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Car reviews - Holden - Commodore - Sportwagon SSV Redline

Our Opinion

We like
Superb tractability and peak performance from Gen 4 V8 balanced dynamics ride and handling compromise accommodating cabin
Room for improvement
Vision impeded by thick pillars and small side mirrors cheap interior plastics driveline lash thirst around town

8 Jul 2011

FRESH, inspired cars like the Sportwagon may well slow the gathering pace of the decline of Aussie large car sales, but the SS-V Redline Edition remains a card-carrying representative of a model philosophy that is bound by its past – and could well put the brakes on its future.

Large Aussie family passenger wagons are old-fashioned driveway furniture, the type of doily-adorned wood veneer thing your nanna bought back in the 1970s to show off the family china.

The bulk of family wagon buyers now aspire to a clean, fresh Ikea tall boy, not a squat side dresser smelling of moth balls.

Yet not all is lost there are still people who like the cut of an Aussie V8’s jib. The thought that a showroom-fresh Australian V8 station wagon such as the Commodore SS-V Redline Edition – with a manual gearbox, no less – is just a mere trade-in and monthly payments away is something an Aussie bloke of a certain age can’t help but get excited about.

I know what I’m talking about. You see, I don’t remember much about year 10 at Campbell High but I do remember being dropped off at school by my father in his HJ Premier 5.0-litre V8, its dual exhausts expelling a rich, baritone liturgy as the big V8 crested the traffic.

Even though you may now be in the family way and need a car that will also carry the tribe, there is a catch with the Sportwagon. You may think that with your fecund days over and with only a modest number of offspring to transport that you will never need an SUV’s seven seats, but the reality of modern safety regulations and (your offspring’s) peer group pressure is you do.

You might remember when child restraint laws were loosely policed, the inevitable ‘extras’ along for the ride bunched up on the back bench and when that was full they hopped over the back seat of the family wagon, the happy troupe entertained with I Spy.

Not now kids of course each need a seat with a seatbelt and age-appropriate booster for safety and, preferably, audio/visual entertainment for (your) sanity.

While there are aftermarket third-row seat cures for this dilemma, no amount of flipping pages of the Holden brochure will convince your better half that your precious children’s closest friends should find alternative travel arrangements.

If you’ve dodged these issues – or simply don’t have the offspring to worry about - there is a compelling argument for this, the most extroverted of Sportwagons.

Even though the rear-wheel drive family station wagon is an old concept, the Redline Edition is not. The Euro-inspired VE design flows neatly to the swept-back tail and the Redline Edition’s chrome 19-inch alloys and painted brake callipers give a splash of contemporary coolness. The lush accommodation inside (with red leather inserts in the car we tested) is also a sumptuous, sculpted space.

We Aussies are pretty harsh on local product – we somehow expect the quality to be up with Lexus or Mercedes, but at half the price.

So the Commodore interior is a disappointment compared with a Lexus – brittle plastics, carry-over column wands and some switchgear from the 1998-2006 VT-VZ series, too-thick A-pillars and a finger-pinching handbrake – but is a modern, crisp and functional space for a large, well-featured $50k performance passenger wagon.

The front buckets are supportive and the kind of seats you can do long miles in without discomfort. Side support is pretty good – it doesn’t overdo it like some cars, where you have to climb over the bolsters to get in, wondering if the makers were tempted to fit a five-point racing harness too.

Instead you slide into the seat without any gymnastics and it holds you firmly in place on the leather when you decide to join the dots quickly on a twisting stretch of tarmac.

The rear bench is a little flat, but this is a good thing if you do need to fit booster or child seats, and still has enough shape to provide a comfortable long-haul space for a couple of adults, three at a pinch. The transmission tunnel does soak up a fair bit of space though.

The cargo space has a low loading lip, the tailgate lifts up high and the opening is also large enough to fit tall items without having to negotiate a tight entry point.

The 6.0-litre V8 makes reeling in the horizon a cinch. It lacks the bark of the old HJ Premier, but it certainly does not lack bite.

It has so much elasticity that it almost feels as if you could start off in sixth. It is a lazy, torquey V8 that also doesn’t mind a rev. You’d have to be a one-eyed Prius-lover to not admire the way this thing sounds when you feed it with as much fuel as it will take.

Speaking of fuel, the 6.0-litre may well have Active Fuel Management but that doesn’t make it a hybrid. It will still swallow fuel at no less than 20L/100km when sat in traffic all day.

This is the kind of vehicle that is better at flowing traffic or better still, open freeways, where it will halve the worst-case fuel consumption, to around 10L/100km.

The manual transmission was a pig of thing when the Gen III arrived way back in VTII days, but GM has finally realised that customers of their passenger-car range should not be confused with tar-chewing commercial customers who rather enjoyed cursing at their work vehicle’s awful gearshift.

So the Redline Edition’s six-speed is a honey of a thing – no, it is not as light and breezy as a low-kiloWattage econocar gearbox, but for a transmission that is expected to shove large amounts of steam down the pipeline it is a relatively quick and positive shifter.

After a long history of woeful Holden gearboxes (including the infamous M21 four-speed selectors, which when worn would enable you to select two or more gears, jamming the gearbox) it is actually enjoyable to shift cogs in a local Holden.

If you like wobbly, vague SUV handling and feel scared when a car responds precisely and quickly as you turn the steering wheel, you won’t like the Redline Edition.

It is a really pleasant wheel twirler around the city, but give it a looping string of road and it’ll lap it up. Yes, it is a big heavy car and, yes, you will feel every inch of it on tight, twisting roads but, put simply, if you enjoy driving you won’t be disappointed.

Not surprisingly, the brakes are excellent, the Brembo callipers doing their bit to give the brakes loads of bite and feel.

The Redline Edition makes this makes Commodore a curious hybrid of automotive culture in a market where European cars evoke the sophisticated style of Avenue Champs-Elysees, the Commodore – especially in SS-V Redline trim - instead says Avenue Bogan.

If you don’t suffer from culture cringe and are willing to accept its less than perfect fit and finish, the Redline Edition is a well-packaged sports wagon at half the price of the fancy top-shelf Euros.

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