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Car reviews - Holden - Commodore - Calais V V8 Sportwagon

Our Opinion

We like
Superb performance, stylish, economical for a large V8, handling and ride
Room for improvement
Driveline sophistication, interior quality, vision for driver

9 Sep 2009

SO MANY changes are going on in the car market that it is too easy to miss the landmarks.

One change silently occurring is the gradual shift from SUVs by a part of the market. This splinter faction has either never got the big boofy 4WD thing – or did and has tired of it. These people want the convenience afforded by a wagon, but make it a passenger wagon, thanks.

Then there are those who were brought up being carted around in the cargo area of the HQ Premier wagon and have plenty of happy-families memories in such Holden wagons. A new Holden wagon – a stylish one, not one that reminds you of the car that the fellow who comes to fix the photocopier drives – would be right up their alley.

Then there are the Euro wagon aspirants who can’t or won’t justify spending six figures to cart their family around in style.

So enter the VE Calais V Sportwagon 6.0 AFM. This is the top-shelf of Commodore purchases, with all the luxuries of the Calais V but in wagon form – and with a whopping big V8.

But not just any V8 – this is the lean, green V8 with cylinder deactivation. It saves about a litre per 100km in open road running, but only a negligible amount – if any – around town.

In styling, the Sportwagon in Calais V trim really works. Even though the large taillights may appear a bit too contrived to some eyes, the rest of the design is nothing but polished and contemporary. Who wants a big-bus SUV now?

The smooth stying carries on into the cabin. The thing with the VE cabin is that while it will look like a Bentley interior to a VZ Commodore owner trading up, to anyone else the fit and finish is not quite as good as you would expect of a $60k-plus car. Even some $40k cars look a bit better detailed inside.

Never mind the detail, look at the big picture – the VE interior is roomy. There are supportive pews up front and the driver gets a pretty simple and clear instrument layout to play with. Leg and headroom are ample front and rear, although the rear seat is not well shaped for three occupants, and the kids – once out of their booster seats – will complain about the high door sills impeding their view.

The cargo area is still large enough for most families, but it is fair to say there is a price to be paid for the VE’s fastback styling. For the occasional furniture removal, that long table that you’d just slide into the back of a VZ wagon won’t fit in the VE Sportwagon.

The VE sedan’s known vision problems – thick A-pillars and small side mirrors – continue, of course, and the rear folding seat does not get separate headrests in the wagon, to provide whiplash protection.

The 6.0-litre V8 is a great engine, with lashings of torque from idle. Let the tacho swing towards redline and you will discover that not only is it responsive but it goes like a rocket. The thrum of cylinder deactivation is noticeable, but not annoying.

In the stop-start daily grind, the V8’s fuel thirst can range from 17.0L/100km up to around 22.0L/100km, but used on more open roads it drops to 13-14L/100km and even below 10.0L/100km on the freeway.

Aside from a natural V8 thirst, there just does not appear to be anything of note to complain about with this V8. It’s one sweet-talking unit.

Where things fall down a little is in the auto’s translation, though. The six-speed automatic just doesn’t have the sophistication required to cope with sudden and unexpected calls for engine performance.

Drive it in a flowing manner, and the transmission goes about its business of swapping cogs, but dive for a gap in traffic or back off when being cut off by another car as you are accelerating away from the lights – just another day in Sydney traffic, really – and then the transmission will often thump into a higher gear or jerk the car on kickdown.

Drive almost any BMW V8 auto powertrain and you would be tempted to think a Holden accountant dropped a zero by mistake on the VE V8’s transmission development budget.

There is little room for complaint in the Sportwagon’s ride and handling compromise. Although it is not perfect – low-speed ride can become a little too jiggly for some tastes and so can the thumping through urban potholes – in every other respect this is one great car to ride in.

With steering feel becoming more sanitised with the current crop of cars, the Sportwagon’s is a refreshing change – the steering feel is just fantastic and the weighting is also about spot-on. The way the Sportwagon tackles corners makes driving the family hack enjoyable, with a nicely communicative and progressive chassis, even though you are aware it is heavy. The 18-inch tyres grip well and the degree of safety margin is unlikely to explored by most with the family aboard.

When you need a luxury family wagon that handles well, performs brilliantly and doesn’t cost as much as a Benz or Audi wagon, the Calais V Sportwagon looks like a pretty good alternative

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