If not for Kiwis, the cheapest Holden-badged car would quite probably be out of business.
New Zealand has become the last bastion for the South Korea-sourced Spark city car.
Even so, it’s a tenuous hold on life: The sales rate here for the wee five-door hatch is so modest that the sole global sourcing point, GM’s Changwong plant, theoretically could knock out our annual count within two days.
Yet good news for the factory’s 2000 workers, who last year feared their factory would be axed as part of a brutal cutback of GM production in South Korea.
Holden NZ says there’s still genuine demand for the car here. So, as long as Kiwis want it, the Koreans can, and will, keep building it.
This became clear as the New Zealand operation unveiled the updated edition, still in three versions, all of which cost marginally more than the originals here since late 2016 yet are still among the country’s cheapest new cars.
Although this the only last place in the world where the compact hatch sells as a Holden, it is not the final right-hand-drive market. The car also continues as a Vauxhall Viva in the United Kingdom.
However, Holden Australia was this region’s key RHD customer. Accordingly, when our neighbour announced intention to cease selling it in April, surely that must have rattled Holden NZ?
Not so, says Ina Economopoulos, Holden NZ’s product market manager. She says the factory also took this hit in its stride and wasted no time assuring that the assembly line would keep rolling.
After all, they had all the parts in hand and, it seems, were all set to go with an update that – conceivably – the Aussies had sorted, funded and signed off on before it decided to u-turn.
“The engineering and development costs were already achieved, they have said they can continue to have it for as long as we want it.”
Holden Australia cited low volumes and the relatively small step up in price to the Barina light hatch and Astra small car as the cause of Spark’s demise across the Tasman.
That condition does not exist here, Ms Economopoulos said. In NZ, there is much clearer pricing separation between Spark and Astra in particular.
“Their pricing model was different to ours. I can understand why they decided to do what they did, but we are in a different situation. The car still has importance here.”
Changwong’s 2000 employees are doubtless grateful. GM’s production from South Korea is in perilous state and several plants were closed down last year.
Spark is the only car to come out of Changwong, the smallest of the three remaining production points, and it otherwise assembles two domestic market commercial vehicles.
The plant’s output has been diminishing. It built 150,000 vehicles last year against 250,000 four years earlier. Spark production has dropped commensurately, from 80,000 units per annum in 2014 to 50,000 last year. Korean national media reported in March it was knocking out 60 vehicles an hour, about one third the line’s optimal capability.
What happens to Spark in the long term is anyone’s guess, but this update suggests it has at least another two years of life left.
How will it sell going forward? Holden NZ dopes not share such forecasts, but says a strategy promoting Spark as a perfect first car, particularly for young females, has so far worked well here.
It seems likely to soon announce another incentive programme to follow up from the ‘Add Fuel And Go’ pitch that ran for the car from October to December of 2016 and pulled in significant business.
However, the brand recognises that even though Spark has sold well enough to become the strongest-selling model in the microcar sector, it is not a big hitter in the overall scheme of things.
Recently-released industry data shows the model 299 sales for the first half of this year. Holden here says the tally for all of last year was 726 units.
The two chief rivals are making even less impact, though. The Mitsubishi Mirage and Kia Picanto respectively notched 174 and 178 registrations this year to the end of June.
The updated Spark continues in LS manual and CVT and LT CVT formats, with a fresh grille, new headlights and fancy running lights for the LT (which also has restyled 15-inch alloys), some interior trim specification updates – it debuts an updated MyLink with faster processing and a cleaner layout - and no change to the 1.4-litre drivetrain.
The prices of $17,490 for the LS manual, $18,990 for the same car with a constantly variable transmission and $20,990 for the LT flagship, which is CVT only, represent a $1000 increase on the original’s launch pricing. Of that increase, half goes toward the cost of the improved warranty and three-year servicing plan.
A taster event today saw journalists sample a Spark LT and Holden’s two other core budget small cars, Trax and Astra, from Auckland to an especially fitting lunch location, the Hobbiton film set theme park near Cambridge.
It was a big day out for the Spark. Its 73kW/128Nm 1.4-litre four-cylinder naturally aspirated petrol is the most powerful and largest-capacity choice in this category, and the chassis continues to reflect the benefit of it having enjoyed Holden engineering input in developing the suspension and ride and handling tune. However, the light kilo count and pert size, busy ride and employment of a zizzy transmission remind why it is cast foremost as a city car.
That role still provides promise, particularly if another finance package is tailored in to engage easy buy-in.
Holden NZ will not say if it will again exactly replicate ‘Add Fuel And Go’, a subscription-style finance system co-ordinated with the regular finance provider, Heartland.
The deal provisioned the LS with servicing, warranty, insurance and roadside assistance for a $99 weekly subscription over three years, with a 9.99 percent per annum interest rate. The car could be handed back at the end of the term or a $7000 balloon payment made.
Ms Economopoulos said the programme met with considerable initial success, a factor it put down at the time to Kiwis being highly familiar and comfortable with subscription-based services such as mobile phones and pay TV.
Another Spark attraction is that it pitches a solid five-star ANCAP crash test score that surely plays well with anxious parents who often have a say in the purchase process.