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Car reviews - Holden - Commodore - Calais V8 sedan

Our Opinion

We like
Well equipped, accomodating interior, improved suspension
Room for improvement
Lack of split-fold rear seat, power steering lacks linearity

7 Dec 2001

THERE was a time when the Calais was the absolute pride of Holden's passenger car fleet.

When the company dropped its Kingswood-based range in favour of the more compact and seemingly politically correct Commodore in the late 1970s, it also lost the Statesman/Caprice models that had been doing battle with Ford's long-wheelbase Fairlane and LTD.

The Calais, which was a dressed-up Commodore, came as a VK model in 1984 as an attempt to maintain a Holden presence in the entry level prestige market. It is probably fair to say many executives within the company at the time mourned the loss of the much bigger Statesman.

Today the Calais is no longer asked to do duty as the most luxurious Holden available. It's now a middle-tier entrant, a buffer zone between the Berlina and the Statesman, and a direct competitor for Ford's Fairmont Ghia.

It may not be the ultimate Holden, but the Calais still comes across as a pretty well fitted-out car.

It is a sort of mini-Statesman, with just about all the standard gear fitted to the long-wheelbase limo. About the only option available on Statesman that cannot be had on the Calais is self-levelling rear suspension.

The equipment list otherwise reads virtually the same and includes features like the multi-function Holden trip computer, climate control air-conditioning, dual front and front side airbags, anti-lock brakes, 10-speaker 260-watt sound system with boot-mounted 10-disc CD stacker, cruise control, speed-sensitive windscreen wipers, auto-on headlights and powered, eight-way adjustable front seats.

Like the Statesman, the Calais lists leather seat trim as optional and does not offer things like the three-position memory for the driver's power seat which is standard on the top-of-the-tree Caprice.

But the Calais, like most Holdens, can be had with a variety of engine options, including the 5.7-litre, all-alloy Generation III V8 which adds a limited-slip differential to an already competent line-up of electronic aids such as four-channel anti-lock braking and a traction control system. The Calais also gets the Variatronic road-speed sensitive steering system used in Statesman and Caprice.

Holden sees the Calais as having appeal to a slightly younger age group, so it offers a few optional embellishments not available on the bigger, limo-style Statesman. These include the sportier FE2 suspension and a choice of body kits including three different types of rear wings.

Our test car had none of this but it did come with the 225kW V8 and was trimmed out in Cobalt Blue leather to match the metallic Delft blue exterior.

Stepping inside the Calais, the differences between it and regular Commodores is evident. The doors in the test car had soft leather and suede-style inserts, the steering wheel, console shifter and handbrake all featured stitched leather and the selector surround on the centre console had a subtle, almost charcoal grey wood grain trim. The new, user-friendly steering column stalks add in a subtle way to the car's ergonomics and convey a sense of precision lacking in previous Commodores.

The seats, not as plush as the Caprice, are nevertheless well proportioned and inviting. The Calais may not have the capacious long-wheelbase interior of its larger brethren, but it is still very accommodating with ample length and breath for most purposes.

Like all Commodores, the Calais gets the larger (than Statesman/Caprice) central ski port in the rear seat, in this case incorporating a fold-down armrest. It is disadvantaged here compared to the Falcon range which has a proper, more versatile 60-40 split-fold rear seat enabling it to carry larger loads.

The Calais is set up more firmly than Statesman or Caprice, feeling almost sporty by comparison to the smooth, luxury ride of the bigger cars. Strangely, it also seems a little quieter, having none of the cabin "drumming" set up by the lengthened Statesman/Caprice interior.

And the 225kW V8 feels more responsive, which is something of a surprise considering the V8 Calais only weighs around 90kg less than the massive Caprice V8.

This minimal weight difference does not gel with real-life economy figures either because while it is common to see averages under 13 litres per 100km in the Calais, it is virtually impossible to get anywhere near that in the Caprice. Strangely, Holden in its official literature quotes exactly the same city/highway fuel figures for both. The all-alloy V8 is happy to run on regular grade unleaded and the fuel tank holds a generous 75 litres.

The V8 Calais has that deep-chested feel more evident in automatic versions than with the manual six-speed gearbox offered elsewhere in the range. The torque converter helps disguise the Gen III engine's comparative lack of low-speed torque. It is easy to bring the traction control into play, on wet or dry surfaces, and highway passing manoeuvres can be conducted with confidence.

The now slightly hoary four-speed auto is at home with this type of engine and rarely misbehaves by slurring a shift or hunting between ratios on winding, undulating roads.

The Variatronic road speed-sensitive steering's "artificial" feel is less pronounced than pre-Series II VX models but there's still a lack of linearity in the response that feels a little discomfiting. Once again, Ford's generally superior suspension system leads the way in response and overall feel.

That said, the adoption of the new control-link version of the semi-trailing link rear suspension means the Calais has generally more secure characteristics, tracking much better than before in a straight line - particularly if a few bumps are thrown in - and pointing better too.

This is the result of combining the better tracking abilities of the rear end (it is less affected by rough roads due to a reduction in rear bump-steer) and the specially developed tyres aimed at improving steering precision as well as straight-line tracking.

It might feel sportier than the Statesman, but the Calais still rides smoothly with an absorbency factor that is both confidence inspiring and pleasant to live with. The use of no-nonsense four-channel anti-lock brakes means the car has the stopping power to add to that confidence.

So for a combination of muscular performance, relatively compact size and medium-level luxury, the Calais V8 is probably the best bet in the Holden line-up - although if you want the extra space and ostentatiousness, the V8 Statesman is a mere $3000 or so away.

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