Car Reviews

2018 Holden Commdore VXR Review

Robert Pepper’s 2018 Holden Commodore VXR Review with pricing, specs, performance, ride and handling, safety, verdict and score.

In a nutshell: A practical, safe and modern medium-large hatchback with more sporting capability than you’d expect from its looks.

2018 Holden Commodore VXR

Price $55,990+ORC Warranty seven years, unlimited kilometres Safety 5 star ANCAP, 2018 Engine 3.6-litre V6 petrol Power 235kW at 6800rpm Torque 381Nm at 5200rpm Transmission nine-speed adaptive automatic Drive adaptive all-wheel drive with torque-vectoring Twinster rear drive Dimensions 4897mm (L) 1404mm (H) 1455mm (W) 1863mm excl mirrors Boot Space 490/1450L rear seats up/down Turning circle 11.14m Spare none Tare weight 1737kg Fuel 91 RON Fuel Tank 61L Thirst 9.3L/100km combined cycle Towing 750kg unbraked 2100kg braked

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THE CAR you see pictured above is named Commodore, but for many it will never be a Commodore. It’s too small, not rear-wheel-drive, and doesn’t look like a Commodore. But I’m going to leave that debate behind and just focus on what the car is, not what people think it should be.

What is the Holden Commodore VXR

This particular Commodore is the VXR, the most expensive Commodore in the ZB model lineup at $55,000 plus onroads, and the sportiest. It is a liftback so kind of like an extended hatchback, seats five, tows 2100kg, uses 9.6 L/100 on the combined cycle and looks rather nondescript. 

Power is delivered from a 3.6-litre V6 petrol engine through a 9-speed automatic, and an all-wheel-drive system so clever I’ve devoted a special technical article to it alone. Those features are shared with other high-end Commodores such as the Calais-V, but unique to the VXR are adaptive dampers, the tyre package, brakes and VXR sports tune. And in some good news, all Commodores now have a 7-year unlimited kilometre warranty.

What’s the interior like?

The VXR seats are a highlight, yes they’re faux sports seats but comfortable, very adjustable and both front ones have three-setting memories with both heating and cooling. The cabin is well laid out and looks decently modern if not particularly upmarket, with coordinated colours and a feeling it was all indeed designed by one team.

The boot is large, and a strong point is that the second row seatbacks are actually a 40:20:40 split, each able to fold down individually.  There’s two USB ports up front, and another in the rear. The infotainment unit is by 2018 standards, average. It’s easy to use, well laid out and responsive but our usual rural-road sat-nav test proved it is nowhere near as good as relying on Google Maps, and the unit has no interestingly special features beyond the music, nav, phone usuals. It will do Android Auto and Apple CarPlay, as is normal these days.  Bluetooth integration is quick and easy, and there’s even a handy inductive charger for your phone.  

It’s good that the physical temperate controls are simple, easy to use dials and not silly touchscreen controls, but to direct air to most different places you need to rely on the touchscreen. A nice little touch is capless refuelling, and it’s good the car only demands 91 RON.

On the negative side are the silly location of the front drinks holders which obscure the heating and cooling controls, lack of pockets on the back of the front seats, somewhat limited rear headroom for those over six-foot-tall, and the side door pockets on all four seats could be a bit more spacious.  

Overall, there are no deal-breakers on the inside, a few things to like but nothing that is likely to make the car a must-buy with the possible exception of the boot and second row flexibility.

What’s it like on the road?

It’s an easy drive around town, as there’s lots of power at slow speeds, and the all-wheel-drive system is fantastic so it’s a much more zippity-nimble car than you may think. No worries about wheelspin off the line on wet roads or around roundabouts.

The suspension is very good indeed, able to soak up speedbumps yet be firm enough for sportiness thanks to the adaptive dampers. The electric steering is light and precise, albeit not as full of feedback as a pure sportscar. The engine note is pleasantly purposeful without making the mistake of big-dog growl out of a small-dog engine. There is a 360 degree camera, and reversing sensors both front and rear, so parking is easy and the automatic parallel park is both effective and easy to use.

