Holden Corporate Communications, as is customary, held an end-of-year media event that killed several birds with one stone: firstly, they had a media launch for the Colorado 7 you can read all about here. That evening we stayed in sumptuous accomodation in the RACV Country Club at Healesville.
Holden MD Mike Devereux was able to see what he called the 'monkey bird' aka a family of young Kookaburras feeding off fresh worms on the lawn adjoining the golf course. The club is surrounded by pristine untouched bush with Ghost Gums, Celery Top Pine, Stringy Barks, Red River Gums and Wattle and kangaro grass and it's one of the most beautiful parts of the country, let alone Victoria.
These events are fun: everyone lets their hair down and once we are all sated by a sumptuous repast and the 'truth serum' kicks in, stories are related, auto industry myths created or dispelled, home truths are told. Everything is off the record, but there are some real howlers and a few little gems to store away in whatever little grey cells are still online at that time of night.
Next day, we got to drive three new variants of existing models. Amongst them, was probably the biggest, totally unexpected surprise; and a topic of conversation at lunch that day. Incidently, Two Beans and a Farm Cafe at Carome Homestead in Mernda is a great place for lunch. Holden Corporate Affairs staff seem to revel in finding these out-of-the-way gourmet treasures. I always come back a little more 'horizontally challenged' from an overnight drive event.
It was none other than the Barina Spark automatic. And it was fair to say, no-one was expecting it to be anything but a necessary chore to write a few hundred desultory words and file under the 'who cares' section.
Along with the automatic, comes a new 'Sassy Girl' colour (seems wrong to call it a hero colour.....) - Bluebell Blue.
I have been a fan of the little jigger since my original report of the Australian launch. As a low-priced, cheap'n'cheerful runabout that you had to stir along on the gearshift it was fun - reminded me of a 1970s 850cc Mini. At the time, Holden said they wanted to sell an auto for the dexterity-challenged portion of the population, but the only available option was matched to a 1000cc motor and that was of too-marginal a performance level.
I thought automatic Spark - big deal, they're going to squash the fun out of it, dumbing it down with a 4-speed slushbox. IMO, if you can't drive the manual version of a car like this you shouldn't be on the road, razza-frazzin', frazzzin'...........
When I were a lad, we had t'change red hot spark plugs by hand, push start t'car off our knees and sook all t'oil out of the sump wi' straw. You try and tell the young people of today, they just don't believe you!
The new automagic shifter. 2 things I want to point out: 1) that is Holden Small Car Product Manager Emma Pinwill's handbag, not mine 2) Emma was the one Mac'in' on the lollies, not me....
When I climbed aboard with Emma Pinwill, Holden's Small Car Portfolio manager, I wasn't expecting brilliant things. I was quite amazed to discover that the car not only moved off smartly, but it kept a fair head of steam up at all times with space between the accelerator and the floor. Only on a long, long climb did it get a bit breathless at about 80km/h and drop down out of overdrive. Bear in mind - it's a city gadabout, and we were using it at the edge of the postage stamp of it's design envelope, on the open road in the ranges.
Along with the auto comes a new speedometer display which makes not that much difference, but looks OK.
Everyone was probably expecting without thinking this new auto to be the same as the old Hydramatics used in 3.8 Commodores - rugged and longlived, but clunky, sloppy and slurry. Instead, it changes so gently yet without slurring on the torque convertor you can barely pick it. It kicks down smartly, and although it's buzzing at 3,000rpm on the legal limit, the primary drive and intermediate ratios are so well chosen it doesn't fall in a hole at any time.
But the story doesn't end there. Not only the slushbox is new. The engine in the auto has grown 43cc, which is always handy: but it's also gained more than half a point compression ratio and more importantly, variable vave timing.
These three factors, minor in themselves, help transform open road performance from wheezy to willing. There's an extra 4 Kw power and 7 nm of torque on tap, but the torque peak is 20% lower in the powerband @ 4200rpm and you can feel it. The manual does get some new bits including a hydraulic clutch in lieu of the former cable setup for more consistent feel.
You wouldn't maybe choose to drive the Spark interstate - but it could do it without being too much of a penalty.
The other good news is, at the open road speed limit it's stable, bumps don't deflect it much and it's quietness and smoothness and general NVH is more than acceptable. Even the seats are comfortable for a wideboy like me. And you can get reasonable size people in and a lot of gear with seats folded.
I would go so far to say - call Guinness, hand the Devil his icepick and sealskin mittens - I never thought I'd say this, I prefer the auto to the manual, at least unless and until we get this revised motor in that car.
And the cute looks definitely grow on you.