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Car reviews - Holden - Commodore - Berlina sedan

Our Opinion

We like
Clean, contemporary style, interior comfort, safety, dynamics
Room for improvement
Space-saver spare, no split-fold rear seat, V6 could still sound more appealing

7 Aug 2006

GoAuto 03/10/2006

VIEWING the press photos for the first time was perhaps the most disappointing introduction to Holden’s new VE Commodore.

Taken from the front three-quarter view, the pics showed Holden’s billion-dollar Commodore looking as if it could have been simply a rework of the outgoing VZ.

There was little clue to the car’s actual proportions, and the front end looked like more of a segue into something familiar than a virtual change of direction.

In the flesh, the VE is something else altogether.

With its chunky long-bonneted looks, its truncated nose and tail, and its flaring wheel arches it looks purposeful, totally European and, in some situations, smaller than it is.

In reality the VE is a bigger car in all ways than the VZ. Wider, higher, with more wheelbase and broader front and rear tracks. And more weight.

The new dimensions give some clue as to why the VE might look smaller. Although the wheelbase has been taken from 2788mm right out to 2915mm (only 24mm short of the previous Caprice/Statesman), actual body length has grown just 3mm. Thus the short overhangs.

So what you get is a car that is proportionally an altogether different kettle of fish. Comparisons, not unrealistically, have been made with the likes of Audi and, as you’d expect, there’s more than a little Opel in there too. The long-wheelbase Caprice and Statesman look even closer to Audi.

One step up from the base Omega is the long-established Berlina model, which must be one of the longest-standing variants in the Commodore range.

Straddling the space between Omega and Calais, the Berlina is a semi-luxury model that gives buyers a bit more than the basics without going all-out.

Thus you don’t get the Calais’ side airbags, active front seat head restraints or power-adjusted leather seats. And the sound system has seven speakers and 80 watts rather than nine and 150 watts, while there’s a smaller multifunction display screen on the dash and the ignition key lacks the Calais’ flip function.

What you do get over Omega is 17-inch alloy wheels, rear park assist, a six-disc in-dash CD player, climate-control air-conditioning, leather-rim steering wheel, chrome door handles and power height and tilt adjustment for the front seats.

The good news is that all this comes cheaper in VE than in VZ. At $39,990, it is $3,900 below the previous Berlina V6.

That’s the frills.

What we wanted to really know is how the new VE Berlina measures up on the road.

The new car had been driven during the launch programme but we were itching to find out how it performed in a familiar environment.

First, the interior.

Here, apart from the subtlety of the extra-dimensional aspects, the quality Euro look appears to be backed up with a nice, clean presentation. Berlina identifiers are the strip of fake wood across the dash, the odd touch of also-fake aluminium trim, the climate-control air-conditioning and the leather-wrapped steering wheel.

The effect is pretty much what Holden surely intended: A touch of luxury that doesn’t go too far.

The tactility of the controls is in keeping with the Commodore’s upmarket directions. The seats are big and comfortable and there’s plenty of adjustment in the largish steering wheel. Perhaps the only contradiction to the impressions of a quality car is the dashboard strip that is glaringly fake and not all that well attached either.

Otherwise, the Commodore is a comfortable place to be, with all the lounging room we’ve come to expect of Australia’s most familiar family car. There’s certainly room for four or more beefy passengers.

Handy touches are the steering wheel buttons for the radio, and the easier-than-most cruise control on the right-hand stalk. Not too much fumbling, even for a first-time user.

Power window controls remain in the centre console, keeping company with the SAAB-type semi-concealed handbrake on the right and a small slot for containing things like mobile phones on the left.

The Berlina’s trip computer is pretty comprehensive too, containing things like instant fuel consumption, average speed, time to destination and fuel-used readouts, as well as a digital speedometer.

Walk around to the back and you’ll find this Commodore has a big boot, all 496 litres of it. But there’s only a ski-port, not a split-fold rear seat, and the spare is a space-saver, with a full-size wheel optional. At least the hinges are now located in the drainage channels rather than arcing down to damage luggage when the lid is closed.

Wheeling this new Commodore out onto the road, two things are abundantly clear: It’s much quieter, and smoother.

The worked-over four-speed auto might lack a sequential controller as found in the other two Commodore autos, but it’s become a pretty smooth operator over time and squeezes the most out of the 180kW V6.

The VE sees something of a return to the eager step-off of older Commodores like the VN, although the whole thing is much more refined today.

The Berlina V6 feels quick off the mark, and handles kickdowns at speed comfortably with a sound that is a little mellower than the VZ, even if it lacks the lovely growl of the 3.2-litre version used in Alfa Romeo’s 156.

We’re not so sure about the economy though. On test our Berlina returned an average of 12.8l/100km over a varied mix of driving that was weighted slightly more than usual to urban running. Other V6 Commodores on test have done quite a bit better, around 10.5l/100km, so maybe ours was an aberration. We’ll keep you posted on that one.

At cruising speeds the VE is significantly quieter than the VZ, whichever way you look at it. Road noise, wind noise, mechanical noise - all are comfortably muted.

The best is saved until last though.

For a long time the Commodore has been hampered by a nicely absorbent but relatively primitive suspension that has shown deficiencies in the way it steers and handles.

The new car, finally, steers with precision yet remains nicely weighted at the wheel, while the ride seems to have taken a further plush step towards Benz-like absorption and control. Without the strapped-down feel of sportier Commodore variants, the Berlina is a great bump swallower that leans more than you expect on a corner. The thing is, the attitude doesn’t seem to adversely affect the car’s ability to hold its line – which is where the Benz comparison comes in.

Push the Commodore a little too hard on a greasy corner and you’ll get a brief twitch from the back before the electronic stability control kicks in. Hallelujah - no more wide-eyed exits from wet corners.

The Commodore’s composure over all sorts of roads is a wonderful thing, especially as it’s still backed up by the ride quality we’ve become accustomed to over the years.

One comes away enthused after spending time in the VE. While it is far more complex, sophisticated, well-built and well fitted-out, it still remains as friendly and familiar as a family car should be.

As others have proven, a good way to rejuvenate a sagging market segment is to introduce fresh, appealing new product into it. This the VE Commodore does, perhaps better than we expected.

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