I could very well get used to a VXR as my daily driver and as a tool for errands, much more fun than the equivalent journey in say a Camry. About the only criticism is the autonomous emergency braking system is easily confused at roundabouts and prone to flashing warnings it doesn’t need to.  

Out onto the freeway and the VXR continues to impress. Thanks to the nine-speed auto the 100km/h cruise sees the revs at around 1500, but that’s hardly different to a six-speed Commodore. There’s little wind noise and the adaptive cruise control works reasonably well, although it a is little slow to react sometimes. The lane keeping function is calibrated nicely, not too intrusive yet there if needed. There doesn’t seem to be much point to 8th gear as it’s very close to both 7th and 9th. At what point do we say there’s too many gear ratios?

Now we come to the interesting part which is what the VXR is like as a sportscar. To answer that question, you and I need to come to an agreement on what a sportscar is. Seeing as this is a one way conversation, I’ll just have to do that by myself and say it’s a car that makes you want to take the long, windy road home for no reason other than the pure pleasure of the drive.   

Now if your idea of a sportscar is one with which you can burn away from the lights, leaving a bit of rubber behind so people can see your car’s backside emblazoned with the alleged output in kilowatts of the engine, while they listen to the sound of your people…well, you’re not going to enjoy this car at all and you’d best get back to framing your signed 05 Commodore photograph.

Yes, that V6 whine is there but it’s not a roar, and nor should it be. The VXR is very quick off a standing start thanks to its all-wheel-drive, but would be swiftly overtaken by many other cars once you’re towards the end of first gear, and you don’t surf forwards on a wave of torque, it’s all about quick shifting through nine gears. There’s a decent enough bit of urge, but it’s adequate rather than impressive.

Off into the corners then and at a medium pace the VXR is typical of a modern-day sports saloon – frankly, rather boring because it does exactly what it’s told with minimal effort and the whole point of a sportscar is challenge and reward. You turn, brake and accelerate as you wish, with the car following your commands to the letter, instantly. Personally, I like to work for my pace, be that having to drive around a bit of understeer, be careful tipping the car in and out of corners while playing with weight shift, and especially being able to lean on the power pedal out of bends to help rotate the car. You don’t get to do any of that in the VXR as at a fast cruise, it’s all done for you so it’s relaxing, safe speed but not exciting.  

But if you do want exciting then the VXR can in fact deliver. It just needs to be driven a bit harder, and this is where I was rather surprised. I was expecting the car to give up, start to understeer, electronics to kick in, brakes to fade, and start to develop the sort of traits it is no fun to play with. That didn’t happen.  

Instead, the VXR just got better and better. The brake feel is brilliant, you can get right to the edge and feel the point of lockup. The gearbox goes into what I call beast mode where it holds excitingly low gears and changes as quick as a scalded cat. The steering is direct, not the best at feedback, yet more than up to the task of directing your journey at speed. But the best bit is the cornering.

The VXR is an incredible direction-changing machine, mostly but not entirely thanks to its torque vectoring rear drive. You can abuse the car – come into a corner, jump off the brakes and then turn in which would be the classic way to induce terminal understeer. In the VXR, you just go around the corner as planned. On the other hand, if you take a corner correctly – which would be reducing the braking force as you turn in (trailbraking) – then you go around the corner at speeds which don’t so much surprise than shock. The VXR would, I feel, handily see off a Subaru Liberty 3.6R and WRX, both of which are renowned for mid-corner grip. It’s an amazing point-to-point country car too, as the adaptive suspension handles pretty much anything even on 20″ wheels, the all-wheel-drive is so effective, and it’s comfortable.  At the end of the drive one of the Porsche drivers mentioned the “good but bumpy roads”…well, they weren’t bumpy in the VXR!

