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Car reviews - Holden - Commodore - Sportwagon

Our Opinion

We like
Good practicality, excellent handling of most models, powerful V8, great styling, full suite of safety gear
Room for improvement
Thrashy base V6 engine, poor base automatic, dated interior styling, less cargo space than the VZ, Omega suspension is too soft

11 Jul 2008

AN AUSTRALIAN wagon that is fun to drive…now there’s a novelty.

The Holden Sportwagon is a family machine that represents a mix of style and substance. It looks great in the metal and should rightly win some sales from SUV owners who realise they might not need or even want them.

Both the Ford Falcon wagon and Commodore wagon are lucky to still be around given that so many customers have opted for trendier SUVs. Private sales have all pretty much dried up, but fleets just wouldn’t the Australian wagon die.

Ford Australia didn’t even bother to introduce a wagon variant with the FG and there isn’t one in the pipeline, either.

With its long wheelbase and leaf springs, the old BF Falcon is great for towing and has an entire postcode of cargo room, but it drives more like a boat than a car and it looks increasingly dated, but fleets keep buying it.

Holden wants more private sales with its far more attractive Sportwagon, which sounds like a fine plan, but it isn’t yet clear how many fleet sales it will lose in the process. Holden says fleets are keen on the Sportwagon, but will they buy them in the same numbers as the larger VZ?

Two issues that could stop them from taking the Sportwagon are the lack of an LPG dual-fuel option – which seems like a mistake given Holden’s focus on this cheap fuel – and the reduced space.

There isn’t the vast area there used to be in the VZ, but it should be more than enough room for families to load all their gear and the rear seats can be folded down so you can carry longer items such as a bike.

Small details like the cargo blind, two shopping bag hooks and the light that sits below the line of the cargo blind all add up to make this a practical family car.

The way the tailgate opens is also likely to be appreciated by people who have to gain access to the back in tight situations such as shopping centre car parks. It is hinged so far forward that it opens more like a hatch than a traditional wagon, which means you don’t need much space behind the car.

There is also plenty of head and legroom for rear passengers, which is a big plus, so from a practicality perspective the Sportwagon will be enough for most families.

As for the driving experience, the Sportwagon is very much like the sedan from behind the wheel. There are some slight differences, but it is still quite agile and comfortable for such a practical vehicle.

Last week’s launch, held on twisty roads outside Adelaide, revealed the Sportwagon as a fairly nimble machine.

The V8-engined SS was our clear pick of the bunch and is a great option for those who want to have fun but still have the space available when needed. Like the SS sedan, it has tremendous torque right through the rev range and that fantastic rorty engine note.

Open up the throttle and you would have no idea you are driving a family wagon. The extra 90kg are gobbled up by the strength of the engine and you don’t really notice the additional mass in the corners. It sat flat in the corners and the sporty suspension set-up still offers a comfortable ride.

Holden was not sure whether to offer the SS Sportwagon with a manual or just with the six-speed automatic. While there’s not much wrong with the auto, the manual is a lot more fun.

We were disappointed with the base Omega, which runs the softer FE1 suspension and 16-inch wheels with higher profile tyres (225/60). We were not expecting it to be a handling champion, but it was overly soft and soggy. Even so, it still handles better than most SUVs, including the Toyota Kluger.

The upside of the soft suspension is that the ride quality is quite good. The rear end tends to float a little bit more than ideal, which is also the case in the base sedan, but overall it is quite comfortable away from twisty roads.

Improvements made to the VE chassis and steering are evident in the Sportwagon, but the base V6 and automatic transmission are disappointing.

The Alloytec is a quad-cam all-alloy unit, so you expect a lot, but the base 175kW version is ordinary. It lacks the torque needed for a large family car and the extra 90kg of the wagon makes it worse. That means you have to rev it more, and then it gets quite thrashy up the top end.

Combining it with the old four-speed auto makes matters worse as the transmission hunts around in an attempt to find the correct gear. Apply the accelerator and it’s not uncommon to have the transmission drop one gear, ponder what it’s doing and then drop another. While the changes are relatively smooth, they are also slow and the torque converter hardly ever locks up, which creates a lot of slurring.

This engine and transmission combination might be cheap, but it feels decidedly out-dated when compared to the powertrain combinations available from both Ford and Toyota at a similar price point.

While it is perhaps understandable that Holden keeps using the base engine and transmission for its fleet-special Omega, it is strange that the Berlina also has to make do with it.

Only when you step up to the SV6 and Calais does Holden fit the ‘high output’ 195kW/340Nm engine and five-speed automatic. That means a family has to shell out $42,290 for an SV6 to get an acceptable engine and automatic combination or $46,790 if they want the softer and less aggressively styled Calais.

The higher output V6 and five-speed auto are better, but there still isn’t that much torque and the engine has to work quite hard.

A common gripe with the VE Commodore is its massive A-pillars, which are so chunky that it is easy to lose sight of bike riders and pedestrians when cornering.

A lot of the VE dials and displays are already starting to look dated. Even the information displays in the SS look ordinary, with chunky mono type that looks like it came from the 1980s. More and more cars are being released at this price point, including the FG Falcon, that have much classier interiors with higher resolution display graphics that present a far more modern look.

The build quality and surfaces in general are quite good, but there were a few trim rattles in the test cars at the launch.

The Sportwagon is quite good value for money and there is a good level of standard equipment. And extra marks to Holden for fitting six airbags and reverse parking sensors as standard.

All up, the Sportwagon is a comfortable, practical family car that looks great and makes more sense than SUVs. It should succeed in luring back those private buyers while still appealing to a fair proportion of Holden’s existing fleet customers.

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