Many are picking that the new VF Holden Commodore will be the last true-blue Australian-designed and built saloon. David Thomson gets behind the wheel of the SV6 version to see what it offers.
Here it is at last: the car which, depending on how you look it, is likely to be either the saviour or swansong of a home-grown Australian car industry.
That's right, Holden's new VF Commodore has made it to Dunedin for appraisal. Fittingly, given its status as the top seller of the Commodore line, it's the $55,490 SV6 version that is the subject of this test.
The Holden team has worked cleverly to a fairly tight budget with the VF, which goes most of the way in explaining why it is, in essence, a substantial revision of the old VE model rather than an all-new machine. To this end, it sits on a modified version of the VE platform, uses the same door and roof panels, and carries over the same three engines.
Exterior changes centre on a new nose and tail. Not everyone likes the blunter, more aggressive (and, surprisingly, more aerodynamic) look, but I am a fan. This is especially so on the SV6 where 18-inch alloys, LED running lights, low-key spoilers and chrome highlighting provide pleasing panache.
Considerable attention has been lavished on the cabin, where the quality of trim materials takes a big step up. Soft-touch surfaces are to the fore in the SV6, there is a clever blend of leather and suede finishes on the seats, a well-judged use of chrome highlighting and carbon fibre-style detailing, and back-lighting that makes the cabin fair sparkle with class at night.
Taking all of this in from the driver's seat, there is little to fault about the sweep of the dashboard either, or the look, feel or positioning of key instruments and controls. The seating position, largely power-adjustable now, is comfortable and supportive. Through the simple expedient of being smaller than that of the VE SV6, the VF's leather-rimmed steering wheel looks and feels a whole lot sportier too.
Holden has pushed hard to give the SV6 an equipment specification that will appeal strongly and give clear points of difference in the marketplace. To this end, a self-parking system that finds parallel parks and then manoeuvres the car into them is included as a standard feature; it worked well on test, neatly positioning the car a couple of centimetres out from the kerb with such precision that the possibility of scuffed alloy was temporarily purged from my mind.
The chances of being accidentally hit when backing out of a driveway or an angle park are reduced too, due to a warning system that alerts the driver to unseen cars coming down the road. Add a rear reversing camera, blind-spot monitoring in the door mirrors, front parking sensors and cruise control, the list of new features that ease the driver's burden is a long one.
In-car entertainment is enhanced, with internet radio capability and a capacity to show DVDs on the eight-inch centre display touchscreen, added to Bluetooth audio streaming and phone connectivity. That display, which is the control centre for the My Link multimedia interface, is used for the satellite navigation map display as well as the reversing camera. An electronic park brake, a boot that opens fully on the remote, and a facility to start the car using the key fob while outside it are further features.
The engine, which comes to life at the push of the fob button or more conventional turn of the key, is a mildly revised version of the 3.6-litre V6 that featured under the bonnet of the VE-series SV6. Peak outputs of 210kW of power and 350Nm of torque are unchanged, but the engine and gearbox have both been tweaked to improve fuel efficiency.
Economy is of particular importance since rising petrol prices are one of the prime reasons that sales of Commodore and its now doomed archrival, the Ford Falcon, have plummeted in recent years.
With this in mind, engine changes have been accompanied by weight-reduction measures that include an aluminium bonnet and boot lid, along with a greater use of the same alloy in the car's suspension. Add in the improved drag coefficient, a new electric power steering system plus improvements to the car's six-speed automatic transmission, and the result is a reduction in standard-cycle fuel burn from 9.5 to 9.0 litres per 100 kilometres.
The engine and transmission changes that enhance economy cost the SV6 nothing in performance terms, though the muted growl of the motor under full throttle and the smooth shifting of the transmission mean that the SV6's considerable acceleration is unleashed in a deceptively low-key way.
Meanwhile, weight reduction brings dynamic as well as economy gains, extending to both improved ride and handling. Bookend these gains against sports suspension tuning and steering which deliver greater weight, accuracy and feel, and the result is a big step forward in handling prowess and driver engagement.
Turn-in is noticeably sharper than before and body roll is better contained. The latest SV6 soaks up the bumps nicely too, even when they are encountered mid-bend and are of sufficient magnitude to send many cars off their line.
Longer medium-to-fast bends provide an opportunity for the SV6 to showcase its excellent balance, and for the keen driver to revel in its ability to handle mid-corner adjustments of line (whether sought via the throttle or, more conventionally, via the steering).
This pleasing level of dynamic fluidity is supported by firmly oriented but still absorbent ride.
Aural refinement is fine too, with engine noise in particular better contained than before. The test car had minor issues with wind roar around the rear doors, but that such a matter should warrant mention here is evidence of just how far the Commodore has come.
What we have now, in latest VF guise, is a car that competes on equal terms with the best large saloons from Japan, and stacks up well against what mainstream Europe offers as well.
What may well be the last Commodore as we know it is also, by a long shot, the best.
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