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Car reviews - Holden - Commodore - Omega sedan

Our Opinion

We like
Super-rigid new body, cutting-edge suspension, steering and braking systems, aggressive and modern styling, crisp and functional new interior, overall quality and refinement, standard stability control, fuel consumption, improved engine refinement and driveability, handy new features, price
Room for improvement
No standard full-size spare wheel, no split-folding rear seat, Omega equipment and detail omissions, weight increase, four-speed auto

2 Aug 2006

DEVELOPED at a total cost of about a billion dollars, VE Commodore is rightly expected not only to be the best Commodore ever produced by Holden, but the best car ever produced in Australia.

Judged against any objective yardstick, Holden has delivered exactly that.

As the first model to be produced from the Holden-developed global GM vehicle architecture formerly known as the low-cost Zeta component set, VE Commodore is indeed a credit to Holden’s designers and engineers in particular, and to Australia’s automotive industry in general.

Few would argue the VE’s shape is not a cohesive, contemporary shape that is both instantly recognisable as a Commodore yet makes even the current VZ look so last-century. VE succeeds in looking both aggressive and elegant at the same time – and is likely to do so in a decade’s time.

But VE needs to be more than just a pretty face if it is to attract the larger number of private buyers Holden needs for its sharp new pricing policy to make a return on its unprecedented investment. And it needs to attract them in a contracting Aussie large-car market.

Of course, it’s what lies beneath that edgy new shape that is crucial to converting potential sales to actual sales. But if those that drive VE are as enamored with it as we are, it seems Holden’s sizeable gamble – and Australia’s auto industry as a whole – is safe.

In short, VE’s foundations represent a giant leap forward from both the current Commodore and its opposite number in Ford’s Falcon - and, to a lesser extent, the unsung hero of the Australian car-making business: Mitsubishi’s value-packed 380.

The new Camry and other highly capable mid-sizers represent a persuasive alternative for downsizing Aussie buyers and Aurion will complete Toyota’s grand plan to woo buyers from Australia’s most popular model in November.

But Toyota’s first direct Commodore rival will need to be something special to make an impact on the impressive new Holden, which takes the rear-drive Aussie sports sedan formula to new heights in its fourth generation.

Put simply, Holden has given the VE European-style body rigidity, which brings not only a new level of quality, solidity, refinement and safety to Commodore, but makes it the most dynamically accomplished Holden ever available.

The first impression of increased body strength comes from the way the doors thud home, but the total lack of dash creak and door frame flex over diagonal gutter crossings and harsh road numps confirms this is a very different vehicle to the one it replaces.

Current Commodore drivers will feel immediately at home within the classy and comfortable new cabin. A wide range of both seating a steering wheel adjustment should suit just about any body shape, and the well positioned controls contribute to an overwhelming sense of familiarity.

The supportive, four-way power-adjustable driver’s seat is trimmed, like the others, in a hard-wearing woven fabric, but there’s still no adjustable rear head restraints – or a centre head restraint, period – at this level.

Perhaps the biggest interior gripe is the thick A-pillar, which restricts forward vision but is a factor in helping achieve VE’s overwhelmingly stiff body structure. It’s a rapidly emerging trend in most new vehicles today, as glass areas shrink in the name of strength and safety.

Yes, the interior mirror is a hangover from the VT-based VZ and the indicator and wiper stalks are the same except for a different bend in them, but that’s where the similarities end.

The European chassis feel is reinforced via the Omega’s dark interior, which is broken up only by a silver alloy-look centre stack and console. A five-inch LCD information display is located high on the dash between the two central air-vents and presents time, audio and trip data.

Below that at the top of the silver centre stack is the hazard light switch and a single-CD slot, above two rows of tactile push-button audio controls – the lower one split by a large rotary volume dial with rubberized grips.

At the bottom are three similar knobs for the ventilation controls, which now comprise 20 fan speeds instead of four and noticeably faster cool-down and warm-up rates. In front of the auto shift gate are the ESP and sport-shift buttons, and behind it are the awkwardly positioned mirror and windows switch pads.

There is still no auto-up function for the driver’s window and we'd have preferred the the window controls on the driver's door where the mirror switch used to be. At least the integrated handbrake doesn't catch your fingers like Saab's similar unit does.

Residing unfortunately between them and the well-cushioned armrest are a pair of cup-holders which, when in use, make gearshifting or even arm-resting more of a chore. Thankfully, the two sizeable new front door pockets (which on the Calais V includes a handy flip-out function) contain bottle-holders, which are too big for regular sized cups.

The Omega’s instrument panel is simple and legible, with large white lettering on a black background and the 8000rpm tacho (left) and 240km/h speedo (right) split by a second large LCD screen. Temp and fuel gauges reside on either side of them, but the tacho still doesn’t offer a redline.

