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Car reviews - Holden - Commodore - S Supercharged sedan

Our Opinion

We like
Almost-SS looks for less money, strong acceleration, good sports sedan ride
Room for improvement
Supercharged engine sounds strained at high rpm, only one airbag

7 Dec 2001

IF you are around $10,000 short of cash needed to close a deal on a new SS Commodore but still have your heart set on a hot Holden, the supercharged version of the S model might just do the trick for you.

With a very useful 171kW and a more than handy 375Nm of torque, the blown V6 wields V8-like power and backs it up with purposeful, sports sedan looks not far removed from the SS. The only real external giveaway, and it is quite subtle to many eyes, is that the wheel size is down slightly, from 17 to 16 inches.

In Series II form the Commodore S is a better deal than ever, picking up important features such as traction control and the nicely reworked independent rear suspension that has helped close the gap to Ford's once clearly superior IRS system.

In concert with revised tyre construction that gives sharper and more accurate steering feel, this makes the Commodore a sweeter, more balanced and stable package on the road. In the case of the S, all this is complimented by the FE2 sports suspension tuning that further sharpens the handling without detracting greatly from ride quality.

Stepping inside, you are not greeted by the lascivious, blatant ambience of the SS, but there are enough differences between S and garden variety Commodores to convince you that you are driving something a little special.

The seats do not have the extra shaping of the SS but the full-cloth trim is colour-matched with the exterior paint and is a little more adventurous of pattern than an Executive Commodore. The steering wheel also gets a leather-stitched rim, although that's as far as the S goes in pursuit of touchy-feely specifics.

Like the SS though, it does get electric control of the driver's seat cushion height and tilt, and there are adjustable lumbar supports for both driver and front passenger as well as standard air-conditioning, cruise control, power windows, a mini trip computer (including audible and visual speed warning via four adjustable settings, distance to empty, trip distance to go and time to go) and remote central locking.

So the S driver, even with a base 3.8-litre 152kW engine, is not really going to feel short-changed.

The optional supercharged engine - the Gen III 5.7-litre V8 is not available in the S - adds considerably more punch to the package, making better use of the basic elements already in there working towards a more stimulating than normal driving experience.

The supercharger's mechanical drive means there is no such thing as the lag experienced in a turbocharged engine the blown V6 is ready to go from the instant the accelerator is applied.

It winds up with a noticeable but not unpleasant howl, feeling as deep chested as a good V8. The torque off the mark is good enough that the traction control system can be regularly asked to step in to avoid rubber-shredding antics on a dry road, or a surfeit of tail-out attitude on wet surfaces. It is switchable though, enabling drivers who think they have the skill to control power-oversteer tail-out attitudes, or feather the pedal to minimise wheelspin.

The downside of the supercharged engine's willingness to turn on the power is the unhappiness with which it approaches the already conservative redline. Here, the inherent harshness of the V6 becomes far too apparent as the engine loses its initial smoothness and turns on some unpleasantly rowdy behaviour. To the driver familiar with the car, it's usually a matter of knowing where the harshness comes in, and driving just short of it.

The supercharged engine uses more fuel, naturally, sitting somewhere between the regular V6 and the Gen III V8. Holden recommends premium-grade unleaded, but also says it is possible to run with regular unleaded.

This is a little unusual with a boosted engine and is made possible by modern engine management systems able to detect and prevent damaging pre-ignition, or detonation.

A 75-litre fuel tank is a worthwhile advantage over the Falcon, which holds only 68 litres.

The Commodore S suspension feels smoother, more compliant. Even the more sporty FE2 pack allows a comfortable and quiet ride, making it a real pleasure to live with.

The steering, as a result of the careful tyre redesign, feels a little sharper and noticeably lighter, which would not necessarily be a good thing were it not for the rear end improvements. These take the unsettling bump-steer reaction out of the car, meaning it tracks a line much more faithfully and steadily than before.

The Commodore feels more secure on the road as a result, although it is still behind the Falcon in terms of general feel and responsiveness. The Commodore still has slightly "woolly" steering.

Braking is aided by a proper, four-channel anti-lock system, a side benefit of the inclusion of traction control that requires individual control of each rear wheel to minimise wheelspin.

In terms of practicality the S is the same as any other Commodore - meaning it has good space for front and rear passengers, and a decent-size boot that is let down by primitive, intrusive hinges and the use of a ski port rather than a split-fold backrest - as seen in the Falcon - that limits overall load-carrying versatility.

The large, well padded front seats may lack the extra shaping of those used in the SS and may not give the same degree of lateral support, but they are worthy long-distance prospects. In the back, there is decent legroom to be had, plus good shoulder room.

Perhaps the only justified extra spending on an S Commodore would be a set of passenger and side-impact airbags. The S gets extra foam padding in the doors to improve side-impact performance but this obviously does not give the protection offered by a side bag. A standard passenger bag is surely somewhere down the track for lesser Commodores too.

As we said earlier, if the budget dictates, you could do a lot worse than a supercharged Commodore S in your search for a big sports sedan.

The dynamics are well up to scratch, with a much more refined suspension than before, and the performance is decidedly muscular.

The downside is the V6 engine's disturbing unhappiness in reaching towards the tachometer's redline, where all the impressions of strength and refinement evaporate. It jars on the senses.

If you are not mechanically sensitive it probably will not bother you, and even if you are mechanically sensitive it is not likely to bother you, in real terms, because nothing is about to happen.

But if you think part of the pleasure of driving a performance car is the aural appeal of a sweetly efficient engine, eager to flex its muscles as the revs climb, then you will probably want to look elsewhere because here the supercharged Commodore fails to deliver.

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