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Car reviews - Holden - Commodore - Sportwagon

Our Opinion

We like
Design, space, practicality, performance, efficiency, smoothness, braking, safety, steering, handling, affordability, value, Holden national back-up and warranty, sophistication, ease
Room for improvement
Firmer-than-expected suspension, no remote luggage release, no digital radio, no front-passenger seat-height adjuster, Commodore nameplate baggage

If you’re looking for the sweet spot, the Holden Commodore RS Sportwagon is it

Holden logo16 Nov 2018

Overview

 

A FEW MONTHS in from the launch of the first fully imported Commodore, sales are worryingly slow, and that’s a pity because the VF SV6-replacing RS in Sportback guise is a big, roomy and rousing performer with superb performance and involving handling.

We cannot help thinking that if Holden had gone with the Opel’s homeland Insignia name, then the newcomer’s sophisticated engineering and very European character might have been better communicated than sticking with the revered old badge and all the baggage that it comes with.

At around $40,000, the ZB Commodore RS Sportwagon is a very likeable, capable and dynamic proposition.

 

Price and equipment

 

As the dust surrounding the ceasing of local vehicle manufacturing settles and we get used to the imported ZB Commodore from Opel in Germany, it is becoming clear that the preceding VF was that rare thing – a car that was beyond the sum of its parts.

 

Not all versions, but certainly models like the Calais, SS and HSV GTS delivered more than what could reasonably be expected of them given their provenance, pricing and positioning, and then some.

 

In driving the entire ZB range, it is clear to us that the lower-end four-cylinder front-drive LT and RS Commodores is where pleasure, practicality, comfort and value intersect, with the Sportwagon out-smarting the swoopy Liftback in terms of styling to some eyes.

 

Holden obliged with the $39,490 before on-roads RS Sportwagon 2.0T petrol, making this one of the most highly anticipated tests of the year.

Time, then, to assess the latest Commodore on merit and with its best foot forward. That it’s not made in Australia, no longer rear-drive and definitely not a six or V8 no longer matter.

 

Aligning more or less with the previous Commodore SV6, the RS has a sportier flavour compared to the Evoke-esque LT, and that’s immediately obvious with the body kit, extra-bolstered front seats, leather steering wheel and 18-inch alloys.

 

Standard features include autonomous emergency braking (AEB), rear cross-traffic alert, blind-spot warning, lane-keep assist, lane-departure warning, following distance indicator, forward collision alert, automatic parking, front and rear parking sensors, and a reversing camera.

 

Being an RS, you’ll also find a powered tailgate with hands-free operation, auto headlights, keyless entry and start, rain-sensing wipers, cruise control, leather steering wheel, eight-way power driver seat, 60/40 split-fold rear seat, and Holden’s MyLink infotainment system with a 7.0-inch touchscreen and Apple CarPlay/Android Auto smartphone mirroring.

 

As with all ZB Commodores, the spare wheel is a space-saver.

 

All this for under $40K? Out of Germany? Time to see if ‘B’ in ‘ZB’ is for bargain!

 

Interior

 

The big question needs to be answered first. Given that the Holden ZB is actually an Opel Insignia B, which grew out of the medium-sized Vectra, and Ascona (Camira in Australia) before that, is the latest Commodore fit for large-car duties?

 

The answer is a resounding yes. Some 86mm shorter than before, the latest Sportwagon’s wheelbase matches the sedan’s at 2829mm, while the roofline is some 16mm lower.

That said, with 57mm less shoulder room and 1mm narrower couple distance, the cabin does feel a tad tighter than before, though other key dimensions actually grow, including 3mm extra rear headroom, 2mm more rear-seat knee room, no change in front headroom and larger footwells – no doubt the upshot of the ZB’s transverse engine placement as well as having no centre diff hump.

 

Doors open wide, the seats are low, and there’s all the space that anybody could hope for in the front seat area. The general feeling is that this is a long, wide wagon. If the second row feels tighter than a VF’s, then that’s probably not helped by the higher shoulder line and smaller windows, though it’s never claustrophobic back there.

