Is the new Holden a dinky-di Commodore? You might be surprised by the answer…
The ‘Australianised’ ZB Holden Commodore that’s melting the Internet was very nearly built here… but would that have made its reception any different?
HOLDEN HAS MADE much of the fact that even though the new Commodore is essentially a European design, lots of Australianisation has taken place to bring it into line with the expectations of Aussie car-buyers. And if things had taken a different tack politically, it might even have been completely Australian, and built right here.
David Johnson is Holden’s lead development engineer for the Commodore project, and told us that the process goes right back to the days before the Opel platform was even confirmed as the ZB Commodore. “At the end of 2010, a number of focus groups were started,” he told Practical Motoring. “A variety of platforms were under consideration, but by 2011, this (the Opel) platform had been chosen.”
And it wasn’t just availability that made the Opel chassis a goer; according to David, at that stage the car was actually being considered for Australian production. “Had things panned out differently (had Holden not shut the door on local manufacturing) this car could have been built in Adelaide.”
As it turned out, of course, the ZB Commodore is built in Germany, but Holden has still gone to extensive lengths to make the car work Down Under. One of the biggest shifts has been to a car with narrower dimensions. The front seat passengers now sit a few centimetres closer together at the shoulder, and there’s about 12mm less headroom in the rear seat, although it’s still more than adequate.
Probably the biggest engineering project was to re-engineer the platform to accept the 3.6-litre V6 engine which seems like a natural fitment to us. But consider that no other market that uses this platform does so with a V6 engine installation (although the concept has since been picked up for the North American Buick version) so out came the tape-measures and the slide-rules to make that happen.
The chassis tune was one area that was always going to come in for major revision to suit local conditions, starting with Holden engineers heading to Europe as a first step to tailor the spring and damper settings in the Opel’s own backyard. The steering calibration was also revised as part of the that process. “The steering feel (of the Euro-spec car) was great at 160km/h on an autobahn, but to us it felt a bit heavy and needed a shove to get it off-centre,” David says.
Eventually the Australian team returned home and waited for a prototype to test locally. Which is when it was decided that more work was needed to get the thing spot on. The V6 engine, in particular, was giving the team headaches, mainly because it wasn’t producing the performance and output numbers it should have been.
“We just weren’t getting the expected numbers and the European engineers were telling us that `they’re making the numbers on the dyno’. Which would be fine if our customers were buying dynos. In the end, we deleted the underfloor catalytic converter (which the US market needed to pass emissions, but we did not) which reduced back-pressure. And it was a win in three ways: We saved dollars, got a better noise from the exhaust and suddenly found the power we were looking for.”
David says GM’s accountants almost robbed the new Commodore of its front-suspension HyPer Strut (on some models) which aims to minimise torque-steer and enhance stability on mid-corner bumps. “There was pressure on us to get rid of the HyPer Strut front end for cost reasons, but we stuck to our guns and managed to keep it. We also re-did the active noise cancellation calibration back in Australia.”
But one area that wasn’t fiddled with was the new Commodore’s styling. Holden’s styling guru, Richard Ferlazzo confirmed that even if the new Commodore’s look hadn’t been locked in in Europe it “Wouldn’t have looked much different if we had done it (the styling) ourselves”.
But there are other small touches that let you know the locals were looking after their customers in the transition from a left-hand-drive European car to a right-hand-drive Australian one. Things like the PRNDL legend being moved to the side of the centre console where the driver can see it and the indicator stalk moving to the right side of the steering column. The AM and digital radio systems also came in for revision to make them a better fit with local signal profiles. The Euro-spec tow-bar was also a fail (it didn’t meet Australian Design Rules) so that was completely re-engineered, too. The only thing we reckon they missed is the convex exterior mirror which stays on the driver’s side when it’s of more use on the passenger’s side.
But what about the reality? Talk is cheap, but have the Holden tweaks done the job and turned a Euro design into a proper Holden (as they have done since the VB Commodore of 1978)? Well, we managed to drive a European-spec Opel Insignia back-to-back with its Commodore opposite number at the national launch, and the differences are pretty stark in some areas.
Even though the changes to the power-steering involve no hardware and are nothing more than software calibration changes, the effect is marked. Where the Euro-spec car feels doughy and soft in its responses, the Aussie-spec car is immediately up on its toes and looking for corners before you’re even out of the car-park.
In fact, the revised steering feels very much like the old VF Commodore in the way it responds and feeds back through the tiller, and that’s a great compliment to the new car because the VF Commodore was a world-beater in this respect. There’s also a greater desire for the steering to self-centre and while there’s a bit more weight to things, that translates to a more natural feel, for our money.
On the suspension front, the higher average-speed expectations of Europe were countered by the general roughness of our roads, so the Holden re-jig involved leaving the springs as they were, but adding extra bump and rebound to the damper settings. But instead of making for a harsh ride, the changes have given the Commodore a huge appetite for mid-corner bumps. In fact where the Euro-spec car will hit a big mid-corner lump and start to oscillate (we’re talking by degrees here) the local suspension tune simply swallows the lump before letting the car settle immediately without more than a small secondary movement.
To those who dismiss the new Commodore for its lack of Australian input, there’s one important thing to remember. Firstly, had local production continued in this country, Holden still would have needed a new Commodore. And chances are it would have been this car. And even though it still would have been front-drive and lacking a V8 option, we reckon building it here locally would have made it a much less obvious target for the haters. The world has changed and even the by-crikey Commodore had to change with it. The move to a fully-imported product was, in a way, a coincidence.