Really the only criticism is manual control of the gearbox which is possible, but as it’s a 9-speed you need to punch down 2 or 3 gears on some corner entries and it doesn’t always let you do that effectively, or maybe I didn’t spend enough time getting the technique right. I wouldn’t mind a switch to force the gearbox into beast mode without needing to drive like you’re trying to qualify it on pole.

So the VXR is impressively fast and competent, but that’s not the same as fun. There’s not a lot of work the driver has to do in the VXR to travel at light-speed, no real skill to be master so you get the reward of achievement, not a lot of driver-induced adjustability just for fun’s sake at sensible speeds. I’d love to see if on a racetrack at its actual limit there’s that true driver-control playability you can’t reach on public roads. Not to mention I personally am much taken with the idea of a car that’s quick but doesn’t look it, and as icing on the cake is fighting against a weight of prejudice. 

But you can’t have everything in a car, especially not for $56,000. If you want driver-centric fun at public road speeds then you can find it with dedicated sports machines like the MX-5 and 86. And for raw, animalistic power and noise you can get that with the fast Audis, Mercedes and BMWs. But the VXR is far more practical than any coupes, and much cheaper than the Germans. Everything is a balance, and the VXR occupies its own niche, if only anyone cares to look.

What about safety?

The VXR does well for safety, starting with the as-expected 5-star ANCAP; a 2018 score of 35.54 out of 38. There’s an effective AEB (autonomous emergency braking) system, a heads-up display that offers useful information such as navigation and speed, effective lane departure warning and blind-spot warning. The 360-degree camera, front and rear reversing sensors are handy, and the reversing camera is workable but not as good or feature-rich as the best in the class, a little down on quality and lacking things like a zoom function.

Overall, the VXR does very well for safety and the only negative is the complete lack of a spare tyre, something you’d want for long-distance rural touring.  The other Commodores have a space-saver spare, but that won’t fit over the big Brembo brake calipers of the VXR.

One solution, if you were desperate, would be to find another space-saver spare. However, you can’t use a spare from another ZB as the VXR runs a 120mm PCD stud pattern, whereas the other ZBs are 115mm. Happily, the older VF Commodores run also 120mm PCD so perhaps one of those wheels may fit – you’d need to check that as we weren’t able to, not just size but offset and the usual wheel specifications.  To complicate matters the VXR also has big brake calipers on the front, so if you had a flat on the front, you’d maybe have to swap a rear tyre to the front and use the space-saver on the rear.  A pain, but better than nothing. 

So, what do we think?

Comparing the new Commodore to the old is like comparing a weightlifter to a gymnast. The new car is smaller, more agile, and full of tech. It can’t bench press half a tonne and doesn’t look, or sound like it would start a fight. It’s a different vehicle, just with the same name…and the thing is, different doesn’t mean worse or better.

At the end of a review I like to take the car for a drive, just me and the vehicle for a couple of hours, around and around my test loop where I try all the different modes and features. Often I form new opinions, or existing half-formed thoughts become whole. In the case of the VXR, it took this quality car time to realise just how effective a machine it is, probably when I mentally thought “wow” when what should have been understeer was just neutral steer.   

Every car on the market should be the answer to a need, and in the case of the VXR the potential buyer is clear. That would be someone who wants, or perhaps is forced by circumstance to buy a practical, largish hatchback that ticks all the safety boxes, brings a little bit of interest to boring errands, and can handle the occasional bit of hardcore driving. Oh, and that buyer may well like flying under the radar too, and probably wouldn’t measure their car enjoyment in bursts of acceleration from 0 to 80km/h. 

Read more: Holden VXR Technical Details Explained


Robert Pepper

Robert Pepper

Robert Pepper is a motoring journalist, offroad driver trainer and photographer interested in anything with wings, sails or wheels. He is the author of four books on offroading, and owns a modified Ford Ranger PX which he uses for offroad touring. His other car is a Toyota 86 which exists purely to drive in circles on racetracks, and that's when he isn't racing his Nissan Pulsar. Visit his website: www.l2sfbc.com or follow him on Facebook https://www.facebook.com/RobertPepperJourno/ or buy his new ebook!