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Car reviews - Holden - Commodore - range

Our Opinion

We like
Performance, dynamics, value, ride comfort and refinement in 2.0-litre models, safety, space, versatility, Tourer availability, diesel option
Room for improvement
No 2.0-litre turbo AWD combo, laggy V6 performance, no four-cylinder Tourer models, mainstream styling, Calais-V V6’s ride, some road noise


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15 Feb 2018


THE biggest question of 2018 is just how Holden is the new-generation imported Commodore? The answer is complicated because everything bar the styling, V6 all-wheel-drive performance and personality eclipses the now-iconic VF Series II predecessor made in Australia.

The startlingly strong four-cylinder turbo variants are probably the best value, most dynamic and most comfortable family cars on the market under $40,000, but uneven V6 AWDs and perplexing powertrain spec choices keep the ZB Commodore from greatness.

We longed for a Kia Stinger-beater but have a belting Ford Mondeo/Volkswagen Passat alternative instead. Head aces heart.

Drive impressions

Nigh on 40 years ago, General Motors Holden was about to dive head-first in a bold new era of globalisation with the launch of the VB Commodore.

Built tough in Australia, the latter featured the dated and sluggish powertrains from the HZ Kingswood, but otherwise was very much the brainchild of Opel in Germany. The exterior, interior and many chassis components were nearly identical to a model known as the Rekord C. This was only GM’s second so-called ‘World Car.’So, except for the fact that it is imported, philosophically nothing much has changed with the ZB Commodore. Yes, ensuing versions from the VC-onwards commenced their complete departure from the Euro machine, to the point that the final, fourth-generation iteration (VE of 2006) was arguably the most Australian car of all time.

But now we’re back to Opel. And as times have changed, so have design, powertrain, chassis and technological expectations. Front/all-wheel drive, liftbacks and crossover wagons, and diesel availability are all just part of the global family car specification nowadays. Or that’s what Holden and Ford would have us believe.

Thank God for Kia’s Stinger…With all this in mind, the 2018 Commodore is simply outstanding in a number of areas including performance, dynamics, value, space and breadth of choice furthermore, some variants offer incredible comfort, refinement, frugality and agility. Few are less than a blast to drive. And none are boring.

However, and in stark contrast to the VFII, less is more in the new Commodore, starting with the cabin.

The ZB’s interior is a wide and expansive affair, offering what must surely be more than enough room for whatever constitutes the standard family. Only a back-to-back comparison with the old Commodore would reveal any width deficits, though being transverse engine/front-drive, the floor hump is much less intrusive. It’s more than amply roomy in there.

Following the themes established in the latest Astra, the dash is contemporary and extremely functional, if a mite mundane after the exceptional VF.

Everything is angled for the driver to use without a second thought, backed up by very clear instruments, brilliant ventilation and more storage than most people can use. And that boot is vast.

Furthermore, there’s a sense of quality and craftsmanship that can only really be German. Here’s the best-built Commodore ever.

But, also, here’s the rub. The Australian Commodore’s interior looked a million dollars, so from Evoke through to Calais V and then up through the SS and HSVs, there was a presence – an audacity that really lifted the Holden after the misfire that was the VE’s fascia.

In the ZB, the higher up the range you go, the duller the dashboard looks. A tad too plasticky and not remarkable enough. Even the up-spec digital instrumentation and head-up display can’t disguise that. Never mind Audi. Have you been inside a Passat Highline lately?Holden didn’t have a base LT for us to assess, but the RS that’s expected to be the best seller walks the finest line between value and quality perception. The Calais, especially, feels like it deserves a more up-spec cabin presentation.

Such cases of diminishing returns also seems to apply from behind that very familiar looking steering wheel.

Have no doubt. The 191kW/350Nm 2.0-litre petrol/auto combination every base ZB, but especially so in the nicely-specced out RS is the fiercest, thanks to a healthy wad of mid-range oomph and impressively intuitive transmission. On dry roads, off the mark acceleration is instant and clean, and then the oomph just keeps piling on hard from there, swathed in smoothness. Holden says this engine is a premium option on Opel models, and it’s certainly our favourite.

A brief drive of the Calais diesel (125kW/400Nm) also left us reeling, with a hushed confidence and effortless mid-range muscle to flatter many so-called luxury cars as easily as it can flatten most hills. If economy is a priority this could be the answer, especially as the lush ride on the 18-inch wheel/tyre package (as in the RS) is simply fantastic. Well done, Holden.

