When Holden announced a performance version of its Barina was in the pipeline, hot-hatch purists might well have raised an eyebrow; built in Korea, and known in most parts of the world as the Chevrolet Aveo, the current Barina seems an unlikely source car for sporting desire.
But, before one dismisses the idea of a Barina RS too lightly, it pays to take a look at the re-engineering that underpins this particular design: a zesty 103kW/200Nm 1.4litre turbo engine under the bonnet, a choice of six-speed manual or six-speed automatic transmissions, all-round disc brakes, lowered suspension, sport-tuned dampers, and changes to the steering calibration aimed at improving responsiveness and driver engagement.
There are the obligatory visual enhancements, too: neat five-spoke 17-inch alloy wheels, low-profile 205/50 tyres and an admirably restrained dressup body kit; leather-and-suede trimmed (and heated) front sports seats, alloy pedals, and that RS badge embroidered into the seats and floor mats, as well as featuring at the base of the leather-rimmed steering wheel.
Entry to the Barina RS world comes at a sharp $26,490 for the manual, with the auto $1500 more.
This pricing pitches the little Holden against the Suzuki Swift Sport, with the ultimate baby hot hatches that outpump the Barina in the power stakes (think Ford Fiesta ST, Peugeot 208 GTI and VW Polo GTI) being far more expensive, too.
Taking delivery of an automatic Barina RS for appraisal, first impressions were of a styling job well done, especially when viewed from front and forward three-quarter angles. The cabin gets a handy lift too, with sporting touches that are effective without going over the top.
Cruise control and reversing sensors are standard, and the centre-mounted MyLink touchscreen provided easy access to audio systems and, for those with bandwidth to burn, the smartphone-activated BringGo navigation system, Pandora internet radio, and Stitcher podcasts.
The front seats are comfortable and supportive, but the driving position is rendered a touch odd by the brake and accelerator pedals being mounted higher than is the norm, and the absence of a driver's footrest.
Mustering 20% more power and 30% more torque than a standard Barina, the RS possesses a pleasing accelerative urge. The engine spins out to the red line quickly in the lower gears and fades towards the red line, but in third and fourth there is a strong midrange, and in fifth and sixth a lingering, long-legged punch.
The automatic is generally smooth when left to its own devices, which is just as well, since driver-controlled gear changes can only be made via a fiddly thumb-activated button on the side of the gear knob.
The move to a sportier suspension and lower, fatter tyres, results in enhanced dynamic balance, with flatter cornering, superior grip, and a fair resistance to early understeer.
Combine this with the recalibrated steering and the Barina RS, while not endlessly engaging, is a decently entertaining drive. Ride quality holds up well given the sports setup, but road rumble is a constant companion, especially so on coarse-chipped surfaces.
This gripe aside, the Barina RS impressed far more than expected on test. While no hot-hatch class leader, it is keenly priced, smartly styled and delivers a surprising amount of fun for a vehicle of such humble origins.
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