So, big cars are on the nose, are they? Well, if the stats showing a big slide in large-car volumes are anything to go by, they must be.
This review was originally published in MOTOR’s December 2006 issue
And while it’s tempting to blame the price of petrol, there’s another factor in this shift away from five seats, six litres and 1.8 tonnes. Basically, small cars have never been so damn good.
The even better news is that small performance cars have really come of age, too. Strap into a Golf GTI, Focus XR5, or HSV VXR (the tricked-up Astra) and you’ll see what we mean. And that’s before we even get to gadgets like the WRX and Evo IX. Yep, you sure as hell don’t have to drive a full-size Aussie sedan to get around quickly on a budget these days.
Look at last month’s Bang For Your Bucks spiel, and it seems that even really small cars have also acquired some serious attitude. VW’s Polo GTI and Mitsubishi’s Colt Ralliart are two of the toughest littlies you’d ever want to pick for a traffic-light GP, and they’re great little cars by any standards.
But it pays to remember that they weren’t the first of the hot-micros. There’s the Frenchies, Renault Sport Clio and Peugeot 206 GTi, and, many years before either of those, the iconic Peugeot 205 GTi was forcing us to search for superlatives.
However, there’s a stove-hot little `un that was released a few years back that has kind of slipped under the radar. Why that should be is anybody’s guess, but if you’re shopping for a cheap hot-hatch, you’d have to do the smart thing and short-list the Holden Barina SRi.
Why? Mainly because the SRi version of the littlest Holden was an absolute pearler – a tight handler in a compact-but-sensible hatchback body that just happened to have an engine about two sizes too big for it. And we all know what that means, don’t we… Yep, fun. In big doses.
Released here along with the rest of the new XC Barina line-up in 2001, the SRi was instantly on the money. When you took a good look at what it offered and what it could do, it soon became obvious that the thing was the work of Europe, rather than Japan. That’s important because it was the Euros who invented the hot-hatch and they’re still the ones doing it best (although the Mazda3 MPS would probably beg to differ).
There’s no doubt that the XC Barina certainly looked more European than it did Japanese (or anything else), too. The front is more or less corporate Opel (scaled down to match the car’s overall proportions), but the rear really makes a statement with those high, integrated tail-lights. Makes it easy to spot in traffic, too, which was probably the idea all along.
I suppose the only catch with all this is that the SRi doesn’t actually look that racy. Despite the Irmscher spoiler and side skirts, it’s a bit too understated for some, though that might mean it’s less likely to attract the attention of you-know-who.
Its interior is a bit more of the same. Forget about bright red carpets or carbonfibre dash trims – the Barina SRi is more about good-quality plastics and decent fit and finish. The leather wheel is corporate GM and, while the seats are comfy enough, there’s only height adjustment for the steering column.
You wouldn’t be buying the bugger for its rear-seat space, but it remains that things are pretty compact back there, even though the SRi is roomier than most of its three-door rivals. Access isn’t exactly brilliant, either, but then who cares about that stuff anyway? Not us. Not when there’s a great big engine in a tiny little car.
The SRi ditches the mainstream Barina’s weeny little 1.4 with its 66 rippling kilowatts and in goes a 92kW 1.8-litre unit pinched from big-brother Astra.
We’ve said it before, but while there remains nothing inherently clever about the big-engine-small-car formula, it’s a devastatingly effective way to build a performance car. The SRi is no exception. Even more telling than the kW count is the torque that maxes out at 165Nm – more than enough to give the lightweight Barina a pumped kind of feel.
Even pootling about the ’burbs where you’re only using part-throttle and relying on punch rather than revs, the SRi feels gym fit and more than up for it. It’s best to use all that torque, too, because the engine gets a bit boomy at big revs.
Ratios in the five-speed manual (no auto for the SRi ... thankfully) are on the money and only a slightly dead (and too-light) clutch action spoils any of the fun. Well, that and a slightly stilted gearshift action that’s at its worst on the one-two shift, where it can feel a bit clunky and slow. The Barina wouldn’t be the first European hatch to suffer from that, but it makes you realise that the Japanese do some things better than everyone else.
Get really serious and you’ll discover that, while the SRi will never challenge an SS Commodore over the standing quarter, there’s enough urge for it to be utterly convincing, and more than a match for plenty of wannabes at the traffic lights.
The other thing you’ll soon work out for yourself is that the engine never threatens to overpower the chassis. True, the front-drive platform will eventually wash out wide if you shove it into a turn too hot, but it’s progressive and never threatens to scare you. On the other hand, if you get your entry speed right, it’s amazing how much corner speed you can carry, using the engine’s torque to slingshot you out the other side and bound for glory.
In the final wash-up, the Barina SRi isn’t what you’d call a truly balls-out performance car, but it’s quick enough to be entertaining. And yet it still retains the compact size (great for parking in spots nobody else can fit into) and hatchback versatility that made the Euro-built Barina such a good thing in its own right.
Things to watch out for these days mainly revolve around the previous owner. Because it was a bit more expensive than the more proletariat models in the Barina line-up, the SRi thankfully didn’t attract the sort of people who buy brand-new small hatches instead of conventional second-hand cars, plaster them with ‘Bad Girl’ stickers and forget to ever service them.
But that’s not to say there aren’t neglected ones out there. A bigger worry is the possibility that the previous owner has redlined the engine in every gear for the life of the car.
It’s got a couple of quirks that are worth keeping an eye on; it’s quite sensitive to the quality of oil it receives, and if you’re cheap, you’ll pay with a noisy top end.
As well, front-end geometry is easy to knock askew, and the Michelin tyres are homologated for a reason; like, it’s easy to upset the sweet balance that Holden has imbued the car with.
Beyond that, you want to know that the engine hasn’t had its radiator filled with tap water instead of the coolant that alloy-head engines like the Barina’s require to avoid turning to molten scrap a couple of years down the road.
Find the right one and not only will you potentially bag a bargain, you’ll also be driving a car that is a worthy competitor dynamically to the very latest stuff, including the Polo GTI and anything else sub-$30K that Europe or Japan can throw up.
For those who miss the good old days on Classic MOTOR
We Said It
“Quite stiffly sprung and fairly neutral for a front-drive car, with a little bit of understeer on turn-in. Would prefer to have been able to get the tail out a tiny bit, but a good little package. Goes quite well – fairly linear in its delivery, pulls well all the way. Gearbox and brakes are fine.”
– Rick Bates, October 2003 (BFYB)
2001 Holden Barina SRi
BODY: 3-door hatchback
ENGINE: 1796cc DOHC, 16-valve, in-line four
POWER: 92kW @ 6000rpm
TORQUE: 165Nm @ 4600rpm
TRANSMISSION: 5-speed manual
SUSPENSION: MacPherson struts, lower A-arms, anti-roll bar (f), torsion beam, trailing arms, coil springs, anti-roll bar (r)
BRAKES: ventilated discs (f), solid discs (r), ABS
WHEELS: 15 x 6.0-inch alloy (f & r)
TYRES: Michelin Energy XH1 185/55R15 82H
FUEL: 91/95 octane, 44-litre tank
PRICE: $20,990 (Sept '01)