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Car reviews - Holden - Commodore - Berlina sedan

Launch Story

7 Aug 2006

GET real Australia. We have temperate weather, social freedom, access to a great lifestyle, all the fruits of a multi-cultural society, great arts, and relative safety and security. Now, in the latest Commodore, we also have a vehicle that, while not perfect, offers keen drivers and sensible family types alike, more for their money – all in an arrestingly handsome and dynamically capable package that is undoubtedly world-class, yet made right here. The VE Berlina is but one of a fiercely talented line of big new Holdens. Automotively speaking, this country just got luckier.

We like:
Handsome design, completeness of package, more features for less money, greater model differentiation, world-class dynamics, brilliant rough road capabilities and ride, improved V6, reasonable fuel consumption, V8/six-speed auto’s performance

We don't like:
No folding rear seat, $250 charge for full-sized spare wheel, four-speed auto’s limitations, no optional high-output HFV6, questions about Holden’s ability to maintain quality control, certain ubiquity

IF YOU love drawing or doodling car shapes, chances are you have probably designed a long-nosed, short tailed silhouette for everything from a two-seater soft-top to the next Rolls-Royce.

Of course it would have to have been rear-wheel drive, have 50/50 weight balance, powerful drivetrains and sophisticated suspension for great handling and roadholding – because you love to drive.

Now let’s up the ante a little – what if your fantasy car drawing had to carry your family or friends?

To your shape and drivetrain layout, could you also add world-class safety, space and ergonomics, the latest electronic, entertainment and communication software, a contemporary yet practical cabin, high levels of fit and finish, and a big boot?

Sounds like a car lover’s pipe dream? If you have over $100,000 to spend, this is exactly what today’s BMW 5 Series can give you.

But if you’re a realist, with less than half of that amount to spend on a new car, Holden gets pretty damn close to achieving your fantasy doodle car with its VE Commodore.

If the launch-drive cars are anything to go by, that is. Sure, they were all vehicles that were meticulously prepared for our scrutiny.

However, one thing is abundantly clear.

From the base Omega to the sports-luxury Calais V and SS V V8, the only conclusion the car enthusiast and practical family car buyer alike can arrive at is that the VE Commodore is the peak of mainstream Australian car development (as it should for a $1 billion investment).

After all, this is the result from a design team made up of a high number of Italian/Australians, or Italian car lovers. They’re also into American muscle cars of the 1950s and ‘60s.

Engineers started with a blank sheet of paper to devise and develop drivetrain and suspension systems benchmarked against the old BMW 5 Series, then set out to create a body, chassis and cabin tough enough to cope well beyond the strength, safety and consumer expectation protocols required to market a vehicle on every continent (bar Antarctica) on Earth.

You get the picture. Passionate, talented and focussed folk were responsible for the VE Commodore – a car so different from any of its predecessors that it should have had an equally fresh name.

So you’d think it strange that the new car still drives, feels and smells a little like a Holden, but of one that has spent a long, long time exploring new and faraway places.

"That’s what happens when you have the same person who has tuned every other Holden over the last two decades doing the same on this car," reveals one company insider.

In $40,000 Berlina guise – the cheapest ‘luxury’ aspiration model in the range, and the one aimed at people who actually choose their vehicle (rather than get given it as part of their salary packages) – the emphasis is less on sporty-aggressive and more on refined competence.

So the lesser of the two V6s (180kW/330Nm 3.6-litre) is the only six-cylinder engine choice, mated to the least desirable gearbox available (the four-speed automatic).

Against the wildly underrated Mitsubishi 380’s 175kW/383Nm 3.8-litre V6 and five-speed automatic combination, the lack of a fifth gear is frankly annoying, as it is vis-à-vis Ford’s six-speed auto Falcon range.

However, the BF Fairmont – the Berlina’s long-time nemesis – is a four-speeder anyway, costs more and offers less. Like the 380, the Ford also has no stability control.

More importantly though, the Berlina V6 drivetrain is smoother, quieter and more responsive than before, and certainly more than adequate for the needs of the vast majority of buyers out there with budgets or limited funds.

Remember that 180kW is 1kW more than the 1997 VT Commodore’s 5.0-litre V8’s power output (though 70Nm down on torque), so perspective is needed here: the VE V6 engine is no slouch.

Sadly this V6 still sounds less fruity than its twin-cam specification might suggest – although it is by no means a bad-sounding engine.

