Holden Barina XC

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Keywords: Holden Barina XC
Description: After Holden launched the Barina as a re-badged version of the basic Suzuki Swift runabout, the badge was then applied to the Spanish-built Opel Corsa. Although this European Barina evolved into

After Holden launched the Barina as a re-badged version of the basic Suzuki Swift runabout, the badge was then applied to the Spanish-built Opel Corsa.

Although this European Barina evolved into an award-winning class leader, its high European cost base forced Holden to replace it with today’s Korean model. Joe Kenwright looks at one of the first baby cars that could do a bigger car’s job

The industry often talks of how the first front-drive Mazda 323/Ford Laser in the early 1980s marked the point where Australians could buy a small car that could comfortably travel interstate. This Mazda 323/Ford Laser series offered a powerful yet frugal 1.5-litre engine; an engine size that 15 years earlier was the norm for a medium-sized family car like the Ford Cortina or Toyota Corona. The first European Barina would do the same again for the Light car buyer in April 1994.

The advance of the 323/Laser/Corolla/Gemini/Pulsar/Lancer class opened a gap for several tiddlers (officially classified as Light cars) to fill the gap that these small cars once occupied. This Light car market niche soon grew to include the Suzuki Swift/Holden Barina, Mazda 121/Ford Festiva, Nissan Micra, Toyota Starlet and Daihatsu Charade.

When Holden moved its popular Barina nameplate from the Japanese Suzuki Swift to GM’s own Spanish Opel Corsa in 1994, engine choices expanded to include 1.2, 1.4 and 1.6-litres instead of the single 1.3-litre Suzuki unit. The 1.2 was soon dropped and the 1.4 became the base engine. The Barina GSi performance model later grew into the SRi sharing the Astra’s 1.8.

Despite its tiny size, the arrival of this European Barina promised hard-charging autobahn performance for the first time in a light car when it needed to perform this role in Europe. Compared to the previous Suzuki-based Barina, the cute European body was shorter, wider and higher. The wheelbase was longer and the front and rear tracks were wider.

In other words, it was a much more stable footprint with most of its bodywork packaged inside the wheelbase with very little overhang. It offered a choice of three or five door hatch within the same length. Ride was firm with crisp handling and for such a light car, it felt like it was glued to the road. The body was tight and rattle-free despite its 835kg and offered reasonable aerodynamics.

Because I was keen to see if this Barina had brought the capabilities of the Mazda 323/Laser class into the size and price class below it, Holden gave me one of the first Barina 1.4 five doors to complete an extended 1300km trip over a long weekend. It was a good test of the new model when most of the trip was on narrow rural roads with choppy bitumen.

Although this early 1.4 series had only 44kW, it did the trip easily and never put a foot wrong. In fact, that particular car felt so good that a fellow writer bought it after Holden had finished with it. I have since purchased a later 1998 model for an office runabout.

The first Barina series was launched as a 1.2 City three-door with 33kW, not enough for air-conditioning so it wasn’t offered along with power steering. The Barina Joy 1.4 three-door was better equipped including standard power steering and optional air-conditioning but it was more expensive. The Swing five-door 1.4 was equipped between the City and Joy with a similar pricetag to the Joy. The sporty GSi with its twin-cam 1.6 and 80kW is now quite exclusive when so few sold at its premium price.

Following its launch, this first SB series was constantly improved. Unlike most small European cars, the Barina was steadily adapted to local conditions because of Holden’s purchasing power and solid local engineering base. Because the Europeans didn’t associate air-conditioning with this size, Holden developed its own installation which was not as effective in early examples as it could have been as it seemed to take a long time to deliver cool air.

The front seats which were quite firm had very aggressive lumbar support. These early seats either fitted you or they didn’t as they didn’t offer enough give to accommodate different shapes. Before you buy, you need to check that you can actually find a comfortable seating position.

Just as the SB became more refined and affordable, it was replaced after a successful seven year model life with the outstanding XC series in March 2001. This model, which was a major advance over the first SB, set a new benchmark for this size and class, promptly winning a Wheels Car of the Year award. Australian input had further improved the car for world markets, not just here.

There were traces of the original exterior and interior styling themes but it was all new as well as bigger, stronger, safer and heavier. Some exciting new plastics and cloth patterns were introduced inside and the seats were more accommodating than the previous model.

The 1.4 engine standard across the board was also upgraded to a twin-cam design that delivered 66kW, just as well when weight had grown to 970kg. The SRi 1.8 followed in September 2001.

The XC’s growth in size will be of interest to buyers who feel today’s small cars have become too big. The XC Barina’s 3816mm length, 1642mm width, 1443mm height, 2491mm wheelbase on a 1430mm/1421mm front/rear track make for a telling comparison with the first front drive Toyota Corolla hatchback of 1985-86. This benchmark new Corolla was 3970mm long, 1635mm wide, 1385mm high, with a 2430mm wheelbase and a 1425mm/1405mm front/rear track. Its 1.6-litre engine delivered 57.2kW/125Nm versus 66kW/120Nm from the Barina’s smaller 1.4-litres.

The XC Barina marked a clear point where the European baby car class including the current Ford Fiesta overtook the Japanese 323/Laser/Corolla/Pulsar/Lancer class of the mid-80s in almost every important measurement as well as meeting new safety and fuel economy expectations!

The XC Barina arrived with a rear centre lap seat belt and was awarded Wheels Car of the Year on the basis that this would be upgraded to a lap-sash belt. Although this was announced in December 2001, this didn’t really appear widely until well into 2002 as 2001 stocks were cleared.