 

However, here’s the rub. Holden really created a cross for itself when creating the VF Commodore’s interior all those years ago, since it has proven to be one of the most pleasant and enduring layouts of modern times. Both in terms of aesthetics and richness of feel, it remains arguably the greatest cabin of any Australian car ever, though early Ford Territory owners may disagree. Such a high watermark.

 

Inevitably, therefore, the ZB has yet another preceding-Commodore baggage-hurdle to overcome, and frankly the Astra hatch-esque dashboard looks contemporary, is immensely useable and seems very well made, but is also unremarkable considering what came before.

 

Actually, that’s unfair, because there’s a solidity and coherence to the design, and it’s low-slung too, so forward vision is ample and the overly wide A-pillar obstructions that blighted the VE/VF Commodores isn’t present here. The driving position is first class.

 

Further kudos goes to the easy and comprehensive instrumentation, with an informative digital display, effective climate control ventilation, tons of storage and a pleasingly supportive pair of front seats, with the driver’s offering a cornucopia of adjustability.

 

On the other hand, some windscreen reflections are visible from the forward-collision warning surround on top of the instrumentation binnacle; the indicator and wiper stalks feel and sound cheap and tinny; and there are a couple of spec anomalies for a $40K wagon, such as an absence of digital radio and (unusually for a German car) no front passenger’s seat-height adjustment.

 

Moving to the row behind, access is good and the ambience is modern-Euro smart, with its single-stitch cloth-vinyl trim combo on the doors, seat backs and seats themselves.

 

Backrest and cushion comfort for outboard occupants is fine, and even the middle seat isn’t too bad for taller adults, aided by face-level air vents, individual reading lights, well-sited centre armrest featuring two cupholders, overhead grab handles, largish door bins and a pair of USB outlets. All Isofix child seat anchorages and associated items are present and waiting.

 

Opel’s been building medium and large wagons for more than half a century, and the cargo area’s family-friendly layout and presentation really support this. The floor is long and wide, the seats fold down flat with just a tug of lever and the opening aperture is certainly large (and low) enough. No strained backs.

 

No remote rear seat-back release is unusual in an all-new wagon nowadays, and the retractable (if flimsy and fiddly) luggage cover seems an ill-fit, but that powered tailgate complete with foot-wave actuation and honing spotlight (so you know exactly where to kick beneath the bumper) works every time. There’s even a two-position height switch for the driver to choose from.

 

The Commodore’s capless fuel filler is another great idea, as is walk-away self-locking. All are easy to get used to and make living with the RS effortless.

 

Engine and transmission

 

Effortless also describes the 191kW/350Nm 2.0-litre turbo petrol’s performance, making it one of the true highlights of ZB Commodore motoring.

 

Easily one of the strongest engines of its type at this end of the market, it’s the classic triple threat – strong, smooth and comparatively economical.

 

Whoever doubts what a (modern) Commodore four could deliver over the hoary old V6 hasn’t spent any time in the zingy and energetic Ecotec Turbo, surely one of GM’s best in living memory.


From the moment you slot the nine-speed auto’s lever in drive, this thing feels alive, leaping off the line and then flexing its considerable muscle as the speed just piles on.

 

Holden’s masterful powertrain retune means the 2.0T reacts instantly to throttle inputs yet doesn’t feel like unnecessarily busy shuffling endlessly between all those ratios.

Left to its own devices, gear changes are imperceptibly slick whether pottering around town or stretching the engine’s considerable legs. There’s so much available torque there’s just no need to engage the tip lever manually.

 

Plus, with the tacho barely ticking over 1000rpm and a steady 100km/h, there is a relaxed, grand-tourer character that is totally in keeping with the Commodore character. How much better would the old VF Evoke and SV6 have been with such an athletic and enthusiastic heart?

 

Even when extended and occasionally caned mercifully, we managed to keep the average fuel consumption under 10L/100km, highlighting the comparative efficiency in the face of such forceful performance.

