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Car reviews - Holden - Statesman - Caprice V8 sedan

Our Opinion

We like
Performance, handling, comfort, features, good value
Room for improvement
Transmission stumbles, thick A-pillar, handbrake lever

7 Aug 2009

WE HAVE all seen the news footage of heads-of-state arriving at a meeting in their limousines with gleaming chrome and paint, their country’s flag flapping on the front.

A car industry sufficiently sophisticated to provide its leaders with a source of premium luxury sedans in which to be chauffeured could be construed as a measure of a country’s wealth.

Australia is one of those countries, but only just. You see, our large, long-wheelbase luxury sedan segment is fast becoming extinct – the Ford Fairlane and LTD are already gone, the Chrysler by Chrysler but a distant memory.

This leaves us with just one car in which we can convey our leaders with a sense of occasion, and that is the Holden’s WM Statesman and Caprice.

The WM series has not gone the way of the recently departed Ford Fairlane because – unlike Fairlane – it has a healthy export market. Without it, our prime minister would look like the poor cousin, arriving in his short-wheelbase Calais V or Ford G6E Turbo. It wouldn’t be quite the same, would it?

It’s unlikely that Mr Rudd would follow one of his Labor predecessors and order an S-class for official duties, either.

The Caprice is the current sales leader in its segment, but that’s not saying much: the only competition is the Statesman and the Chrysler 300C. Even then, despite a bumper month in June (thanks no doubt to the government’s business investment incentive) this year sales are down 25 per cent in the first seven months. The news for the Statesman is worse: its sales are down 70 per cent over the same period last year.

The Caprice tested here shows how this market for big long-wheelbase cars has shifted. Despite being the top model, it doesn’t mean it’s an armchair on wheels. The traditional big, flat, ribbed leather seats and soft suspension are not part of the Caprice’s make-up.

Holden’s big car has gone to the gym, with some side-support definition showing on front leather seats and the firm FE2 suspension and low-profile 18-inch tyres. The less focussed car is actually the lower spec Statesman, which has softer suspension tune and taller tyres on 17-inch alloys.

The Caprice also has the 6.0-litre V8 as the standard engine, with the 3.6-litre V6 hooked up to a five-speed auto as the delete option.

The WM looks the part: its styling, while derived from the VE Commodore, has kept enough unique sheet metal such as the longer rear doors to account for the longer wheelbase, the different tail and detail features such as headlights and grille, to look more than just a tarted up derivative. The splashes of chrome suit the car, and it looks almost as sharp as some prestigious Euro cars, without the pricetag.

The only slight oddity with an otherwise accomplished visual performance is the nose down, tail up stance when unladen. A couple of corpulent politicians in the back and the Caprice’s level composure no doubt would return.

The interior has none of the folded leather and wood veneer look of some cars in the class, but it still feels luxurious. The bolstered front pews are almost sports seats, but not quite, so let’s call them ‘sporting’ seats.

Although they don’t hold you fixed in spirited cornering, they’re otherwise well shaped and padded - long enough in the base where others are too short just the right amount of padding and lower back support.

The fit and finish of the WM’s interior is so much of an improvement on its predecessor that you might be tempted to forget the whole world of contemporary luxury cars out there that are more polished.

The Caprice’s column control stalks, for example, look dated, and the plain centre stack control buttons for the audio system and the steering wheel buttons don’t exactly make a statement. As for the glovebox light, I’m sure that’s the same one I spotted in 1978 in a VB Commodore SL/E ...

The WM has some problems shared with the VE Commodore, such as thick A-pillars and a handbrake design that is prone to pinching fingers when released. The way the trip computer cycles though its bits of information across three screens is also confusing.

No matter, for in general buyers will be pretty happy with the Caprice interior fit and finish, because its overall ambience is modern and it’s roomy and comfortable and most controls and instruments are easy to use.

This interior is simply enormous – there’s no other way to describe it. While the Mercedes-Benz S500L and Lexus LS600 may be the carriages of other world leaders, they’ll be envious of the Aussie’s enormous rear legroom. I don’t know if this is the biggest non-stretch limo in the world for stretching out the hoofs, but it’s got to be one of the best.

I don’t imagine many young families buy a new Caprice, but perhaps the grandparents do. When you try to fit more than one childseat you discover that only one tether point is fitted. To fit another seat or two, you need to bring your own tether points and bolts.

The boot has a high floor but offers more than ample load space, and has a full-size alloy spare tucked underneath. The 60-40 split fold rear seat opens up further storage options.

While the first Caprice, the 1974 HJ, took its steering wheel, badges and hubcaps from Cadillac, the WM Caprice instead looked to GM in the US for its engine – the Gen IV 6.0-litre V8.

The 6.0-litre now has cylinder deactivation – called Active Fuel Management (AFM) – which cuts ignition and closes valves on four cylinders when running in suitable conditions, typically when cruising on a steady light throttle.

You can feel the AFM kick in, introducing a sensation a little like a V-twin motorcycle vibration – but you have to be looking for it. Its engagement is seamless.

The results are interesting. For short-distance runs in stop-start city traffic, there is little to distinguish its 22.0L/100km figure from the pre-AFM car. In more open urban running, we achieved 16.2L/100km – about 0.5L/100km better than similar urban running in the pre-AFM car. And in easy freeway running we averaged just over 10L/100km - about 1.0L/100km less than the 6.0-litre without the cylinder deactivation.

Holden quotes a combined urban/country figure of 13.0L/100km, which is down from 14.4L/100km with the 6.0-litre V8 prior to AFM.

The 6.0-litre provides plenty of performance, with ample of low and mid-range muscle. But it also is worth revving to extract its best.

Although the Caprice weighs the best part of 1900kg, the V8 is a quick car. There’s not much to dislike about this engine, except it’s surprising how vocal it sounds from inside when revved. If you like the sound of a good V8, you’ll hardly mind that, though.

The six-speed automatic transmission is not so great. Even though in general running it does a pretty good job of swapping ratios, when you challenge it, it’s like the Holden software mapping engineers ran out of development time. It occasionally thumps into a high gear if baulked, and if you don’t engage ‘Sport’ mode kick-downs can be jerky, too. There appears to be some driveline lash.

The Caprice is firm riding over the sharp ridges and depressions in suburbia, and showed hints of front-end float at middling speeds, but that might have been just a variation in the particular car tested.

Certainly, the suspension is not the pillowy luxury ride you might expect, and the result is a fairly well contained response at higher speeds. This car corners well, with the 18-inch Bridgestones providing fantastic grip.

The way the WM’s (hydraulic) power steering telegraphs what the wheels are doing is refreshingly nuanced for an automotive world filled with the dulled responses of electric steering. For a large heavy car, this is enjoyable a twisting road.

So while the likes of the Caprice may be the carriage of our very own world leader, in the bigger picture, is this a successful world car?

You can’t expect the Caprice to compete on powertrain refinement and fit and finish with cars that cost twice as much, and the truth is, it simply doesn’t.

Yet, for the performance, dynamics, features, comfort and sheer metal for your money, this is a car of which Aussies can be proud, and one that deserves serious consideration as a fine luxury sedan.

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