Holden’s steering and suspension calibration over the base Insignia tune also deserves kudos. Light but sharp at the helm, both of these four-pot Commodores possess the agility and control to handle that seamless power coming through the front wheels.

We wouldn’t be surprise if these ZB 2.0Ts set a new dynamic benchmark, possessing both the athleticism of a Ford Mondeo and the cushy confidence of a Passat. These models are enough to make you forget about the VF… at least, the cheaper ones anyway.

Now, Opel didn’t plan to have V6s in this new E2 architecture, until Holden intervened with the help of Buick. The Aussies did the calibration work on this US-built engine, and the overall result is… slightly underwhelming.

Calais-V first. Hauling around 140kg of extra mass, the AWD-only 230kW/370Nm 3.6-litre V6 never feels anything more than brisk off the line. Sometimes, if you need urgent throttle response, there’s an inexplicable lag, before the revs rise enough for the power to really start kicking in. No Commodore V6 should feel languid – ever – but this sometimes does. We hear the desired 3.0-litre twin-turbo was nixed on cost and complexity grounds. Pity.

Playing with the Sport modes does seem to help a little, but even in the sweet-sounding VXR with its 235kW/381Nm, there just isn’t the lazy low-down V8 bite that SS owners would expect. This V6 is crying out for some forced induction.

Warm summer weather and dry roads meant that there was no chance for the AWD system to come into its own (or for torque steer to rear its ugly head in the 2.0-litre front-drivers), but a brief blast on gravel at Holden’s Lang Lang proving ground did reveal just how effective the Twinster torque-vectoring tech is at keeping the Tourer V6 blasting along like a rally car.

Back on the rural roads of southern Victoria, the V6-engined machines didn’t quite have the dynamic lightness and alacrity of their four-pot siblings either, and there was another issue too the 20-inch wheels on the Calais-V Liftback lacked suppleness, upsetting the comfy balance that the cheaper models have in spades. They drone on coarser surfaces too.

Ride comfort improved markedly in the VXR thanks to its adaptive dampers, which should be standard on any car with such low-profile rubber and a Calais badge.

The VXR, in fact, is actually tremendous to drive fast and hard, due to its fast and fluid handling, exceptional road-holding control and strong brakes.

Performance aside, it does tick most GT sports sedan boxes.

Most? Why did Holden deliberately calibrate such light steering? While it improves at speed, initial turn-in is characterised not by its measured delicacy, but rather the lack of effort needed. There is none of the meatiness that defined the better Aussie sports sedans of the past, and this, in our eyes, undermines the VXR more than anything else (after its somewhat lazy low-down throttle response) as a latter-day SS. It just isn’t.

Still, all this is not to say that the more powerful versions of the ZB aren’t good enough – they’re finely tuned and balanced family grand tourers that – 20-inch wheeled non-adaptive damper-fitted Calais V apart – definitely deserve to be on any performance family car shortlist. Because, after all, and with the brilliant exception of Kia, how disinterested are the mainstream brands in providing real enthusiast machines for the whole family? Ford, we’re talking about you specifically.

We drove no Sportwagons at all, or enough diesels, and the Subaru Outback-rivalling Tourer (only available as a V6 AWD… why? Either 2.0-litre would surely be more suitable what a wasted opportunity) was a gravel-road proving ground-only experience, so there’s much to explore there.

What our two-day driving stint left us feeling was that the 2.0-litre front-drivers punch well above their weight while the heavier 3.6-litre AWDs offer remarkable value but aren’t quite all they could be considering their promising specification.

Certainly, the VXR is a new type of Commodore that is miles away from the raw and visceral thrills of the better Sss – although Holden says it is more of a replacement for the SV6. But with the Stinger stepping in and up so formidably, perhaps Kia rather than Holden provides a refuge for the accessible sports-sedan-cum-GT buyer.

So, for better or for worse, the ZB is definitely not a VF… and there-in may lay the answer… for better. The 2.0-litre variants are outstanding, the V6s less so. In all objective ways the fifth-generation since 1978 is the best Commodore range we’ve yet experienced.

And in this bold new era of globalisation and SUV over-proliferation, with no rear-drive or V8s in sight, it’s probably the best that we could have hoped for.

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