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Car reviews - Holden - Commodore - Omega Sportwagon

Our Opinion

We like
Refinement, performance, handling and ride, features for money
Room for improvement
Space-saver spare, transmission needs another ratio

5 Sep 2008

THERE is something ingrained in the psyche of anyone who has grown up with ‘Kangaroos, meat pies and Holden cars’, even though like that particular Holden advertising slogan, the Holden is the fruit of an American enterprise.

Never mind the true provenance of its manufacturer, for many the Holden Commodore is still just as much a symbol of Australia as Central Australia’s unyielding red earth. There are many whose earliest memories will include being carted around as youngsters in the load area of a HQ Holden wagon well before seven-seaters came into vogue.

There was a gradual change that snuck up on the Holden wagon, and that change has a name: the four-wheel drive trend. Since the mid-1990s, the four-wheel drive wagon has taken prominence as the family truckster and the Holden wagon just has not been able to hold ground.

The mid-1990s also signalled the beginning of an unprecedented period of economic growth for Australia, and with it the growing expectations and choices of private buyers. The Commodore wagon soon became best known as a tool of trade, with the company reps zig-zagging across the countryside in a swag of wagons, toting their samples and order books.

And so to the latest of the Holden wagon line: the VE Sportwagon. The Sportwagon is Holden’s great hope to stem the tide of SUVs, using the VE’s up-to-the-minute refinement, packaging and road-car agility.

So far the news is good: For the month of August 2008, the first full month of sales, 1509 Sportwagons were sold - the highest for any single month since November 2004 and up 91 per cent on the equivalent month in 2007.

We tested the entry-level Sportwagon, the Omega.

There is just such an incredible jump in styling between the VZ and VE wagons it’s hard to believe they are from the same company. Sure, the VE sedan has been around for two years and has softened the impact of the bold design but the wagon is just such a good-looking car on its own. Holden has done a great job with the wagon's shoestring $110 million development budget.

So the private buyer gets a very attractive wagon and the fleet buyer gets a wagon that is easy on the eye for its drivers, and provides more incentive for user-choosers to take. The fleets are no doubt praying for a better resale price at the end of the lease, too.

The Sportwagon mimics the sedan specification (and, unlike the VZ, is available in all of the sedan's model variants), except it costs $1000 more and gets rear parking sensors as standard.

The interior is trimmed in the familiar dark hues of the well-executed Omega sedan. Even though black interiors can look funereal, Holden seems to have given its most Spartan VE wagon a more luxurious feel than the entry-level wagon buyer might expect.

There is loads of room up front and the large instruments and well-labelled, well-placed controls are all good indications that the Sportwagon driver won’t be distracted trying to find the right button.

Storage items are well covered off with a 12-volt accessory socket in the centre console bin and on the right cargo wall, plus two centre console cupholders and a cupholder in each of the door’s wide, long pockets.

The Sportwagon, more than most cars, is easy to get into and just drive.

It’s not perfect, though. The continued placement of power window controls assumes that everyone liked this position in previous Commodores (some don’t, and prefer them mounted on the driver's door) and that front occupants won’t be clumsy enough to spill drinks over them while using the adjacent cupholders.

The flush-fit handbrake is thankfully coated in soft enough rubber so if you do inadvertently pinch your fingers while releasing it, it doesn’t actually hurt too much. It makes the centre console look sensational when released, though.

Vision out of the Sportwagon is not ideal, either. The exterior mirrors, carry-over items that look suspiciously like those first fitted to the 2002 VY series, might be the right proportion for styling and aerodynamics, but are just too small in this age of big friendly and useful Mickey Mouse ear-size mirrors. They simply create too large a blind spot.

The A-pillars, like in the sedan, obstruct the view to the sides but the Sportwagons’s rising side window line and letterbox-size rear window are more of a problem. Much more vision and glass area can be found on an SUV like the Discovery3.

The big news is in the back, of course. Even though the Sportwagon has lost a considerable amount of load capacity over the VZ (from 1402 litres to 895 litres with the rear seats up), it is still a practical load carrier.

The forward-hinging tailgate is great for when parked up in a tight spot (because it doesn’t require as much space to swing out to open as most tailgates) and the load floor presents good tie-down options (though the loops are pretty flimsy) and there’s a convenient side storage pocket.

The underfloor space-saver spare tyre requires that you unload any cargo to get to it, find the space to store the full-size road wheel after changing the flat tyre, and have to drive at 80km/h on the unwieldy space-saver. At least Holden offers a full-size spare as a $250 option.

The 3.6-litre Alloytec V6 cranks over to a smooth idle and for gentle around-town driving the distinctive whine of what sounds like overhead-cam belts is the only noise you’ll hear.

Quick launch feel is a VE specialty and the 3.6 is not lacking in performance right though the rev band. If you rev it towards the 6000rpm shift point though, there is a surprising amount of clatter and harshness that seems like Holden forgot to change the engine soundtrack from the old 3.8 V6.

We’re pretty familiar with the VE Omega Sportwagon’s direct predecessors - the VZ and VY Executive wagons - and it appears that the VE is slightly thirstier.

On test the Sportwagon achieved a low of 9.7L/100km during solo freeway driving and around 15L/100km in city traffic. Holden gives an average fuel consumption figure of 11.1L/100km. Our highway figure appears to be at least half a litre per 100km more thirsty than previous Commodore wagons over the same test route.

The 4L60E four-speed automatic transmission that seems like it has been around in one form or another for an age is an acceptable, smooth-shifting match for the 3.6 and has the help of a Sport mode.

There is no tiptronic-style shifter and the lack of enough forward ratios becomes obvious under full throttle - the step down in revs from first to second gear is a considerable 2500rpm. The 3.6 carries this off well most of the time, except when climbing a hill with a heavy load aboard.

Even though it is shorter with a smaller cargo area, the new wagon is heavier than the previous model by 145kg.

The Sportwagon can feel bulky on a tight road but it is a quick point-to-point tourer.

When the limit of adhesion is reached, the Sportwagon is relatively poised and able to be balanced on the throttle. If the rear begins to step out, the driver has the choice to correct it or wait a moment for the standard traction control to engage and sort it out.

Handling is relative, though: compared with almost any SUV, the Sportwagon is a revelation, but at the limit you can feel the tyre sidewalls flex. No doubt the bigger, grippier tyres of upper-spec Sportwagons would paint a different picture.

The Sportwagon is a useful adjunct to the Commodore range, taking all the positive elements of the sedan - ride handling, quality and comfort - and adding a dose of practicality.

It appears the reduced cargo space over the cavernous old model in the name of styling has been well worth it.

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