Car reviews - Holden - Commodore - SS sedan
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S Supercharged sedan
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SS V Redline
SS V sedan
SS-V Redline sedan
Vacationer 5-dr wagon
Easy power of 5.7-litre V8, passenger comfort, styling
Room for improvement
Manual gearshift, auto shift quality, engine note
20 Nov 2001
By TIM BRITTEN
SUBTLETY is not exactly a dirty word to those who designed Holden's latest SS Commodore. But it is a quality largely ignored by the team that chose the colour schemes for the new Series II VX.
And of the new colours available with the Series II, it's the Hyper Yellow hue that attracts most attention - particularly if it is specified with the optional colour-coded leather upholstery. This lurid, eyeball-searing riot of bright yellow trim is not for the faint-hearted. The provision of sunglasses for all occupants should be mandatory.
Replacing the previous and popular gold-tinged Tiger paint, Hyper Yellow is a refreshing splash of colour in the automotive landscape a little less bold maybe than its feline predecessor, but just the thing for a Holden buyer choosing the factory, rather than the HSV hot Commodore route.
With a number of subtle refinements - some tactile, others affecting the way the car behaves on the road - the latest SS Commodore is a significant improvement over the already impressive VX model that preceded it.
If the last SS was accused of being a little nervous when approaching the teetering edge of adhesion, the Series II VX could be described as having taken those limits and extended them to a level that only the unwise or very brave would be prepared to explore.
The VT Commodore may have been the first of the local family cars to get a standard, independent rear suspension, but the system itself was an already quite old, semi-trailing link Opel design. It instantly improved everything about the previously live-axle Holden (ride, handling), but quickly began to look dated when Ford fronted up with its superior double wishbone design at AU time.
An improved version of the semi-trailing link system was utilised by Holden's hot-car partner HSV, but this was limited to the red-hot, 300kW GTS. It included a couple of extra toe-control linkages that all but eliminated the Holden's susceptibility to bump-induced nervousness - a relatively simple fix but one that demanded the time-consuming, hands-on attention that only a limited-build vehicle could justify.
That modification has now become a standard factory procedure, made achievable by economies of scale and effective enough, in terms of its transformation of the Commodore, to allow Holden to virtually hang a whole new series - the VX Series II - off it. That, and a couple of new steering column stalks that add to the tactility of the car before it even rolls out onto the street.
Couple those things with the already luscious SS package and you have got an even better fast Commodore, with enough sizzle to really annoy HSV while ensuring the Falcon XR8 - even the impressive new 220kW version - remains under continuous siege.
The drivetrain is as before with the alloy 5.7-litre V8 winding out a lazy 225kW, driving through a totally unnecessary but entirely excusable six-speed manual transmission (in the automotive world it seems wise to always accept as many ratios as you can) and flaunting it all with the shape that nine out of 10 Australians seem to want.
Yes, the Series II SS is a better drive than the VX. It has a suppleness exceeding that of the previous car, plus a sense of wanting to deliver according to driver requests, whether in a straight line or on a bumpy corner. The steering feels more accurate, if a little lighter than before - although it must be said that the Ford XR8 remains the more tactile of the local supercars.
The V8 feels the same as ever - that is, in need of a bit of encouragement to really get going and delivering an exhaust note sounding more like a deranged vacuum cleaner than a car - and the interior space is quite unlike that of other high-performance sedans except the Falcon.
Actually the engine's easygoing nature (the redline is 5500rpm), although not as aurally exciting as the Ford, does pay off in many ways because it tends to be more economical - partly helped by the very tall-ratio six-speed gearbox - and only demands regular unleaded fuel where the XR8 protests noticeably if the diet is anything less than premium. And the fuel tank is quite big at 75 litres.
The engine does deliver - a handy companion to have on your side when planning a passing manoeuvre on the open road or when joining fast-flowing traffic on the freeway. The fact that it has a theoretically narrow power band - between 4400rpm where the 460Nm torque maximum is developed, and 5200rpm where the 225kW finally arrive - does not mean there's nothing at all to play with at the lower end.
All this power is transmitted through a six-speed manual transmission with a failry baulky gearchange or a four-speed automatic transmission at no extra cost. Despite some subtle engine mapping changes to better suit the engine's calibration to its shift points, the auto remains a weak point in an otherwise well sorted Commodore SS package. Slow to shift and often abrupt, the auto is still specified by a staggering 70 per cent of SS byuers.
Even with this tendency to require some revs off the mark, the SS still has the potential to be a slewing, sliding beast on less than perfect surfaces, so Holden gives it a proper traction control system, as well as a limited-slip differential, to put a stop to any such antics (The Series II Commodore S also picks up traction control as standard).
The new control link rear suspension changes the static camber setting at the rear from 1.5 degrees negative camber to just 0.5 of a degree, while the toe settings have changed from 0.1 degrees static toe-out to 0.32 degrees toe-in. This means there is less of a tendency for the suspension to squirm around, while the greatly reduced negative camber is said to have a positive effect on increasing the life of the rear tyres.
Reworked rear shock absorbers are designed to work better at high speeds on undulating road surfaces, reducing lean and float, yet still retain their ability to absorb smaller amplitude bumps.
Holden also put some work into improving straight-line stability via cooperation with Bridgestone that resulted in new tyre construction. The SS as a result feels more tactile and gives the driver more steering feel than before.
This pays off in high-speed work, where the car is more at one with the driver. The tuning of the chassis for a slight tendency to understeer under pressure also adds to this extra sense of security.
Braking is by four-wheel discs, controlled by a full, four-channel ABS system and up to the task of hauling down the 1600kg-plus SS - although there is no mention of a brake upgrade as available in the XR8 or HSV Commodores.
In light of the greatly improved dynamics, a couple of new steering column stalks may seem unworthy of attention, but they do add to the tactility of the driving experience and remove the confusion that existed with previous Commodores when it came to operating the cruise control. It is still not a Mercedes, but the Commodore is a touch more intuitive, as far as driver controls are concerned, than it was before.
From a creature comfort perspective, the SS buyer does pretty well for what is a reasonable outlay considering its abilities and distinctive style. Cruise control, anti-lock brakes, body kit, leather-rimmed steering wheel, sports seats, mini trip computer and air-conditioning are standard.
There is no question Holden made the decision, once the Generation III 5.7-litre V8 came along, that it would no longer compromise with the SS.
The Series II VX version takes another step further with greatly improved suspension performance that adds to the car's sense of refinement.
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