You speccy thing

A few product-planner tweaks away from greatness

NATHAN PONCHARD

DESPITE feeling like an Australia Post employee for much of the last five months, hammering about town at delivery-boy speeds in my hubcap-free Spark LS, itís been something of a revelation learning to live with one of the cheapest cars on sale in Australia. And thatís because it doesnít feel cheap.

Thereís a grown-up maturity to the Spark that defies its diminutive size, though admittedly itís no Volkswagen Up.

From the expansive feel seated behind its perfectly sized plastic steering wheel to its surprisingly comfortable seats and wellsorted ergonomics, the Spark has been welcomed into our family like a fluffy new puppy. I even like the way it looks, and get defensive if anyone starts to take the mickey, as any doting parent should. But itís time to move on, and Iím looking forward to re-discovering the joys of something with torque.

Off the back of the burbling, boisterous twin-turbo AMG V8 that preceded the Spark, probably the hardest thing to live with has been the all-aluminium 1.4ís absence of bottom-end. And its lack of sporting noise.

Even when driving the C63 S at walking pace, its wonderfully antisocial exhaust rumble was enough to take the stress out of almost any traffic snarl.

The Sparkís encouraging personality and wieldy size has seen my patience disappear faster than my dignity after a skin-full, forcing a conscious effort to not drive the Spark flat out everywhere. This is reflected in its improved fuel consumption and a newfound respect for its tractability (on flat roads, at least). The Spark will pull in any gear from around 1200rpm, which is deeply admirable for a microcar. And yet itís equally as effortless covering ground at 130km/h (where permitting), the tacho settling neatly in its 3500rpm-plus power band.

While this new-gen Spark leaves its repellent Barina Spark predecessor for dead in absolutely everything it does, it isnít quite a straight-A student. GMís Korean cabin plastics continue to be scratch-prone, and after 50,000km of abuse, I reckon the Sparkís door trims, ignition-key surround and boot edges would look pretty shabby.

My hatred of inadequate lever backrest adjustment was compounded by the compromised position I had to accept in the Spark (though at least it has a proper seat-height crank mechanism), and the base LSís eco-biased Continental tyres werenít much chop in the wet. They also lacked the outright grip to properly flatter the Sparkís fine chassis and pointy steering.

I donít understand the anti-democratic decision by Holden to offer 16-inch alloy wheels as an option only on the $19K LT auto, when a manual LS in a funky colour (like the French racing-esque Splash Blue) with grey 16s could look really cool. And the overly shiny wheelcovers clipped to the LSís steel 14s are among the most unfortunate pieces of tat Iíve ever seen. The Spark really does deserve better.

Perhaps a deliberate decision was made to keep the larger (and likely more profitable) Barina relevant, seeing the Spark offers superior seat comfort, an engine that doesnít grumble like an industrial fan, better open-road performance, a more attractive dashboard, and a more sophisticated feel than its ageing sibling.

Unfortunately, the ultimate Spark spec doesnít really exist Ė LS model (so you get hard-wearing, well-stitched cloth seats, not the LTís putrid vinyl), a leather steeringwheel rim (sadly, LT only) and Continental Premium Contact tyres (again, sadly, exclusive to LT) Ė but thereís a chance that planets may align in the future, finally realising the Sparkís true potential as a pint-sized ball of unexpected goodness. er

Summer schooling

Given carte blanche, what would I fix? How about an infinite backrest adjuster dial, more scratch-resistant plastics, a luggage cover that lifts with the tailgate, rear-seat headrests that let the backrests drop with them still attached, a braver colour palette, brighter seat trim, less mushy brake-pedal feel and more engine torque. GMís 1.0-litre turbo-triple would be ideal, but a 1.6-litre version of the Sparkís new-gen engine could work. And how about some special-edition pizazz? Spark Sandpiper anyone?

Needy hatch

The Spark really is all the hatch many people could ever need, which makes it disappointing that few people are buying it. Last year, Holden sold 1760 of them, a minor improvement over the 1450 Barina Sparks it sold in 2015, but well behind that disappointmentís best year (2011: 3755 units). Even Mitsubishiís awful Mirage outsold the Spark in January (158 sales versus 115), while Kiaís Picanto flogged it (324 sales). Perhaps Holden needs to play up the Sparkís sporty demeanour, rather than hiding it under a veil of cheap utility.

HOLDEN SPARK LS

34 44 3 3 0 0 4 3 7 2 WEEK 24 Date acquired: September 2016 Price as tested: $13,990 This month: 1399km @ 6.5L/100km Overall: 3428km @ 7.4L/100km 34 44 URBAN COUNTRY SPORTS FAMILY MOTORWAY