Holden VF Commodore First Drive
The new Holden VF Commodore is far and away the best of the breed. But even with hefty price cuts across the range and lots more standard features, it probably won’t reverse the downward sales trend, says Paul Murrell.
Holden is bullish about prospects for the new VF Commodore, and in another time and place, their confidence would not be misplaced. But Australians have proven time and again that they are not buying large cars. Large SUVs, sure, but not traditional large sedans and wagons. Still, claims from Holden that the new Commodore will “reignite the passion” and “highlight our place on the world stage” are well supported by what is unquestionably the best car ever built in Australia.
Every model gets self-parking technology, rear camera, remote start, front and rear sensors, MyLink and an 8-inch colour touch screen that responds to voice commands. The SV6 and SS models add blind spot alert and reverse traffic alert and the Calais and Redline models get lane departure warning, Bose sound system, colour heads-up display and forward collision alert. Then the boffins at Holden took out a sharp pencil and cut prices by up to $10,000.
The Berlina and Omega nameplates have been dropped in favour of a new model called the Evoke – apparently Holden has owned the name for some years and Range Rover had to ask permission to use it (with French rather than English-type spelling) on their mega-trendy little SUV. The Holden VF Commodore looks like the traditional mid-life tweak that Holden models have always undergone. But the VE has been on our roads now for seven years, and the new VF uses 60% new chassis components and redesigned front and rear bodywork. The brief across the board was to reduce mass, improve refinement and add technology.
The new technology includes a number of features Holden’s designers are very proud of. The self-parking is a first for a large car. As with all these systems, the driver is still responsible for controlling the accelerator and brake. The system can park the car parallel to the kerb or at a 90-degree angle (rear-end in). Until you become familiar with the system and confident in its ability, it can be a painfully complicated process.
Ninety-degree parking requires you to pass the space at 70-150cm and this means the car has to take two bites at reversing into the space. If you are looking for a space to the right, you need to drive along with the indicator flashing – sure to infuriate impatient drivers in car parks. When parallel parking, we managed to end up at an angle to the kerb and further out than we’d like… as we said, getting it right will take practice. But it must work because in Europe it seems almost everyone relies on it.
Safety has also been addressed and this is the safest Commodore ever. It meets ANCAP’s tougher requirements for five stars that now include pedestrian safety and tougher whiplash standards. Daytime running lights are standard on all but the Evoke entry model. The VF underwent more than 25,000 simulated crashes and the 48 prototypes (worth $350,000 each) were put through 70 actual crash tests at Holden’s Lang Lang testing ground and GM’s Milford testing ground in the US.
Acknowledging that 70% of baby seats are wrongly fitted, the new Holden now employs the far superior Isofix system. Even when baby seats and capsules are correctly fitted and the seat belts cinched up as tightly as humanly possible, the amount of movement of a baby seat and its valuable cargo we witnessed in super slow motion footage of a side impact should be enough to convince any parent of the value of Isofix.
Holden claims the new VF is “a class above” and it’s hard to argue. Above Evoke models, it is certainly a worthy competitor for the BMW 5 Series, Audi A6, Infiniti and Lexus. Whether it can steal sales away from them remains to be seen; the snob value of the badge is a powerful motivator. However, the quality of the interior trim and attention to detail is better than any Holden that has come before. Materials look and feel expensive, although grubby fingers pushing the stop/start button (which is obscured by the spokes of the steering wheel) may leave the suede-like material looking dirty and worn within a few months.
The entry level Evoke at $34,990 is a full $5000 less than the previous cheapest Commodore and, according to Holden, comes with $2000 worth of added features. The Evoke’s suspension setting is the softest in the VF range, but it handles most conditions with supreme aplomb, aided by the quicker damper rebound. The electric power steering works better than most of its ilk. It feels lighter and quicker to respond, especially just off-centre and this actually makes the car feel smaller than it really is.
The best-selling SV6 has had its priced trimmed by $6800 compared with the model it replaces and comes with $3500 worth of additional kit. Sportswagons are an additional $2000 and on upper models miss out on the Bose sound system (no room for the sub-woofer!) The SS (basically an SV6 with a V8) has come down $5800 and the SS-V drops $9800. The SS-V Redline drops $6300 and adds an extra $5500 worth of kit. The Calais now costs $39,990 and comes standard with the 3.6 SIDI V6 ($8300 less than its predecessor), Calais V drops $9000, long wheelbase Caprice is $54,490 and the impressive Caprice V is $59,990. There’s also an LPG engined-version of the six-cylinder available across Evoke, SV6 and Sportwagon models.
So the VF has undergone a substantial rework, but there was no budget for a major upgrade of engines. The direct injection 3.0-litre V6 arrived midway through the VE lifeline but despite better fuel economy, lack of low-down torque always hindered its appeal. For the VF, power actually drops 5kW but this is offset by a recalibrated automatic gearbox and weight reduction of 43kg. It feels slow off the mark, but after that, comes on song nicely. Sport mode holds gears longer and makes earlier downshifts. It works well.
PRACTICAL MOTORING SAYS
The big question remains: can this very competent, good value car bring buyers back to a category they have been deserting in droves? On a purely rational level, the VF Commodore should be hugely successful. But car buyers are rarely rational, and that bodes ill for the best car this country has ever produced.