My, how they've grown. Once upon a time, cars like the Holden Barina and Honda Jazz were simply mainstream small cars destined for trips to the supermarket and (let's be honest now) to act as practical hatchbacks to cart the grandchildren around in.
They can still be that, of course. But some want to be a little bit sporty now as well. Just a little.
The brilliant Suzuki Swift Sport has had the market to itself for a long time, but no more: enter the Barina RS and Jazz RS Mugen. They aim to entertain.
Importantly, they aim to do so for less than $30,000. The Barina RS looks like a bit of a bargain at $26,490, with a step up to $29,500 for the Jazz RS Mugen. However, you can buy a non-Mugen Jazz RS for $27,000.
The Barina RS is familiar fare. But to recap: it might not look a whole lot different to standard Barina models, but under the bonnet it has a more powerful 1.4-litre turbo engine, teamed up with sports suspension. Yes, there is some sporting garnish: special bumpers and a very subtle body kit, chunky alloy wheels and unique interior trim elements, including a flat-bottomed steering wheel.
The Mugen does indeed look a whole lot different to the rest of the Jazz range - even the RS model on which it's based. It wears a special grille (no Honda badge in sight),
bumpers, body kit and intricate alloy wheels from the Mugen parts bin in Japan. What it doesn't have is a whole lot of mechanical differentiation. The 1.5-litre engine is unchanged. The Jazz RS already rides on sports suspension and the Mugen version keeps the same setup. You can option-in a Mugen exhaust system, but Honda makes no claim of increased power.
Holden's Barina RS is brilliant as a city car with some extra pep between the traffic lights, and leather upholstery gives it a luxury feel.
On the surface, it looks like one's all go and the other all show. But it's not quite that simple. The Barina RS boasts healthy power and torque increases over the standard model - it's up 18kW/45Nm to 103kW/200Nm. But the Jazz produces some impressive numbers for a naturally aspirated machine, with 97kW/155Nm.
Make no mistake, their makers want you to have fun in these machines. The evidence: both can be specified with six-speed manual transmissions. So that's what we did for our test cars.
Fair warning: neither of these cars are what you'd call fast. They're certainly not hot hatches. Mildly heated perhaps. But still quick enough to be interesting.
The Barina RS certainly delivers its performance in a non-threatening manner. The turbo engine is strong low-down and delivers its power in a surprisingly linear fashion. You certainly don't feel like you have to thrash this car all the time to enjoy it: the Barina RS is brilliant as a city car with extra squirt between the traffic lights, yet it has enough performance to really be enjoyed on a back roads blast.
The best feature of Honda's Jazz RS Mugen has to be the interior layout, which can be configured four ways.
The Mugen requires a lot more commitment. The engine is lethargic low-down and doesn't really come alive until 4000rpm. The Honda engine not only has less peak torque than the Holden's, it's produced way up at 6600rpm (compared with just 1850rpm for the Barina RS). That's the bad news if you have a manual Mugen and you drive around town a lot.
The good news is that this little engine loves to be revved right to 7000rpm: it's noisy under load but also feels satisfyingly stroppy. It's certainly strong.
In some respects, the Mugen feels more like a turbo car than the turbocharged Barina RS. There's a pleasingly precise feel to the gearshift as well.
Similar character traits show through in the cars' handling. The Barina RS has a compliant chassis that strikes a good balance between a comfortable urban ride and competent open-road cornering capability.
The Jazz has stiff suspension that's a touch too firm for comfort in town. The Honda's chassis isn't as progressive and predictable as the Holden's either, but it is more fun. In fact, it's quite adjustable in tight corners: more throttle and the nose runs wide, less and the attitude suddenly changes to a hint of lift-off oversteer. Possibly not to be trifled with at high speed or in the wet, but certainly a positive in terms of enthusiast credentials.
Inside, the Barina aims to add a bit of class with leather upholstery, special RS flat-bottomed steering wheel and the excellent MyLink touch-screen infotainment system. It's nicely executed but seems sadly conventional compared with the Mugen, which has an Android-based infotainment system and an expanse of gloss-black on the centre console that houses touch-controls for the air conditioning.
Know what? For our money, the Barina still does it better. The instrumentation is clear and the switchgear really simple. In some respects it seems like Honda is trying just a bit too hard with the Jazz, whose cabin looks outwardly impressive - layered instruments, bright lights everywhere - but it just doesn't work as well as the Barina's.
The Jazz lacks the Barina's leather upholstery, but it has other surprise-and-delight features such as keyless entry and start - with a nice big red button.
Urban drivers will also appreciate the City Brake Assist system, which mitigates nose-to-tail collision damage by automatically braking the car at up to 30km/h.
Both cars have satellite navigation, although the Barina's is driven through your own smartphone - so you'll have to spend a little extra for the BringGo application to get the system working.
There's no contest between these two when it comes to interior space and practicality. The Barina is packaged like a conventional supermini: no more, no less. The Jazz has long been famous for its physics-defying interior versatility and this new model is no different.
Honda claims Jazz has more interior space than a Mercedes-Benz S-class. But its truly unique selling proposition is still Magic Seat, the clever folding mechanism that allows you to instantly convert the car into any of four modes: Utility (like a tiny van), Long (where the front passenger seats folds flat), Tall (giving maximum floor-to-cabin space in front of the rear seat back) and Refresh (basically, two beds).
The bottom line
If this were a test of two superminis for the people, the Barina RS would win. It's the quickest, most comfortable, easiest to drive and least expensive. It's a brilliant everyday car.
But on the basis that we're looking for a supermini that can also pique the interest of an enthusiast, this one has to go Honda's way. The Mugen might look silly to some, but it has the compact dimensions to pull off the wild body addenda - at least if you don't take life too seriously. It has an energetic engine, slick gearshift and engaging chassis.
Victory to the Jazz RS Mugen, then. But fair warning: as the driver you'll have to work hard for your spoils.