Baby steps with compacts’ refreshes

Mid-life updates for two Holden small fry bring improvement but are unlikely to stand as major milestones.


TWO platform-sharing small city-sorted Holdens, two sales graphs, both showing their respective categories achieving nine percent share of the total new vehicle market this year.

So far, so even. But Holden Barina and Trax are hardly travelling in tandem. Quite the contrary; this South Korea-spawned conjoined couple are heading in opposite directions.

Trax is on the up. The small-SUV segment in which this quasi-crossover competes has doubled in market share since 2013, the year of its birth, and the future look rosy, because the market is in love with tall-standing fare of all shapes and sizes, not least the city-sorted compact kind. More growth is assured. The only unknown is how much. So it’s a hot property.

The temperature is cooler with Barina. For the light car segment, a nine percent slice is about two percent down on last year and there’s impression this is a downward trend that doesn’t look set to stop.

Which means the Barina year-to-date count of 904 units is probably going to be greater than the tally for the same period of 2017. Whereas Trax, with 939 sales so far, might well break the tonne in 2017.

Holden’s official message when discussing these models with media, on a day when we got together to experience them in facelifted form, was that, in the here and now, it’s business as before, with both lines being meted equal status and importance. Really, though, it was easy to pick up that there’s more enthusiasm about what’s going on now and into the future for the Trax, which comes on sale in February, than for the Barina, which has arrived now.

Either way, in the greater scheme, they’re both small players in the big game anyway. There’s also impression far more marketing emphasis will occur next year with the kingpin Commodore - seeing out the rear-drive Aussie and ushering in the front- and four-wheel-drive German replacement – establishing the Astra hatch and, with one-tonne utes also being so strong, cementing the solid status Colorado holds as that sector’s No.3 choice, behind Ford Ranger and Toyota Hilux.

There’s not too much to talk about. As mid-life facelifts, they’re pretty much once-over lightly efforts. With platforms and existing powertrains having been carried over (save that Trax hasn’t a 1.8-litre option any more), changes are limited to revisions to styling – relatively intensive for Trax, almost negligible for Barina - and improving equipment to make them look more competitive. Which they probably are, though it’s no surprise that prices have carried over unaltered.

Which would you choose? The disparity in pricing makes that an unlikely question, though if most metal – or space - for your money is the sole impetus, then clearly the sights will focus first on Barina, being physically larger and, at $23,990 LS and $25,990 LT, a lot cheaper than Trax, which in ticking off at $33,990 LS, new-from-now $35,490 LT and $36,990 LTZ formats.

Then again, if you’re looking for some semblance of chic and a chirpier driving attitude, then the smaller offer easily wins the day. In car terms, Barina is a commodity, Trax a character – albeit one that carries something of a premium for a car of its size. I guess that’s the price of popularity.

Barina’s revisions were covered on November 29. Essentially, the sedan has gone and so has the semi-hot RS five-door, so there are two mainstream hatchbacks, both with an 85kW/155Nm (7.2 l/100km) 1.6-litre engine, with different badges than previously – CD and CDX were out of step with latest convention – and, apart from the changes outlined last week (new dash, headlights) the LT has keyless entry and start and, like the entry version, new alloys.

Holden hopes the revised instrumentation will be less controversial than the old car’s motorcycle-like cluster which, a spokesperson acknowledged, was “a bit of a matter of taste.” It is definitely less quirky now, better-provisioned and yet still far from extraordinary to drive.

Trax, despite its vaguely off-roader image, continues in front-drive format only and with a 103kW/200Nm (6.7 l/100km) 1.4-litre turbo, but it looks funkier now.

The more aggressively-styled nose – with individual grilles for each grade - and lightly reworked tail are not so much Holden-ordained revisions as Chevrolet ones; the car got this freshen up as part of its introduction to North America some months ago. However, what’s good for the Americans is certainly going to pass muster with us. It’s a well-timed improvement.

Specification-wise, addition of Apple CarPlay and Android Auto is the biggest range-wide feature change. Trax becomes the fifth model in the Holden portfolio to be equipped with the smartphone connectivity system. It’s a pity Holden’s update didn’t reach to the Chevrolet level, where the car has 4G internet connectivity with the option of acting as a Wi-Fi hotspot.

It also matches Barina in adopting a snazzier interior now though curiously, when it comes to trim materials, cheaper is better. Barina’s fake carbon fibre textures are kitsch, but better than the unrelenting hard grey plastics that Trax remains lumbered with.

Spec improves that now all models have rear parking radar and reversing camera. The LT divests the entry car’s 16-inch alloys for 18s, a size shared with LTZ, and gets keyless entry and start, but you need to buy into the LTZ to access the useful aides blind-spot warning, cross-traffic alert and some visual difference in the form of turn-signal side mirrors and LED tail lights.

The driving experience took in some city and significant country – or at least, open-road – driving that cemented impression from driving the original versions that these cars are okay at 100kmh but feel even better nipping and zipping around urban areas.

As with Barina, the update schedule does not involve any suspension tuning by Holden’s local tuning team based in Melbourne. The brand says the initial work those engineers provided for Barina and Trax still holds good stead now, so there was no need. I’m not so sure that’s entirely correct – at present, Trax drivers get a quieter, more compliant ride but both offers would benefit from more communicative steering and neither feels entirely settled on ripply coarse chip. The 1.4-litre engine is more lively than the 1.6, of course, works more sweetly with the six-speed auto and has a better note, too.

Neither would be as pleasant for a long-distance drive as some of their rivals, however that’s probably not going to be a major consideration. Trax especially tailored as a Dora the Explorer hatchback because Holden feels that’s the look, feel and virtual off-road inability customers are comfortable with. For them, an ‘adventure’ is a run to a countryside café, nothing more.

As things stand, the cheaper car is the poorer option and yet potentially the better buy for those on a budget, while the dearer is the smarter option in every other way and more in tune with market trends, with both still likely to feel a degree of heat when comparisons are made with the models that have long been more dominant in their respective categories.