Car reviews - Holden - Commodore - Executive LPG sedan
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Improved handling and stability, new steering column stalks, alarm now fitted
Room for improvement
No passenger airbag standard, stubborn automatic transmission, no split-fold rear seat
3 Jan 2002
By TERRY MARTIN
THE Australian large-car market is so dog-eat-dog that not even the all-conquering Holden can afford to ease up.
Never mind that its Commodore continues to dominate the Ford Falcon in the sales race. Or that since the current generation was introduced four years ago, Holden's share of the large-car segment has remained rock solid above 40 per cent while Ford has slipped from those same heights to around 30 per cent.
The fact is Ford has gained momentum in recent months and expectations of a comeback are beginning to surface as both manufacturers draw nearer to their respective mid-life model improvements late in 2002.
To counter these winds of change, Holden has given its mild VX Series II update more substance with a mechanical upgrade originally intended for release with the VY Commodore due some 12 months further down the track.
Whether the engineering improvements, which are headlined by the so-called "control link" rear suspension, make much difference to the average driver is a moot point. Most important is the ability for the marketing machine to crank out the message of greater confidence, control and more responsive handling.
For the base-model Executive, VX Series II has brought these under-skin modifications and not much else. Exterior details are restricted to a revised grille and new plastic wheel covers, while the interior now has a new cut of cloth trim and long-overdue new wands mounted on the steering column.
Gone are the wonky old stalks for indicators and wipers and in their place are more user-friendly and precise instruments. Cruise control function has also improved, though it remains in the options basket along with air-conditioning and an airbag for the front passenger.
These omissions do the Executive no favours. An alarm is now fitted, adding some weight to a list of standard features which includes ABS brakes, electric seat height adjustment, remote central locking with deadlocking, electric mirrors, trip computer and a CD stereo with a power aerial and steering-mounted controls.
But in other respects, the Executive remains a bit of a raw deal. Apart from the aforementioned items, also absent without leave are electric windows, traction control, variable intermittent wipers, tilt-adjustable front head restraints, lumbar and seat height adjustment for the front passenger and seatbelt sash height adjustment for either front occupant, to name a few basic items other Commodores are seen with.
There's no cassette deck or split-fold rear seat, either.
Were the Commodore's appearance not so appealing and the cockpit not such a cosseting and functional place to be, these omissions would be insurmountable.
The trouble for the knockers is that the dash presentation is as modern and appealing as it was with the VT Commodore back in 1997. The vital instruments are large and legible, all switchgear is simple to operate, the huge front armchairs are snug and a perfect driving position is never in doubt with such excellent seat and (reach and rake) steering wheel adjustment.
Room in the rear compartment is generous in all directions, the seats there are an excellent size for adults, rear vents are provided when air-conditioning is specified and all seating positions have a lap/sash seatbelt. All we need now in this area are some door bins, head restraints and cup holders that will not create the means for loose objects to shoot into the cabin from the boot.
As we found with our dual-fuel test car, the one exception to the rule on this latter point is when an LPG tank is installed up against the rear seatbacks, rendering the world's largest ski-port useless and allowing the rear passengers to use it as an armrest (and its inbuilt cup holders) without concern for low-flying objects.
The boot is similarly big and basic. It will swallow lots of gear but has no storage compartments other than the spare wheel well and no luggage tie-down hooks. Bootlid hinges also intrude on the available space.
On the mechanical front, a "control link" was added to the semi-trailing arm rear suspension and some other minor suspension tweaks were made to improve the handling characteristics, while a new steel belt tyre construction was produced to promote a sharper and more accurate steering feel.
For the average driver, the benefits require a good stretch of road to realise but there is no doubt about their existence - or effectiveness.
Out on the open road, the rear of the car feels much more tied-down than the previous model and it now tracks through higher-speed corners without the need for repeated steering corrections.
Sure, the back-end will still break free under provocation, however, the levels of rear-wheel grip and control are a good deal higher and loss of traction more progressive.
All up, this is the most confident-handling cooking-model Commodore we've come across.
Moreover, the ride is as compliant as ever, the brakes will cope with a reasonable degree of punishment, noise levels are well contained at speed and the steering, much improved with the VX model, goes up a further small notch in terms of feel and precision - though in this department it's still well behind the Falcon.
The remainder of the driving experience is unchanged. Running on normal unleaded petrol, the ageing 3.8-litre V6 has become a more refined apparatus since the improvements brought with the VX series and it makes light work of hauling big loads.
It still prefers to dwell in the lower reaches of the rev range, where it is quiet and smooth, while the opposite remains true when the engine enters higher engine speeds.
"Smooth" isn't a word that springs to mind with the optional four-speed automatic, either, which continues to allow abrupt shifts and savage kickdowns on occasion.
All of the same applies when running on LPG, which can be accessed either at standstill or on the run (above 2000rpm) via a convenient button on the centre console.
Making the switch from petrol to gas takes the edge off performance and there is a discernible loss of power under acceleration.
The conversion also adds approximately 100kg to the load, there are obvious space restrictions with a 60-litre tank stuffed in the boot and it's going to take a l-o-t of miles - the best part of 100,000km - to recoup the initial conversion cost.
But advantages come with vastly reduced emissions and savings achieved with the lower fuel costs. Running on gas, we averaged 12.3L/100km over our test loop - not as good as the 9.7L/100km we then achieved over a similar distance but with the fuel-cost differential factored in (even our fluctuating fuel prices), the savings with the cheaper-per-litre LPG are clear-cut.
There is some discipline required to keep at least a quarter of a tank of petrol in the tank but otherwise living with dual-fuel is a snack. Filling up is unproblematic and the fuel gauge makes the switch between fuels automatically. The trip computer also recalculates the distance to empty.
With the AUIII Falcon Forte now adding anti-lock brakes to its long list of standard equipment, the Executive will have its work cut out winning customer votes. And on the LPG front, Ford is without doubt a step ahead with its dedicated-gas Falcon.
Just as Holden spent $70 million improving the Commodore with the VX series, it had good reason to make VX Series II more than just a cosmetic facelift - and the mechanical improvements should help ensure its continued success.
But even outside the performance arena, things are getting interesting again on the Australian large-car scene.
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