The lack of a Tiptronic-style sequential shift pattern will disappoint keener drivers, although the lower gears can be selected and held for towing or downhill engine braking – and you can’t do that in most of the VE’s rivals.

Like Toyota’s RAV4 four-speed auto, the VE Berlina V6 would be a more enjoyable vehicle with an extra gear ratio or two, but in the end it does not really mean it is not an impressive vehicle anyway.

This is particularly true when you factor-in the Berlina’s low-10L/100km fuel reading over the course of the drive, which in the real world is a very impressive effort.

Curiously, the steering has a slightly slower turning ratio than we expected, which is no disadvantage at all if lightning quick turns are not your thing. And it doesn’t stop the Berlina from being an involving, measured, fluid and extremely accurate handler.

There are fantastic levels of grip and none of that fishtailing launch nonsense on wet roads or out of sharp corners, while the security and peace of mind of all those safety acronyms – ESP, ABS, EBD and BA – as well as traction control, cannot be underplayed.

Four square, confident and planted – over a wide range of sealed and unsealed roads in wet and dry conditions. These are the VE Commodore’s fundamental dynamic qualities.

You know, we are itching to test it back-to-back with the reigning benchmark, the Falcon. It still seems like, for the keen driver at least, the steering and handling shootout will be a very close-run thing – which is a compliment to both Holden and Ford, as well as a glowing tribute to Australia’s automotive engineers.

Like in all VEs, the Berlina’s supple yet well-controlled ride reveals a very expertly judged set-up, while the Commodore’s rough road control is exemplary. There are absolutely qualms about the comfort factor here.

In the Omega the cabin is very reminiscent of Germany’s AH Astra in appearance, ambience and feel.

Rise to Berlina and the blonde wood – inspired to international furniture and interior architecture, as well as an area of heated debate inside Holden – is a brilliant (and classy) visual differentiation signature.

The steering wheel is good looking, a little larger than expected, but great to use and hold, backed up by VW/Audi-like switch and trip computer interfaces. It’s the same for the smart and logical centre console.

Also worth singling out are a myriad of clever detailing – such as the integrated front passenger airbag housing, Saab 9-3-style handbrake that won’t sever a digit, beautifully presented door trim architecture and plentiful storage solutions.

As the thick pillars that form such a vital role in the VE’s crash safety manifesto allude, rear vision is poor and the fat ‘A’ post can be a pain.

The latter was also a repeated source of wind noise in every VE variant GoAuto drove, while many cars also transmitted too much road roar over certain surfaces.

Each car also showed poor dust and dirt sealing, as all cars showed signs of it inside each lower-door aperture after a rough-road stint, although no sign of actual cabin intrusion was detected.

The front seats are fulsome and accommodating, and the outboard rear ones almost equally as comfortable, but most leggy people will find the big transmission tunnel an impediment to comfort (“that’s rear-drive for you” – Holden engineer).

Also, the placement of the power window switches beside the handbrake isn’t an ideal site.

None of these foibles are deal breakers. In fact, their relative inconsequence pays tribute to the big-picture rightness of the Berlina’s interior practicality, usability, comfort and ambience.

However, the lack of a folding rear backrest for increased luggage-loading abilities is bitterly disappointing. Holden seems to be in disagreement as to why.

And what of the Berlina’s styling?

This is drawing a long bow, but the defining chromed horizontal bars that dissect the grille might recall, to some tragic car lovers out there, similar such items on the gorgeous noses of Alfa Romeos from the early 1970s – the 1974 Alfetta sedan springs to mind. Come to think of it, so does the blonde wood appliqué inside.

Are these fanciful coincidences, or the natural upshot of a design as emotionally charged as the VE’s?

We know of the classic-car leanings of many of the new Commodore’s creators, and so such extrapolating adds a further trait to the compelling and complex character of Australia’s latest automotive offering.

This is a car to be viewed on the move, from the back rear quarter haunches, as it glides through a fast corner. This is where its arrow-like nose seems incredibly long and assertive.

How a company, that produced a vehicle as bland as the 1988 VN Commodore, can create such athleticism in its bread and butter model is a huge achievement.

Which, in a nutshell, captures the emotive spirit of the VE Berlina.

Car-mad designers within Holden doodled the design one day in 1999, and here it is today. And yet it is no less a Holden family car for it.

We love it.

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