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Car reviews - Holden - Commodore - Calais V Sportwagon

Our Opinion

We like
Creamy smooth and powerful engine, open-road fuel economy, Sportwagon’s blend of style and utility
Room for improvement
Around-town consumption no better than forebears, transmission could be more refined

24 Mar 2010

EVER since way back, the pick of the litter in regular Holden engines in the large passenger car range has almost always been the V8 (or V8s plural, when Holden offered a few of them).

Sure, the Nissan 3.0-litre six in the VL Commodore put the carburettored VL 5.0-litre V8 to shame, and the Gen III 5.7-litre V8 didn’t have the best bottom-end grunt of a V8 to wear the Holden lion badge.

But the Holden six typically has been all about low-end torque but God help you if you rev the poor thing beyond 3500rpm. Fuel economy was typically better than the V8, but not by much.

With all the smoothness and refinement of a hessian bag, the Holden’s 3.6-litre Alloytec V6 was not a great thing, even robbing the Holden six of its best quality – heaps of low-end torque.

But that was then, and this is the post-global-warming, post peak-oil now. While Holden will still furnish Commodore buyers with a creamy smooth, quick and competent V8 (with cylinder deactivation to make you feel slightly less guilty about incinerating hydrocarbons faster than a furnace), the pick of the litter appears to be one of the runts – and but this one is now no weakling and doesn’t slurp at fuel like a ravenous V8.

So the new, more powerful and economical 3.6-litre SIDI delivers its box of goodies with flair that the previous port-injection Alloytec 3.6-litre V6 should have but never quite did.

The 3.6 SIDI has lost the cambelt whine that might sound great in a mid-engined kit car you cobbled together yourself, but hardly the type of audio you want in an upscale luxury wagon

Then there is the way it performs. Without peak or trough in the power and torque delivery, it is really linear, nicely responsive from down low in the rev range and winding out beautifully at high revs in a way the Alloytec V6, despite its overhead cams and multiple valves, never did.

The smooth six is let down by its occasionally irritable relationship with the six-speed automatic transmission. The gearshifts and ratios are far better than those of its predecessor for most driving conditions, but if you hesitate after kicking down, it thumps into the higher gear.

It simply doesn’t feel as well matched to the engine as some European and Japanese transmissions.

Fuel consumption ranged from a high of 17.2L/100km around the city in peak-hour traffic to 7.9L/100km on an easy, freeway cruise. City fuel consumption is only slightly better than its predecessor, but the real-world highway consumption figure is way better, and performance and smoothness of this new engine puts it closer to a V8 alternative than the previous 3.6.

The Calais’ cabin is the now-familiar VE architecture and there are no surprises here: the dashboard is simple and legible enough (although the way the trip computer information scrolls through is frustrating and time-consuming) and the controls on the centre stack heating and ventilation functions are clearly marked.

The front seats are comfortable and offer the kind of supportive cushioning that keeps you securely in place without making you feel wedged between the bolsters. This is like a big, spacious car.

Only the thick A-pillars and – for some occupants – the proximity of the inward-leaning turret make it seem a little claustrophobic up front.

The rear seat feels flat and for some too deeply reclined but there is plenty of room for two beefy adults to stretch out. Three child seats can be array across the seat if required, with seat tethers easily secured in the seatback points.

The only issue up the back is that the rear seat does not have separate head restraints, being moulded into the seat for the two outboard positions.

Unless you haul big boxes a lot, you should be happy with the Sportwagon’s cargo area with its usefully large floor space and the rear seat’s split/fold arrangement that maximises space – which is not always the case with wagon seat-folding arrangements.

Much has already been written here about the VE Commodore’s dynamics, and there is not much new to report with this latest version of the Sportwagon. The VE’s virtues of a relatively neutral, balanced chassis, tremendous steering feel and precision and a smooth ride (though occasionally flustered by sharp bumps) are just as evident in the Calais 3.6 SIDI

Locally manufactured cars, even after the so-called European influence of the VB Commodore and the XD Falcon, have never quite struck the right balance of refinement, performance and fit and finish as the better European (and Japanese) cars.

The Calais V Sportwagon with the 3.6 SIDI is the closest thing that Holden has produced that comes within grasp of the mid-level European wagons. While not perfect, plenty of buyers will be willing to sample the Calais’ tastier slice of Euro flavour provided by its new V6 engine.

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