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Driven: Our first taste of Holden’s next Commodore

Out and about: One of Holden’s 2018 Commodore prototypes in its engineering war paint gets a workout from journalists at Lang Lang.

Holden gives Australian journalists a taste test of imported 2018 Commodore

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Holden logo27 Oct 2016

By RON HAMMERTON

HOLDEN has taken a sizeable gamble by unleashing selected Australian and New Zealand motoring journalists on its Opel Insignia-based, next-generation Commodore 16 months out from its February 2018 showroom debut.

The Holden engineering department had to be convinced to turn over its only two handmade – and expensive – development prototypes for the media drive day behind the security fences at Holden’s Lang Lang proving ground on Monday.

The world-first drive session was all the riskier because the cars in question – V6-powered all-wheel-drive liftbacks with only between 1000km and 2000km on the odometer – were said to be only 65 per cent of final production standard, not only lacking the fit and finish of showroom cars but also several major mechanical features such as elements of the AWD torque vectoring system and adaptive suspension.

In the end, it all ended happily, with the engineers getting their camouflaged cars back in one piece, journalists getting their stories and Holden taking another major step in its journey from manufacturer to full-line importer.

At this stage of development, new models are usually well under wraps, but Holden was moved to peel back the cloak of secrecy and organise the drive, plus not one but two media briefings, to ramp up the public education process about its first imported Commodore and to overcome perceived shortcomings such as front-wheel drive and the lack of a V8 option.

Holden explained that despite the differences between the locally developed VFII Commodore – which will go down in history as the last of its Australian breed when production ends a year from now – and the Insignia-based imported car, it retained the Commodore name because research clinics showed it was one of the company’s biggest brand assets.

But is the new vehicle a Commodore? We are not so sure. Is it shaping up as a good car? Absolutely.

The fact is that, as Holden sales and marketing director Peter Keley put it, the new model is a car for the times.

It is considerably lighter than the locally developed Commodore, meaning more bang for engine buck, in terms of both performance and fuel economy.

It makes four-cylinder drivetrains a viable consideration in Commodore for the first time, and while we did not sample the new 2.0-litre turbo petrol and diesel units that will open the batting for the 2018 Commodore, our experience with Ford’s now-defunct EcoBoost four-pot Falcon gives us confidence that these should be a welcome addition.

We did drive both of the AWD V6 liftback ‘Sportback’ prototypes, one of which was loaded up with lead ballast in the boot and taped onto the rear hatch glass to mimic the extra weight of the Sportwagon version.

First up, we took one out on the high-speed banked track – a circular bowl more than 4km around – for a fling in the fast lane, taking it up to 180km/h.

Gunning onto the track with four hefty men aboard, we were impressed by the athleticism of the newly enhanced 230kW 3.6-litre V6, and even more impressed by the new nine-speed automatic transmission that sliced through the gears with turbine-like smoothness.

We tried and failed to detect the cylinder deactivation system – a first on a Holden V6 – when cruising at 100km/h. This turns the V6 into a four-cylinder to save juice.

While we did not expect to give the suspension a test on this speedy track, potholes and other irregularities in its decaying surface brought out noticeable thumps in the undercarriage – too much for a large car, we thought.

Later, one engineer said the suspension had been set up on the sporty side, similar to the Vauxhall VXR settings. We will await the final production version, especially those fitted with the promised adaptive suspension, to pass further judgement.

Despite being cloaked in plastic camouflage – less than aerodynamic in parts – wind noise was impressively low at all speeds, as was road noise, despite the strenuous weight-stripping measures.

Next up was the skidpan for a motorkhana-type course to get a feel for the steering. Sinking the boot into the accelerator, all four wheels gave the slightest gripe before locking onto the wet tarmac and propelling us forward.

Although the tight layout induced common levels of understeer, the prototype felt well planted and easy to manoeuvre, although the turning circle was hardly the tightest.

Reversing into a “garage” fashioned of witches hats proved a little more challenging, as the rear hatchback design reduces rear visibility. However, a rear-facing camera helped to relieve the stress.

The highlight of our time behind the wheel came on the ride and handling circuit – a devilish piece of tarmac – where the poise and grip of the test vehicle truly came into play.

Again, with about 350kg of human bodies on board, the Commodore felt swift, capable and totally confidence-inspiring. Braking heavily into corners came easy, as did heavy acceleration out of the bends with all four wheels firmly planted.

If this is the chassis before adaptive suspension and the full-house torque vectoring AWD, then we look forward to the next instalment.

Finally, just as a treat, we went for a ride with Swedish-born Opel engineer Andreas Liljekvist, on the dirt and gravel roads in the back blocks of the proving ground.

Andreas showed us that, despite the control of the all-wheel-drive system, the new V6 Commodore will still have plenty of fun factor at the edges for driving enthusiasts.

In parc ferme, the one problem that no amount of engineering tuning or marketing spin will be able to mitigate became obvious when we tried to fit three grown men across the back seat – a selling point of the current Commodore.

Clearly, the next Commodore is more of a three-kids-across-the-back-seat vehicle, or two adults in comfort.

In all, we did not give these prototypes more than a light sample, but we saw enough to know that hardened Commodore owners should not dismiss the imported replacement out of hand.

They might question, however, why it is called a Commodore.

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