The model went from strength as Holden was constantly forced to re-align its price with extra features to compete with the $12,990/ $13,990 budget specials. Although the XC Barina could easily justify a $3000 price premium over Korean and Japanese rivals, buyers in this segment were driven mainly by price.

Not everyone appreciated the Barina’s extra quality and size that were a significant step above Japanese and Korean rivals. It was also more than a match for its home market equivalents like the Peugeot 206, Renault Clio and VW Polo with a saving of at least $2000 or more.

As 2005 stocks backed up in dealers around the country, Holden had to quickly re-badge the Daewoo Kalos as the Barina and fire it into the $12,990 price war. Its recent success has proven that it was the right decision but discerning buyers will miss the European Barina as the reduced safety levels, smaller packaging and refinement differences become more obvious over time.

As long as the market focuses on the pricing and style of the new one, the top shelf approach of the European Barina will be overlooked and priced against its Korean replacement. If you admired one from a distance, take a closer look for what could be a bargain buy.

It’s only a matter of time before the market sees it as a more substantial $20,000 car going too cheaply when it was more of a direct rival to the Ford Fiesta than its $12,990 cheap and cheerful Korean replacement.

Apr 1994: Launched as SB series with City 1.2 and Joy 1.4 three-door hatchbacks, Swing 1.4 five-door hatchback and GSi 1.6 three-door sports model. Stripper City 1.2 33kW model not available with air-cond, power steering or auto.

Apr 1996: New City 1.4 three-door offers auto, power steering and air-con options with bigger Joy/Swing 44kW engine. Base City 1.2 continues.

Aug 1997: Base City 1.2 dropped. Powerful new C14SE 60kW 1.4 engine fitted to City and Swing as standard. Suspension, bumpers and trim improved.

Feb 2001: SB series ends. Second Olympic Edition clearance pack from July 2000-Feb 2001 with three or five-door includes alloy wheels.

Apr 2001: All new XC Barina three and five-door hatchbacks launched with 66kW twin-cam Ecotec 1.4, all-wheel disc brakes, 14-inch wheels, major safety upgrade. City and Swing model names dropped.

Jan 2003: New model grades include SXi three-door and CD five-door with upgraded equipment including 15-inch alloy wheels and electric front windows over previous XC Barina levels which continue. SRi upgrade includes 16-inch alloys.

  • Early exterior plastics faded from dark grey to milky colour especially wheelarch extensions. Mismatches can suggest repairs. Re-colouring kits are available from auto accessory shops and are quite effective if used according to instructions.
  • Early base models came without side protection strips as fitted to upper levels leaving body vulnerable to parking lot damage. There are companies that can fit these cheaply. Later XC series was better protected and Holden made sure that XC’s next generation of plastics was UV-proof.
  • Barina wheelcovers can be expensive to replace which makes them a hot theft item and explains why so many have non-standard items fitted. Wheel offset makes them vulnerable to kerb damage. Allow up to $70 each for genuine replacements.
  • Front and rear light assemblies are also expensive. Look for cracks and crazing or sub-standard non-genuine replacements.
  • Barina wiper blades must be replaced with genuine or equivalent standard to avoid shudder and scratches.
  • Bumpers can sustain hefty knocks without visible damage but can be concealing buckled sections underneath.
  • Check all underbody sections. Front spoiler extension is vulnerable to scrapes and not cheap to replace.
  • Some early metallic colours will have faded on bonnet and roof. Striking clear over base finish needs regular coat of good quality polish as recommended for this finish to preserve shine and colour if left outside.
  • Some cabin plastics including door pulls vulnerable to scratches and can be very untidy if abused.
  • Light interior colours may need full steam clean.
  • Make sure parcel shelf is there and not broken. Check liftback struts.
  • Bonnet release can stretch and break.
  • Back of folding rear seats and top of rear bumper can be marked and damaged.
  • Most Barinas are detuned to run on basic unleaded fuel, but will often run better on Premium unleaded.
  • Rear mufflers rot out on short runs.
  • Specified cam belt change important. Water pump and thermostat should be checked at same time as access is expensive if replaced separately.
  • Engine is reliable and long-lived without the electronics complications of Astra and Vectra however light block and head construction and efficient radiator leave no margin for coolant neglect. Walk away from cars that haven’t had specified coolant flush and replacement.
  • Barina engines normally run at the lower end of the temperature gauge but watch out for examples where the gauge doesn’t rise within a minute or two of start-up. This usually indicates a failed thermostat which is fiddly to replace and may already have damaged the engine. European thermostats are a routine five year replacement item or risk engine failure.
  • Check all belts and hoses as early cars approach 12 years old.
  • Battery size is critical to Barina so be careful if the wrong size has been fitted and important fittings discarded.
  • Check CV joints and boots. Thrashed or crashed examples may have noisy final drive which is expensive to fix.
  • Rear wheel bearings, caps and seals are routine service items on SB series when they are disturbed at every brake check.
  • Examples without specified brake fluid changes can be dripping wet with leaking fluid in the rear drums which can also take out the rear brake shoes and wheel bearings.
  • Lightweight and finely-tuned suspension settings benefit from quality tyres when rumble and wobbles from sub-standard tyres will be felt or heard more readily.
  • Front discs may be due for replacement.
  • Check that thermoelectric fan clicks in when it is supposed to.
  • Early air-conditioning was marginal when new so any deterioration will be noticed. Check operation carefully.



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