Car reviews - Holden - Commodore - SS sedan
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Extra performance, shorter gearing, improved (electronic) throttle response, auto refinements, sharper turn-in, extra stability, new speed vents and wheels, refinement
Room for improvement
Extra understeer, lack of VZ V6 models' stability control, outdated transmissions compared to SV6, no power seat adjustment, heavy manual gearshift, suspension noise, no split-folding rear seat, subdued overall styling
12 Aug 2004
By TIM BRITTEN
IT’S almost impossible to say why, but the latest version of Holden’s hotshot SS Commodore somehow makes less of an impact - visually and dynamically - than previous models.
It shouldn’t. For openers, it’s got a little more power than the previous VYII, and a little more torque, as well as a lower final drive ratio that gives improved throttle response, in any gear.
And, as part of the general Commodore VZ workover, it gets suspension refinements (new geometry for the front stabiliser bar) as well as improved steering (via a new aluminium pump) that help it turn in better, and handle with a little more stability.
The brakes have been refined too, via a new booster and master-cylinder that activate the ABS more quickly, and there’s a new, engine-managed traction control system.
On top of all that, the SS goes pretty bold with the bodywork, adding a new SS signature in the form of dummy air vents just behind the front wheel-arches, new five-spoke 18-inch wheels, projector headlights and a new rear spoiler.
The SS interior, which has traditionally been an opportunity for Holden designers to go slightly feral, seems a little less extrovert than before though. It’s even a little tacky in some places, such as the coloured graphics on the instruments.
The seats are still described as "sports" seats, and can be had in either the standard cloth, or in coloured leather, but seem somehow dull compared with older versions. Power height and tilt adjustment is standard, but reach and backrest adjustment are still manual in this aspirational Commodore.
Even the new hero colour – Impulse blue – while attractive enough, doesn’t smack you between the eyes like some previous SS colours. Bring back the Tiger.
Perhaps the problem is that the VZ SS is a little too classy. A bit too refined dynamically, and less out-there in terms of exterior presentation.
Certainly the car is better on the road than the VYII. The steering is noticeably sharper – although still lacking the tactility of the Ford Falcons – and the handling subtly more sure-footed, while the lower final drive ratio, rather than the extra kiloWatts, gives it more bite off the line.
The Gen III V8 has never been one for low-speed torque delivery (the new maximum of 470Nm comes in at a towering 4800rpm) so the new final drive helps noticeably, helping it spin up to workable rpm more quickly without making it feel too low geared.
Our test car was fitted with the six-speed manual transmission and was still high-geared enough that cruising at 100km/h in sixth saw the tacho hovering at around 1500rpm.
Notably, the driveline snatch that made earlier six-speed Commodores something of a pain to drive in similar circumstances is barely detectable - probably at least in part attributable to the adoption of a smoother-acting, drive-by-wire throttle. The bottom line is that at 100km/h the driver has an amazing range of ratio options.
The faster-spinning driveline theoretically has an effect on fuel consumption – increasing it – but the test car proved to be reasonably economical considering its engine size, averaging 14.4 litres per 100km on test. The 75-litre fuel tank provides a useful cruising range – and contrasts with the too-small, 68-litre tank fitted to Ford Falcon rivals.
Another aspect about the SS that disappoints is the lack of any meaningful V8 rumble at lower engine speeds. It picks up its extra power and torque via a reworked induction system with a bigger air intake as well as a recalibration of the fuel delivery and ignition systems, but none of this leads to a more hearty note. The Generation III merely sounds quiet and smooth.
All this might take some of the edge of the Commodore’s driving pleasure, but the SS is still a fast, rewarding sports sedan.
The clutch – which had developed a shudder on our test car – is heavyish but no great chore to use, and the six-speed transmission, likewise fairly heavy in action, is nevertheless quite precise in its movements.
The SS will respond eagerly to a prod of the accelerator, unleashing a muted but noticeable howl from the engine as it winds towards the redline, and building up speeds with deceptive rapidity.
It’s now even better at powering out of slow corners. With the lower gearing, the SS’s traction control system is likely to get more work, particularly on wet roads.
The steering remains quite heavy, particularly when parking, but it has at least improved over the years. It’s not exactly a car that can be steered with the fingertips, but it feels nicely reactive and well planted on the road.
The SS handles normal road surfaces comfortably, but some suspension crash-through comes with the arrival of a sharp-edged pothole or bump.
Our test car picked up the leather-trimmed seats option and, as usual, these proved to be supportive and comfortable, especially good on long hauls.
Commodore interior space, also as usual, is well-tailored to the needs of sizeable adults with plenty of legroom – and shoulder room - front and rear.
The Holden doesn’t get a split-fold rear seat like the Falcons, making do with a central load-through armrest.
The boot, though, is big and entirely useful, although it’s about time Holden adopted more space-efficient hinges that don’t interfere with luggage.
Still, fitting two mountain bikes – wheels removed – into a normal boot is a worthy achievement, and one of which the SS is entirely capable.
Back to the visuals. Our Impulse blue test car didn’t have the pizzazz of the previous SSs (particularly Tiger-hued SSs), despite the 18-inch wheels, the side vents and the sharp-edged bodywork.
It almost looked anonymous and the interior didn’t do anything to lift it either. Perhaps Holden product planners are finding that Commodore SS owners are more conservative than previously thought.
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