Obviously, VE isn’t perfect, and the fact there is still no split-folding rear seat is proof of that. Similarly, the move to an optional full-size spare wheel is a retrograde step for most buyers.

Soft-damped overhead grabrails and black woven headlining are classy touches, but the omission of upstream variant’s integrated armrest handles – a long-time Commodore trademark – and black rather than chrome-finished door handles smack of cost-saving.

Nor does the vastly improved four-speed auto, which may soon make Omega and Berlina the only vehicles in their class not to offer at least five ratios, offer a Tiptronic-style manual-shift mode like all of its rivals.

Of course, the need for this feature is widely debated, especially in a car directed more towards fleets than individuals, and at least Omega drivers can still select, say, third gear and leave it there all day around town – unlike base Falcon, 380 and Camry drivers.

But in operation the base Commodore’s four-speed is a vast improvement, offering far smoother, quicker shifts than before and eliminating much of the current car’s problematic flaring during fourth-to-third downshifts.

Mated to the more flexible 180kW base V6, the 4A also offers improved "step-off" acceleration. It may be out-dated, but combined with the cleaner, quieter, torquier and far more refined base V6, it’s the best entry-level Commodore powertrain ever offered.

We easily recorded a sub-10L/100km fuel consumption figure in mixed highway and city use, so Holden’s official combined average of 10.9 seems achieveable in the real world.

On the road, Omega is a revelation in terms of steering feel and response. The new forward-mounted steering rack delivers more precision, especially on centre, where constant correction is no longer required to maintain a straight line.

A 10 per cent quicker overall ratio, which varies mechanically by up to 15 per cent at maximum lock, gives it a distinctly sportier feel, and there was no evidence of steering rack rattle on only the faintest whiff of bump-steer.

The new steering wheel itself is void of the leather-wrap in other variants but, like the soft-touch upper dash material, is vastly more upmarket than the current Executive’s. The new tiller also offers clever new audio and trip computer thumb wheels on both spokes.

Black wing mirrors and (pull-type) door handles and plastic wheelcovers mark Omega clearly as a base model, but even at this level VE doesn’t appear at all under-tyred, thanks to the vastly wider wheeltracks.

Perhaps the biggest dynamic advance, however, is the way Commodore’s suspension now works with, rather than against, the rest of the car. No longer does Commodore’s rear-end squat disconcertingly under acceleration, and there’s no hint of the exaggerated negative camber that afflicts the current model’s rear wheels.

Commodore’s new multi-link rear suspension feels compliant despite its giant leap forward in terms of geometry and wheel location under load.

Similarly, the new front-end is quiet and sure-footed even over the most arduous of bitumen potholes, and only on Lang Lang’s demanding ride and handling track did the Omega’s overall suspension set-up begin to lose its composure. Likewise, it took some aggressive cornering over heavily corrugated gravel roads for our Omega to feel unsettled.

Brakes, too, are a big step forward in both initial pedal bite and feel, and it took repeated hard stops from high speed at the proving ground for fade to set in – many more than the current Executive’s brakes would handle before pulling up stumps.

Neat new touches include windscreen washers that are integrated into the wiper arms, which provide much greater coverage than before, the super-handy one-touch indicator system that’s a boon on the freeway, the less metallic but louder indicator click, and the more compact integrated key/fob (which lacks more expensive variants’ flip-key function).

Tyre and wind noise varied significantly according to road surface and speed respectively, but in isolation seemed better on both counts than both VZ Commodore and BF Falcon.

Similarly, the consistently high build quality of the pre-production cars we drove was brought into question only by an intermittent minor instrument panel vibration in the Berlina we drove and an ill-fitting door handle surround in an SS.

Otherwise, VE feels tight as a drum and offers a whole new, more neutral ride/handling experience that makes it feel smaller and lighter than it really is.

It also has a well-isolated interior, significantly improved engine/transmission performance, sportier braking and steering systems, an unintrusive but highly effective new stability control system and a number of practical new features.

Notwithstanding the lack of a five-speed auto, split-folding rear seat and standard full-size spare wheel, the VE Omega is the most accomplished, most dynamic, best looking, best-equipped, safest and best-value full-sized executive car ever built in Australia.

Of course, the customer will decide whether VE Commodore succeeds or fails, but with more space, more performance, a far more integrated drivetrain/chassis combination and lower fuel consumption, it deserves to sell in spades.

Holden says VE is the car it always wanted to build, a car without compromise. Some of those compromises haven’t been fully eliminated – certainly not in the entry-level Omega – but as a well-priced taste-test for its top-shelf V6 and V8 stablemates, the most basic VE is easily Australia’s best fleet car.

A cut-price 5 Series the Omega may not be, but its upstream V8 siblings certainly do a fine impersonation of being exactly that. Sales reps and budget-concious large-car buyers have never had it so good.

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