-speed manual gearbox can be a little notchy and baulky when cold, but when the fluids are warm it snicks from gear to gear with élan. Reverse is locked out by a lift-up collar, so again it's ideal for the novice driver.

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The ride of the SRi is sporty-hatch firm: at slow speeds on indifferent surfaces you might even call it very firm. However, it smooths out noticeably at speed and on normally-good bitumen is quite acceptable. But this is definitely a car where the engineers have not aimed at giving it just a sporty ride; this is a car where very good handling was a definite design criterion and then if the ride suffers a bit, so what?

And so what's the handling like? Riding on 185/55 Michelins wrapped around 15 x 6 alloys, the Barina inclines towards understeer - but only at very high cornering levels. On power the typical front-wheel drive push is curtailed by the traction control system, which is brilliantly tuned and carries out its technique with subtlety and progressiveness. It is, for example, an infinitely better system than you'll find in full-size HSV products costing all the way up to just shy of $100,000...

The rear end of the Barina stays planted, the front-end lateral on-power grip is controlled by the traction control - and the end result is that the driver is left just with the task of aiming. Point-to-point over twisting country roads, the SRi can be immensely quick, while that reassuring stability and grip also makes this a very safe car - one where it would be really hard to get into an unwanted off-road excursion.

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One of the curiosities of the design is that despite the high level of technology that's used in so many parts of the car, on paper the suspension is fairly basic. At the front MacPherson struts are used, while rearwards is a torsion beam (ie only kinda independent) rear axle and progressive springs. No matter; it works very well indeed.

For a budget car, the brakes are wonderfully sophisticated. Not only are there four-wheel discs, but there's also a four-channel Bosch 5.3 ABS control system preventing lock-ups.

Put together the excellent traction control and brakes, the willing and conscientious engine, and the great grip and suspension control, and you have a car that in this price category, is simply on-road exceptional.

But all of that isn't much good if the body is lousy. But the Barina has this area sewn-up very well. Its body design is really very good - from its aerodynamics through to safety and interior room and practicality.

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While local Holdens have dropped the ball in their aerodynamic development, the imported Barina has had lavish attention paid to this area which is so critical in reducing open-road fuel use and improving stability. A drag coefficient of just 0.32 is the result - an exceptional figure for a small car, where getting a low Cd is so difficult. Aero touches include spoiler lips integrated into the rear vertical lights, specific A-pillar and trailing-edge-of-bonnet design, and underbody airflow direction and control.

(And with 92kW, a low Cd and a small frontal area, what'll she do at the top end, Mister? Dunno, but we'd imagine that in the Northern Territory the SRi would wind up to a scintillating top speed.)

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Safety is looked after by the use of two standard airbags - and the careful design of the body. Over 40 per cent of the structure is made from high- and extra-high strength steels (that compares with 2 per cent in the previous model!), with upper, lower and central load-bearing paths utilised to dissipate energy in a front-end collision.

Tailor-welded blanks (where the thickness of the body panels varies to provide more meat where greater strength is needed) are used in the construction of the Barina, and a hydroformed steering crossmember and chassis subframe are fitted. These body construction techniques are cutting edge, and are astounding in such a budget car.

Active safety systems include the twin airbags; head restraints that automatically move forward in a tail-end collision so reducing whiplash injury; and a pedal release system that in an accident disengages the pedals from their anchorages, providing better protection for the driver's feet and lower legs. The front seat belts use pyrotechnic pre-tensioners (taking the slack out of the belt in an accident) and all three of the rear seatbelts are lap-sash.

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Inside the cabin you'll find comfortable and supportive seats, with the fronts able to be height-adjusted around a front pivot point. The ugly steering wheel is not adjustable, but the driving position is still fine. Despite being only a two-door, getting into the backseat is straightforward - even for adults. The front seatbacks pivot forward a long way, and though the seats don't slide forward at the same time, the long doors still give a good opening access. Once into the back seat, it's time for a surprise - there is a heap of room in all directions. It's possible for a 1.8-metre person to sit directly behind another 1.8-metre tall occupant - something that in the real world of small cars is a very difficult accomplishment.

Under the wide-opening hatch the load area initially looks rather small - but we found to our amazement that it was possible to lay flat a full-size suitcase, without even moving the seatbacks. The rear seatbacks fold forward on the now traditional 60:40 split, but they don't lie completely flat and their rear surface is just painted metal - which would be easy to scratch. The hatch has its own pushbutton, which is unlocked (along with the left-hand door) with a second push of the key remote.

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Unfortunately, the (icy-cold) air-conditioning is not standard - instead you'll have to pay another $1880 for it. That's a pity - for that takes the price up to $23,470 plus ORC - which isn't nearly as good as that base $21,590. Still, as we keep on saying, we've driven plenty of cars far more expensive than either of these figures which don't come close to the little Barina.

Yes, as you must have gathered by now, we were very impressed with the Barina SRi. It's a car that very clearly shows the technological, body design and on-road advances being made in small cars. It will suit a range of drivers - from the beginner who will be thankful for the car's practicality and ease with which it can be driven, right through to the performance hot-hatch nut who loves peeling through corners at twice the advisory speed limits.

And any car that can put this level of technology and on-road brilliance into the market at a price like this can only be a good thing...

Holden Barina SRi Fast Facts...
  • Excellent on-road dynamics
  • Well equipped and well built
  • Good room and body design
  • Exhaust resonance and rear three quarters blindspot
  • One of the best small cars we've ever driven

The Barina SRi was supplied for this test by Holden Ltd.

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