 

Ride and handling

 

Equally as compelling is the RS’ electric power steering, which continues on from the old VF’s brilliant set-up in providing an excellent cocktail of feeling, responsiveness and balance.

Car and driver are constantly connected. Holden’s input and subsequent improvements over the already thorough German engineering are instantly apparent. We know that for a fact having driven a pre- and post-Australianisation ZB back-to-back at launch.

 

Amiably light and manoeuvrable at lower speeds, with a fairly tight turning circle, the Commodore handling takes on a more serious and focused attitude as the driver turns up the wick, remaining precise yet tightly planted through faster turns, tracing the chosen line without deviation or drama.

 

Some rack rattle over mid-turn corrugations are present, but the surefooted Holden is as much a pleasure to belt through a series of snaking curves as any of its predecessors.

Yes, it does have some tell-tale front-drive lean if really hooked in hard and fast, but the overall dynamic neutrality of something this long and, well, wagon-like is quite remarkable, and very confidence-inspiring.

 

However, on damp or wet roads, the front wheels are prone to losing their traction, scrambling to contain all that cascading torque coming through.

 

While that’s no surprise given the ZB’s specification, the suspension’s underlining firmness came as a bit of a shock.

 

Employing the firmer FE2 tune in Holden-speak and riding on Continental ContiSportContact 5 245/45R18 tyres, there’s a general and welcome softness on smooth surfaces, but once bumps and tracks are hit, it’s soon clear that there’s limited suspension travel.

 

The resulting ride is never uncomfortable, let alone hard, but if you’re expecting the overriding suppleness of, say, a VF or even Ford Mondeo (and we happened to have the RS’ Trend equivalent complete with almost identical tyre spec at hand), then look elsewhere.

 

Road and tyre noise intrusion suppression is also not up to class-best, though it is by no means intrusive. The brakes, on the other hand, are right up there.

 

Safety and servicing

 

ANCAP has issued a five-star crash-test safety rating for all ZBs.

 

Holden now offers a five-year/unlimited kilometre warranty. Over the Australian-built predecessors, the German-built Commodore’s service intervals are down from 15,000km to 12,000km, but also has shifted up from nine months to 12 months.

 

Details of a capped-price servicing regime are published on the company’s website.

 

Towing capacity is 1800kg – 300kg shy of the V6 AWD models.

 

Verdict

 

The ZB Commodore RS Sportwagon is a comfortable, dynamic and practical alternative to any given European or Japanese wagon, as well as most SUVs.

We can even imagine that there is enough sophistication to even lure an Audi A4 Avant 1.4 TFSI buyer.

 

But can Australians see this, or are they coloured by everything that the Commodore badge brings? That is a shame, because the RS Sportwagon – like all four-pot turbo ZBs – is better than that, and deserves to sell in stronger numbers.

 

Yes, there isn’t quite the charm and suppleness that some VF Commodores had in spades, but as a $40,000 family car proposition, the German-made Holden is very tempting.

An old advertising slogan for the brand used to proclaim ‘People Trust Holden’; here, we say: Trust Holden, People.

 

Rivals

 

Volkswagen Passat 132TSI Comfortline wagon $41,990

Arguably the most sophisticated mainstream family wagon on the market, the Passat transcends classes with an exceptionally refined and sophisticated presentation, in a package that’s also toweringly practical. Volkswagen’s 45-year experience in this segment shows.

 

Ford Mondeo Ambiente EcoBoost wagon $35,040

The base Ambiente is a sweet and spacious family car, since it offers pleasing refinement and comfort, but suffers from some equipment shortfalls. The mid-range, better-specified Trend is diesel-only, crazily enough, making this the only petrol Mondeo wagon option.

 

Skoda Superb 162TSI wagon $42,390

Massive in both cabin space and performance, the handsome Superb dwarfs the others here, and is fuel efficient and beautifully presented inside to boot. But the Czech’s ride can be bouncy and might be a handful at times with all that power going through the front wheels.


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